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MMOS X: Second Life performance on a Macbook

Mark Crump

MMOS X is a bi-weekly column dedicated solely to gaming on the Macintosh natively. "Running Boot Camp or Parallels" is not an option here. This column is for people who want to get the most out of their Mac gaming, as meager as it is.

There aren't a lot of MMOs that fall into the "I've got a few minutes and want to goof around in" category. Second Life to me is one. Sure, we can argue the "Is SL an MMO argument" while we're taking a break from the "Which is better: Mac or PC?" argument. For me, SL is good for that hour I've got to kill because I got to my night class early, or I'm sitting in bed with my laptop and my RSS feeds are up to date. Really, some days I'll play anything to avoid a daily quest.

The gotcha is, when I got my laptop I had a hard time convincing my wife err myself that I needed to blow almost two grand on a laptop. I still don't have too much buyer's regret over my regular Macbook. Games aside, the three apps that do most of my heavy lifting are Twitteriffic, Mail, and Scrivener (these days, it seems like I write more than game). World of Warcraft runs OK on it, but, lordy, does Second Life crawl on it. I'm not sure which gets better FPS: Second Life running on a Macbook, or frozen molasses rolling uphill. Yeah, I know, the integrated video on the 'book isn't supported and that's what I get for running unsupported hardware and I shoud be using a Macbook Pro. Duly noted.

That said, an unscientific study conducted at my school's cafeteria and library, taken randomly on Mondays between 4 and 5 pm shows a heck of a lot more college kids sprung for the cheapo 'books. Second Life could be considered a good game for non-gamers in the way The Sims was considered a good game for people that hated Quake. So, lets take a good, hard look at what's involved with Second Life on Macbooks, what you can do, and what realities your going to face running SL on a non-Pro 'book.

The tough love statement is that any client or setting I recommend you use is at best going to give you less than 10 fps, and you're likely to hover in the 5 frames per second range. When I play SL on my laptop, I just go to a few of my social centers, wait for everything to rez while listening to my video card scream like Howard Dean after he won a primary. Rapidly changing sims, especially ones that are crowded, is going to be a poor experience. I certainly wouldn't try and go racing with it.

Before I get into the clients and results, I think some of the performance issues I've been running into are a result of Leopard. Under Tiger, SL actually ran pretty good on the Macbook. When Leopard came out, my performance plummeted. The 10.5.2 OS patch + new graphics drivers made it better, but it still feels slower than it did on Tiger.

Over the course of a couple days of testing, I tested the following clients: the current live build; the 1.20.x RC that's valid as of yesterday; the latest OnRez client; and the Nicholaz EC patch for the 1.19.4 client. The tests were done on a 1.5 year-old Macbook running OS X 10.5.2, 2 gig of ram, and a 160 gig hard drive with 40 gig free. I also used an Apple bluetooth keyboard and mouse. The tests were performed with no streaming music or video, although I can't remember if I had it completely disabled or not. Voice chat was not tested either.

I used the recommended settings from this thread on the support forums (thanks, Fizz). I'll summarize them here to skip the login for the forums (note, you will need to check Custom in the Graphics tab in Preferences to access these):

Network Settings: 500kbs (if you show slow internet activity alter between 200kb and 500kb)

Draw Distance, 96. Alter this lower but no higher than 128.

Advanced Graphics:
Disable Vertex Shader ( On all Macs this causes sluggish issues)
Object Mesh Details: Slider Half Way
Flexible Mesh Details: In between the half way marker.
Tree Mesh Details: In between the half way marker.
Avatar Mesh Details: In between the half way marker.

Simple example:

|..........[]..........| (may need lowering on systems with less ram and Graphics ram)

Advanced Graphics:

Graphics Card memory: 64mb
Fog Distance: 2.0
Max. Particle Count: 1024
Outfit Composite Limit: 3

All of the clients gave me roughly the same the FPS: around 5-10. I did notice a lot of typing lag, but I think that might be related to the bluetooth keyboard since it seemed a little bit better if I used the Macbook keyboard. I've got the old white keyboard and it tends to be kinda squishy anyway. I will say those settings gave me a jump from completely unplayable to only mildly painful to play. I also experienced no gains or losses between full screen or windowed mode. However, given SL's tendency to do OS-level lockups I recommend running in a window anyway.

As expected, it spiked the CPU to 100% (although, the Release Candidate client seemed a little better, averaging around 70%). CPU temp would get to around 86%, so it'd get mighty toasty if you're using the laptop keypad. Memory usage wasn't too bad: I'd sit around 60% (note again, I have 2 gig).

In terms of overall clients, I preferred the look of the 1.20 RC candidate the most. The bottom button bar is much more subtle. The OnRez client, while arguably the best for new players, I preferred the least because its layout is so jarringly different than the other clients. I didn't have an opinion one way or the other on the Nicholaz client.

I can't tell if the problems are the base code for the SL clients is simply horrible, or if the user-created content is just that much of a nightmare for clients to render. My inclination is both, since it's rare to find someone who knows how to build efficiently and have it look good, as well as not treating particle effects like party favors.

So, to answer the question that shows up on the SL forums a lot: Is Second Life playable on a non-Pro Macbook? Yes, but prepared for some slowness, and "good performance" will be very subjective. It really does take a lot for me to want to log in for any length of time on the 'book. If you're just sitting there chatting with some friends or moving stuff around your land, you'll likely be fine. But anything that involves a lot of people or primmy sims is going to be rough.

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