How well can the MacBook Pro with Retina display handle Windows games?

Alexis Santos
A. Santos|08.03.12

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How well can the MacBook Pro with Retina display handle Windows games?

After jumping the hurdles of our review gauntlet, the MacBook Pro with Retina display proved itself as a top-notch machine for the creative professionals it's geared towards, and anyone willing to pay a premium. Save for a brief bout with Diablo III, our time spent gaming on the hardware was limited. Ever since, we've wondered how the Kepler-toting, Ivy Bridge-packing laptop would handle one of our favorite graphics-intensive pastimes. Sure, Apple machines aren't exactly en vogue when it comes to playing video games, but Cupertino's ultra-high-resolution Mac simply begs to be put to the test. We loaded up Windows 7 on a MacBook Pro carrying an NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M with 1 GB of VRAM, the stock 2.3GHz processor and 16GB of RAM (upgraded from the vanilla 8GB configuration) and put it through its paces to see how it performs.

Windows on Retina display

Making full use of the Retina display's 2,880 x 1,880 resolution, the Windows desktop is startlingly huge with tiny text and dwarfed navigation buttons lost within it. Pegging the dpi at 200 percent, however, strikes a balance between readability and definition. System text, icons and windows are easy on the eyes, but third-party apps are hit-or-miss, as they require developer support for large, crisp and readable visuals. With a bit of tweaking, the oversized-desktop is useable, but a 1,920 x 1,080 experience is a bit easier on the eyes, and is more forgiving of apps that lack support for the extra pixels.


DNP MacBook Pro with Retina display takes on Windows gaming

Ready to traverse the frozen fields of Tamriel? No problem, as long as you stick to the so-called standard HD resolutions. Dialed in at 1,920 x 1,080 without anti-aliasing, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim nets an average of 37 fps on ultra quality and 53 fps on high. Arkham City fares similarly, producing playable experiences at high detail, clocking framerates above 50 fps. Grand Theft Auto IV is a little tougher on the system, but averages over 30 fps at high settings.

When the Retina display struts its stuff, however, things aren't as peachy. The very same games that wowed us at 1080p struggle to run smoothly under the burden of the rig's pixel-pushing native resolution. Skyrim, for example, isn't the steadiest of rides at ultra settings. In fact, it's downright choppy, squeezing out just 21 fps with anti-aliasing turned off. Shifting gears to medium ekes out more frames for Skyrim, but still makes for a rocky ride.

FPS (2,880 x 1,880)
FPS (1920 x 1080)
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Ultra 21 37
High 25 53
Medium 26 58
Low 36 82
Arkham City Extreme 10 20
High 29 54
Medium 34 61
Low 36 61
Grand Theft Auto IV High 18 33
Medium 20 39
Low 22 49
Team Fortress 2 Very High 62 128
High 67 140
Medium 73 187
Low 137 212
Note: tests conducted on Windows with anti-aliasing turned off.

DNP MacBook Pro with Retina display takes on Windows gaming

Running at full bore under Windows, Team Fortress 2 clocked in at an average of 62 fps when taking advantage of the Retina display. Making compromises pushes framerates further up the ladder, with very high settings at 1,920 x 1,080 pumping out 128 fps. While the Mac version performs similarly at full resolution and high detail, it doesn't do as well overall. Notched in at low settings, for example, we hovered around 70 fps -- a figure that nearly doubles in Windows. At maximum resolution, kicking up anti-aliasing to its limits proves to be an issue for both versions, with framerates chugging along at 11 fps on OS X and 20 fps on Windows.

On Windows, we wandered the vast expanses of Tamriel at 1,920 x 1,080 with medium settings for an hour and 40 minutes before our battery gave way. Under our standard battery test, the laptop kept alive for three hours and 39 minutes -- a far cry from the nine hours and 22 minutes managed under OS X. While the machine's underside can cause discomfort if it sits in your lap for long enough, the real issue comes courtesy of the keyboard. The WASD chiclet keys and aluminum trenches between them get seriously hot, making an external keyboard the better option.

PCMarkVantage 3DMark06 Battery life
MacBook Pro with Retina display w/Windows (2.30GHz Core i7, GeForce GT 650M, 16GB) 15,152 14,426 3:39
Razer Blade (2.8GHz Core i7-2640M, GeForce GT555M, 8GB ) 14,379 11,556 2:57
Maingear Pulse 11 (2.1GHz Core i7-3612QM, GeForce GT 650M, 8GB) 17,126 13,316 3:21
MSI GT70 (2.23GHz Core i7-3610QM, GeForce GTX670M, 16GB) 14,073 18,955 2:49
MSI GT683DXR (2.00GHz Core i7-2630QM, GeForce GTX 570M, 12GB) 9,074 16,862 2:40
Samsung Series 7 Gamer (2.30GHz Core i7-3610QM, GeForce GTX 675M, 16GB) 11,515 21,131 2:11
Note: higher scores are better.

In terms of cold, hard numbers, the Mac garnered a PCMarkVantage score of 15,152, sliding in above the Razer Blade and MSI's GT70, but below the Maingear Pulse 11. With a 3DMark06 score of 14,426, the aluminum-cased machine comfortably slots in above Razer's offering and the Maingear, but falls short of the GT70.


DNP How well can the MacBook Pro with Retina display handle Windows games

The Retina display-equipped MacBook Pro is a capable machine -- and it should be for its $2,199 starting price (or $2,399 for 16 GB of RAM in our case). NVIDIA's screaming Kepler architecture has more than enough oomph for the MacBook to handle most current games thrown at it, providing an enjoyable experience at respectable settings and resolutions. If playing video games is your prime directive, a portable rig built for gaming from the ground up should still top your list, but rest assured that Apple's "best Mac ever" can have some fun too.

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