For most of Apple’s existence, gaming on the Mac has meant second-rate performance, particularly for the dollar. While there have been a handful of exceptions over the years — often only when major GPU refresh cycles happened to precisely coincide with Mac refresh cycles — the GPU performance available in a Mac has vastly lagged what you can buy in a PC. Apple may not be doing much to close the gap in absolute terms, since the GPU hardware in its brand-new iMac Pro will likely be quite expensive. But it is working to offer better GPU performance overall to its customers, and hopping on the VR bandwagon as well.
Yesterday, at WWDC, the Cupertino company announced several new initiatives and products that should make VR on Macs far more plausible, as well as drive higher Mac gaming performance in general. The company’s new Metal 2 API, the successor to its Metal API, and is supposedly up to 10x faster than its predecessor, and will be included in its High Sierra macOS update. Metal 2 has also been credited with adding support for external graphics arrays, which appear to be based on AMD’s XConnect technology and run via Thunderbolt 3. This last is an odd turn of phrase, however, despite having been picked up by multiple websites.
The entire point of Thunderbolt 3 is to extend the PCI Express bus in a way that’s essentially transparent to the operating system. To the OS, when you plug in a Thunderbolt device, you’re hooking it up via PCI Express (the exact version of PCIe depends on the version of Thunderbolt you’re using and the controller chip used to connect the ports to the rest of the system).
AMD, Intel, and Razer did some custom work to create an external graphics platform that would be easier to standardize, and a set of UEFI extensions to make it work more reliably and with fewer hoops for end-users to jump through. But as far as Thunderbolt 3 is concerned, the idea that you need a new API to support it is incorrect. What users appear to be referring to here is the previous need to patch the OS kernel to allow an eGPU to function properly in a Mac system (as previously discussed at 9to5 Mac). That’s not technically linked to the Metal 2 API at all, and conflating the two just confuses people. The upcoming macOS High Sierra obviates the need for this kind of check.
The new external enclosures will include an RX 580 card and will use a Sonnet external GPU chassis. The initial dev kits will also ship with a dedicated 350W power supply, Belkin USB-C to four-port USB A hub, a promotion code for $ 100 off on an HTC Vive, and a $ 599 list price.
That’s a pretty hefty price hit for an external chassis, and it means that cost-effective gaming on a Mac is going to remain out of reach for now. But by stepping into the external graphics arena, Apple is at least giving gamers with Mac machines the option to game with something approaching higher-end desktop hardware. And the external chassis is much cheaper than the price of upgrading to a higher-end MacBook Pro with a much weaker (RX 460-derived) internal GPU.
Meanwhile, Valve is talking up Steam VR support on Mac in a major way. In a recent blog post, the company wrote:
As part of our efforts to make VR available to developers and players on as many systems as possible, SteamVR for the Mac is now available in beta. The beta comes in tandem with the macOS High Sierra developer seed and hardware news from Apple’s 2017 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) that helps enable VR on the Mac.
SteamVR on the Mac offers players the same 360-degree, room-scale tracking as the Windows and Linux variants.
When Palmer Luckey, the now-ousted founder of Oculus, referred to Apple systems and said he’d build VR support for them if Apple built a decent computer for VR, nobody expected Cupertino to actually field plausible GPUs in the near-term future. Now that they’ve done so, and partnered with Vive to test-drive the platform, will we see Oculus support follow suit?
Now read: The best VR headsets and accessories