With the upcoming launches of Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's PlayStation 4, the time has once again come to choose which platform you're going to be taking into the next generation of gaming. The choice may seem clear -- stick with your console platform or swap to another -- but the Mac at your desk might just be your classic underdog competitor.
In this tutorial, I'll be taking a look at how you can use your Mac as a viable candidate for replacing your current-generation gaming console using the power of Steam's Big Picture mode and an Xbox 360 Controller.
1. Choosing A Mac
Choosing the right Mac is an important step in ensuring your experience is anything close to that of a dedicated gaming console. If you've already got one and aren't looking to upgrade, at any level it should be okay but, if that doesn't sound like you, it's time to take a trip to the Apple Store.
Apple currently sells four main models of Mac -- two notebooks and two desktops -- with a fifth one coming soon in the form of the radically-redesigned Mac Pro. Fortunately, whichever Mac you choose should have some level of gaming capability, even those running on integrated graphics, though they all have their pros and cons:
- MacBook Air - a good overall system for those wanting to do light gaming on the side with Intel's latest and greatest integrated graphics, but not a top choice if you're buying a Mac especially for the hobby.
- MacBook Pro - a product with a lot of variations and the one you should really be looking into if you want a MacBook to game on. The 13" models have the same pros and cons as the MacBook Air using Intel's HD4000 graphics in their current 2013 models, though any 15" model should power some impressive mid-to-high-level games with their dedicated graphics.
- Mac mini - a popular choice of HTPC for those wanting to permanently station a Mac for solely entertainment purposes. The Mac mini also has to resort to only Intel's HD4000 integrated graphics, but these will generally be powerful enough to run the majority of available OS X gaming titles.
- iMac - like the MacBook Pro is to the MacBook Air, the iMac is to the Mac mini. Opting for an iMac will offer increased graphical performance with dedicated graphics nonexistent in the Mac mini, but does mean you'll have to accommodate a full-sized iMac. However, this is a great option if you want to game at your desk and hook your Mac up to your TV on demand.
Because of the limited hardware compatibility of OS X, you'll generally find that pretty much all recent Macs will run pretty much all titles specifically released for the platform. Prior to making your decision -- if you're buying a new Mac for the purpose rather than using an existing one -- it's best to check the system requirements of some of the games you're looking to play and making a decision from that.
2. Installing Your Gaming Mac
Once you've got your hands on a Mac, it's time to set it up. This stage is very much up to you as it is very dependent on where you're going to be using a Mac, whether it be at a desk in an office or attached to your TV in your living room. Regardless of that fact, though, there's a few points of concern that exist universally.
Displays and Outputs
If you've got a MacBook or iMac and don't intend to use that machine with an external display such as a TV, fantastic; you've got this step done already. However, if you do want to hook your MacBook up to your HDTV to get in a Team Fortress 2 session or if you are required to do so anyway because you've got a Mac mini, it's important to ensure you have the right cables for the job.
The MacBook Pro with Retina Display and Mac mini have the best port selections for video output with both HDMI and Thunderbolt. If you're going to be embedding a Mac mini or rMBP into your TV setup, hooking it up to the display with just a regular HDMI cable should do the job. If you're using it with an external PC display that doesn't support HDMI input, your best bet is spending $29 on either Apple's Mini DisplayPort to DVI Adapter or Mini DisplayPort to VGA Adapter, depending on your display's available ports.
If you're planning on using an iMac, MacBook Air or MacBook Pro without a Retina Display, you're left with only a Thunderbolt port. In which case, you'll need to rely on either the two aforementioned adapters to output to a display supporting VGA and/or DVI, or use a third-party MiniDisplay Port to HDMI adapter.
When using an adapter rather than native HDMI, sound may become an issue. In which case, you will need to research an appropriate solution based on your display, TV or speaker's input options.
During processor intensive activities — such as processing HD video or playing a game that makes extensive use of the graphics processor — the fans speed up to provide additional airflow.
Gaming is generally an intensive process and that means your Mac's fans are probably going to kick into action pretty soon into gameplay. For this reason, ensuring your Mac has adequate breathing space is vital to maintaining its health.
Identifying where your Mac's fan outputs are and making sure there's room for air to flow in and out is key to giving your Mac the breathing space it needs. Placing your Mac on soft surfaces can trap heat in these vents, increasing internal temperatures, speeding up fan activity and potentially creating long-term harm to your machine.
The best bet is to keep your Mac stationed on a hard surface such as a desk or table with nothing covering it and a margin of empty space surrounding it where possible. Raising it from a surface with a stand can further optimise this, although it is not needed.
3. Setting Up Steam Big Picture
If you have even the slightest interested in PC gaming, you probably already know what Steam, Valve's digital distribution platform for games, is all about. Steam isn't the only platform for distributing games -- there's also physical retail disks you can install from and rival services like EA's Origin -- but it forms the basis of most PC/Mac gamers' experience and is what we'll get started with today.
Big Picture mode is a special interface toggle-able in the app that's aimed at TV and living room setups with a gamepad or controller to hand. Just like your old Xbox 360 doesn't just run regular old Windows, Big Picture optimises the Steam experience for those of us who don't want to be stuck at a desk with a keyboard and mouse.
To get started with Big Picture, you'll first need to install Steam and setup/login to an account. You can grab Steam for free and unlike next-generation online services for consoles (namely, Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus for PlayStation 4), there's no regular subscription needed.
When Steam's fully installed, open the app to find the traditional keyboard/mouse-centric interface that lists your games available to launch or install. In the top-right corner, click on the Big Picture icon to launch into the named mode.
In Big Picture mode, everything's bigger, brighter and easier to navigate, especially when you're not using a mouse and keyboard. You can use the buttons at the very bottom of Big Picture mode to swap between using the built-in web browser, browsing your game library and the Steam store and managing your friends. At any time you wish to return to the home screen of Big Picture, simply select the Steam icon in the top-right corner.
When you want to exit Big Picture, either to quit out of Steam all together or just to return to the traditional desktop view, use the power symbol and select the respective option.
If you're looking to use your Mac with a larger display where you anticipate Big Picture is better suited, head to Steam > Preferences and then to the Interface tab. Check the box titled Start Steam in Big Picture Mode. This will automatically boot up Steam into Big Picture mode whenever you launch the app.
4. Configuring a Controller
Next, it's time to configure an important piece of kit for a console killer: the gamepad or controller. There's a number of different options but the most popular, and the one I use myself, is an Xbox 360 Wired Controller.
To get an Xbox 360 Wired Controller up and running on a Mac, it's a little more than a plug-and-play process like it is under Microsoft's own OS. You'll first need to download a third-party driver from a site like Tattiebogle which will provide the necessary software for connecting the controller up as valid input. Tattiebogle's driver will also add a Preference Pane to the System Preferences app which you can use to test inputs to make sure it's up and running correctly.
Once this driver's installed, you should be good to go for any games that support controller input. You can also use your controller to navigate the Steam Big Picture interface on your TV or other external display.
5. Playing Games (and the Steam Overlay)
Now you're all set: you've got a Mac, given it a convenient distribution platform for games with an interface optimised for larger displays and thrown in a controller to the mix. Simply launch up your game through Steam and get to playing!
By using the middle button on your controller -- for Xbox 360 controllers, this is the Xbox button -- you can also access the Steam Overlay, which gives you access to a web browser that could be used for looking up game help without leaving your game and some of the community features of Steam. Then, you can close the Steam Overlay to jump right back into your game.
There's many options available for the next-generation of gaming and a Mac might just be your one. In choosing a Mac, you'll also be able to do much more than just game and installing a machine as a permanent fixture in your media hub below a TV will unlock many more benefits than merely the ability to play games. Check out our tutorial on using your Mac as a media centre for music and video to start looking into taking your gaming Mac further.
Of course, one issue remains: library size. While the list of OS X-compatible titles continues to grow -- with recent AAA blockbusters like Bioshock Infinite joining the Mac club recently -- not every game you can get on a console is available for your Mac. If you find yourself with an incompatible title to play, be sure to take a look at our in-depth guide to running Windows on your Mac to extend your gaming catalogue.
Be sure to share your tips, tricks or questions about gaming on OS X in the comments section!