Hands-on: Steam gaming on four different Macs

Brief hands-on with Valve's Steam Mac software and games on four different Macs.

Rich Brown Former Senior Editorial Director - Home and Wellness
Rich was the editorial lead for CNET's Home and Wellness sections, based in Louisville, Kentucky. Before moving to Louisville in 2013, Rich ran CNET's desktop computer review section for 10 years in New York City. He has worked as a tech journalist since 1994, covering everything from 3D printing to Z-Wave smart locks.
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Rich Brown
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With four different Macs sitting in the CNET lab right now, Valve couldn't have picked a better time to release its Mac Steam client, at least from a testing perspective. We just spent the past few hours with Steam, as well as Portal and Torchlight, two of the more graphically demanding games available for Steam at launch. So far, we find Steam on the Mac just as seamless as the Windows version. The games are also mostly trouble-free.

First, to accompany this launch Valve is offering Portal as a free download until May 24. If you haven't played Portal, or even if you have, we recommend it. It's fun.

The Steam software itself should feel instantly familiar to anyone who's used the Windows version. Valve recently gave Steam a cosmetic overhaul, so even Steam veterans might need a minute to adjust, but overall it remains intuitive to navigate. One considerate touch: In the Steam store you'll see the full list of titles available for download, Windows titles included, but a mouse-over message will warn you if you hover over a game that's unavailable for the Mac. That will hopefully prevent any incompatible purchases. At launch, there were roughly 50 Mac titles available.

For the games themselves, we have few complaints about their performance on our various test systems. Granted, we'd expect neither the older Portal nor the purposefully lightweight Torchlight to challenge a halfway respectable computer. With more games coming to Steam for the Mac from Valve and (presumably) other game manufacturers, future titles may provide more of a challenge to the Macs we tested. For today at least, we find that Apple's higher-end Mac laptops and all-in-ones make capable gaming systems.

Our four test systems:

  • 27-inch iMac with 2.8GHz Core i7, 512MB ATI Radeon HD 4850
  • 27-inch iMac with 3.06GHz Core 2 Duo, 256MB ATI Radeon HD 4670
  • 15-inch MacBook Pro with 2.66GHz Core i7, Nvidia GeForce 330M
  • 13-inch MacBook Pro with 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo, Nvidia GeForce 320M


    Portal is a thinking gamer's platformer. Gamespot

    We aren't really concerned with any of the above systems' ability to play either Portal or Torchlight. Our question really is: can we use these games to provide us with some confidence for games down the road? If each system can play Portal and Torchlight maxed out to their highest video quality settings and resolutions, that might at least help us predict whether each system has a reasonable chance of handling more-challenging future titles.

    For Portal, we dialed up all of the video quality settings to the maximum, turned off V-sync, and set Portal depth to 9. The only system that faltered was the Core 2 Duo-based iMac, which gave us an unplayable framerate. Once we dropped the resolution down to 1,920x1,080 pixels (from the screen's native 2,560x1,440 pixels), the Core 2 Duo iMac had no trouble, and the game still looked great. Hopefully games that need adjustments down the road will require similarly simple fixes.


    Everyone can enjoy smashing around casual RPG Torchlight. Gamespot

    The fact that Torchlight has a "Netbook mode" suggests Runic Software designed this action role-playing game with lower-end computers in mind. Even on beefier systems, you only have a few advanced graphics settings to choose from. Instead of frightening you away with antialiasing ranging from 2x to 8x, for example, you simply need to pick "on" or "off."

    If you can't dig that deeply into Torchlight's graphics settings, it will at least scale up to your display's native resolution. Both of our 2,560x1,440-pixel 27-inch iMac handled the game with no trouble, as did the 1,440x900-pixel 15-inch MacBook Pro. We noticed minor slowdowns on the 1,280x800-pixel 13-inch MacBook Pro, particularly when we had lots of characters and spell effects onscreen at once. Even in those hectic situations it hiccuped only briefly, and it was never to the point of spoiling the overall experience.

    We'll be interested to see how the 13-inch MacBook Pro handles Valve's more-demanding titles like Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead 2 when they come out over the next few weeks, but we expect the casual gamer most likely to rely on a 13-inch MacBook Pro for gaming will find it sufficient.

    We'll need to get our review units back to Apple eventually, so we're not sure to what extent we'll be able to comment on future Steam developments for these particular Macs. Valve has said that future game releases will highlight various Steam features, but we can report that this week's release and its focus on SteamPlay worked without a hitch. We used the same Steam account on all four systems, and we were able to swap among them and install and launch each game easily. Valve's hasn't trumpeted its SteamWorks feature, which among other things stores your save game files with your account so you can access them from different machines. That worked as we moved between systems as well.

    Expect a weekly flare-up of Steam news for as long as Valve continues bringing new games to the Steam Mac service every Wednesday. We'd also keep an eye out for third-party game developers announcing their own simultaneous Windows and Mac gaming launches. For now, we can't say that Steam will bring Mac gaming on-par with the experience on a Windows system, but with this release Mac gamers finally have something to be excited about.

    Correction: This story initially gave the wrong number of games that Steam offered when it launched for the Mac. It launched with about 50 titles for download.