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What is the overall gaming performance of the MacBook?
Please note that this answer refers to MacBook models released prior to November 1, 2007. For information about the graphics and gaming performance of models equipped with GMA X3100 integrated graphics please refer to "How much faster is the Intel GMA X3100 graphics processor in later MacBook models compared to the Intel GMA 950 in earlier models? Is gaming performance improved?" For the "Aluminum Unibody" MacBook models, please refer to "How much faster is the NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor in the "Unibody" MacBook models compared to the Intel GMA X3100 and GMA 950 in earlier models? Is gaming performance improved?"
Although it may not be immediately apparent without knowledge of the underlying system architecture, the answer to this question is rather similar to the ones provided by "Is World of Warcraft (WoW) playable on the Intel-based Mac mini 'Core'?", "Why are 'integrated graphics' in the Mac mini 'Core' considered to be inferior?", and "Will games that say an ATI Radeon or NVIDIA GeForce graphics card is required run on the Intel-based Mac mini 'Core' systems?". All MacBook models "suffer" from the same integrated "Intel GMA950 graphics processor with 64 MB of DDR2 SDRAM shared with main memory" as the Intel-based Mac mini.
As mentioned previously, referring to this integrated graphics system, Apple says:
The Intel GMA950 graphics supports Tiger Core Graphics and the latest 3D games. It shares fast 667 MHz memory with the Intel Core processor, for an incredible value proposition.
As also mentioned previously, various reviewers have attacked the "latest 3D games" marketing copy as being a tad optimistic. Much like the Mac mini "Core", Apple's "Gaming Hardware" website more conservatively claims that the MacBook "can be a casual gamer’s mobile entertainment hub, providing speed and durability". The company then lists a number of games with modest hardware requirements like "Zoo Tycoon 2" and "Jewel Quest".
Knowing that both the Mac mini "Core" and MacBook share the same integrated graphics system, a more focused question perhaps would be "Given the faster processors used in the MacBook, is gaming performance better than that provided by the Mac mini 'Core'?"
One last observation I really wanted to make were my impressions concerning running a popular game in Windows XP on the MacBook's hardware. Many people are critical of this machine's apparent lack of ability to run state-of-the-art games. While these people are technically correct (see benchmarks later on), there's a whole class of games out there that can be fully enjoyed. . .
I think that casual gamers will find that the MacBook will be able to adequately run somewhat new and enjoyable 3D Windows-only games. From discussions with people more knowledgeable than I, I'm also confident you should be able to play games like Second Life, The Sims 2, and World of Warcraft with tweaks to the graphics options. If you were hoping to be able to play taxing games like Oblivion and Half-Life 2, you're going to be out of luck.
In a "shootout", the always reliable BareFeats provides a variety of benchmarks, and bluntly states that "the 13 inch MacBook is NOT optimized for 3D gaming" and taking a jab at the marketing copy, says "sorry Apple, but the 13" MacBook *IS* a 'slouch' when it comes to 3D gaming and Tiger Core Image graphics."
In a MacWorld editorial entitled "Steering away from the MacBook", the author mentions that the recently released Mac versions of Call of Duty 2 and Quake 4 exclude the Mac mini "Core" and MacBook due to the integrated graphics system. He likewise concurs with BareFeats, but does so far more diplomatically, stating that the:
Graphics hardware really makes the system ill-equipped at dealing with OpenGL-intensive 3-D games--which make up the majority of the high-profile games on the market today, even games with mainstream appeal like The Sims 2, for example. It'll also hurt the MacBook's game-playing performance if you plan on running Windows games using Boot Camp. Intel integrated graphics don't work much better on Windows than they do on Mac OS X. That doesn't mean the MacBook isn't a good casual gamer's rig. In fact, it should play less-demanding games just fine and may even be able to play some older, PowerPC-optimized games using Rosetta.
In a follow up article, MacWorld tested the MacBook's gaming performance and after upgrading the RAM from the stock 512 MB to a maxed out 2 GB noted that "having more RAM available for the graphics chipset made a huge difference in performance -- nearly double the frame rate."
Nevertheless, even with 2 GB of RAM, the author has much the same conclusion as the earlier editorial:
If you were thinking of buying a MacBook to run Quake 4 or Doom 3, you’d best keep shopping. You might be able to get an “OK” frame rate from these games by reducing the screen resolution and dropping image quality and details to their absolute lowest settings. But by doing this, you’re giving up much of the reason for wanting to run these games anyway -- their amazing visual environments.
The faster processors provide an enormous enhancement for a variety of computing tasks like video editing and others that do not rely on the 3D graphics, but explicitly for a "portable gaming Mac", the "integrated graphics" subsystem is the bottleneck. Consequently, you would be wise to heed the advice of MacWorld and consider the MacBook Pro, whether it is for playing Mac games or Windows games via Boot Camp. If you need an inexpensive notebook for productivity, and would like to play an occasional "casual game" as noted by the Apple Gaming Hardware page, or World of Warcraft (WoW) with the settings cranked down, the MacBook likely would serve you well.