StarCraft 2 Performance on a Mac Pro

I was eagerly anticipating StarCraft 2’s release. I had some good ol’ times playing the original and all the previews for the follow up looked amazing. I also happen to have a 8-core 2009 model Mac Pro with 10GB of RAM in it, which I assumed would run the game amazingly. Turns out I was wrong about that last part.

After asking around a bit, it turns out the RAM and processor of your computer, assuming you have decent specs in both areas, don’t have a ton to do with video game performance. It’s mostly about your graphics card. And even then, not so much about the VRAM (memory within the graphics card), but a lot to do with the GPU (processor inside the graphics card itself).

My Mac Pro came with the default NVIDIA GeForce GT 120 graphics card. I could literally have graphics settings inside the game cranked down all the way to “Low” across the board, and I’d still get screens like this:

The animation would be choppy and unplayably bad.

I took a trip to some local crappy computer store, and they claimed to have the perfect video card replacement. After 45 minutes of standing around, they didn’t have the card but they did tell me exactly what it was: the ATI Radeon HD 4870 graphics card. Turns out Apple sells it right from and it was in-stock at a (what I’d consider reasonable) $349.

It arrived just a few days later. It actually comes as an Apple Graphics Upgrade Kit. Basically, that means it comes in an Apple-branded box and has an Apple-written instruction booklet on how to install it in a Mac Pro. Excellent.

For comparisons sake:

The badass looking red one is the new ATI card, the little wimpy grey one is the old NVIDIA one.

After the upgrade, my dreams have come true and StarCraft 2 plays beautifully on my Mac Pro, even at the highest (“Ultra”) settings.

I don’t want to insinuate NVIDIA makes bad cards here. My default card is 100% even for pretty robust Photoshop work. It’s just not ready for gaming. NVIDIA makes super badass cards as well, just not in my price range.


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32 responses to “StarCraft 2 Performance on a Mac Pro”

  1. julie says:

    Wow, that’s a sexy graphics card. Even cooler that it says “rad” on it. :)

  2. Michael says:

    If you don’t need the mini display port you could have saved yourself $200 –

  3. Justin Ryan says:

    That amounts to one expensive video game.

  4. I’m an avid Starcraft 2 player and an unfortunate owner of an iMac. I have to buy a new iMac if I want to upgrade my graphics card =P

  5. Apple is more or less dropping Nvidia now with the latest refresh of the iMac and MacPro’s. Its due to the terrible drivers Nvidia put out on the mac.

    Even if you bought that $1800 Nvidia card it would have less performance in SC2 than the card you sellected due to bad drivers.

    The other thing about that $1800 card is that it is designed for CAD work and stuff like that. It isn’t any more powerfull than a $3-400 gaming card.

  6. Holy hell. That looks seriously hard core. I’m on a pc, 4G of Ram on a quad core, with a GeForce 9600 and it runs awesome.

    I’d be thinking twice if I had to spend $350 on a graphics card to play a $50-60 game. Still bad ass looking card though.

  7. Robert says:

    It’s a shame you had to go out and get a new card to play it, I’m on a PC and my 8800GTX runs it beautifully on maximum settings. Don’t think of it as spending a lot just to play one game, think of it as future proofing =D. Besides, we’ve got two more StarCraft 2 games to come and Wings of Liberty is awesome in itself.

  8. Andrew Jenkins says:

    Are you kidding me? $350!?! The 4870 is an old card and it sells for $140 on newegg. You got ripped off.

  9. Andrew Jenkins says:

    Also I’d like to add that the NVIDIA Quadro FX 4800 card would not run SC2 at all, it’s a work station card meant for 3D modelling and rendering.

  10. Chris Coyier says:

    A lot of people have been telling me the card I bought I paid too much for. It seems to me there are two versions of this card. The cheaper of which does not have a Mini DisplayPort adapter, which I need to run my Apple display. The price for that one is in the range I paid for it. I undoubtably paid a bit of a premium coming from Apple instead of somewhere like NewEgg, but it came with everything I needed and instructions on how to install it, which I probably couldn’t have figured out on my own.

    It also completely solved my problem, so in that regard, I hold to the fact that it was a reasonable solution.

  11. Andrew Jenkins says:

    You can buy mini display port adapters for $25.

  12. Chris Coyier says:

    Mini DisplayPort also powers the USB ports and enables the iSight camera built into this display. (I’m pretty sure)

  13. Michael Short says:

    I just bought starcraft 2, I use an iMac (not the latest but fairly recent) and it runs fine with my nVidia card. I just play it on the default graphics settings and its good enough for me.

    My main issue with the game is Blizzard has put a zoning system in so people in Australia cannot interact at all (even via the new RealID thing) with people from North America.

  14. Johnny says:

    I’m dealing with this same issue – I think we’ve even got the same MacPro configuration, Chris.

    I’ve been beating my head against my keyboard for a while.

  15. Yeah a lot of people have been having the same problems with their macs. My solution was just to install windows 7 with boot camp. It’s sort of a clunky fix and a little bit annoying but it works. I’m really glad you got it to work on your Mac though!

    And to whoever said that’s an expensive fix; if you knew anything about the Starcraft legacy, you’d know it was well worth it to play arguably the greatest computer game of all time.

  16. Wow, that really is an expensive solution! But since it solved your problem and if it was worth it to you for the lack of trouble, then that’s all that matters.

    And people wonder why Apple is “worth more” than Microsoft now – this is why! :D

    Glad you’re liking the game :) If you want a game that uses lots of RAM and CPU power, you should take a look at Supreme Commander (the first one, no the second). You would need to Boot Camp it into windows however. Even so, I think your system would be overkill for even that!

  17. BA says:

    I have no problem blaming the nvidia driver…I have a GTX 285 (1GB VRAM) and there is a bug where everything slows down in SC2. The good thing is that it is a known bug so hopefully there will be a fix soon enough.

  18. Mason says:

    Are you kidding? The normal PC, non-EFI version of that card is less than $150. That’s not reasonable at all.

  19. randy says:

    dude. reapers are siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiick.

  20. pellet says:

    BA: I was able to fix this problem by keeping all the settings ultra but just switched the texture level to high. Apparently this bug is just on 10.6.4, not 10.6.3 and apparently will be fixed in 10.6.5.

  21. pellet says:

    actually medium seems to work all the time, high was making it slow down, but when i switched from high to medium back to high it fixed it…

  22. pellet says:

    I installed a new driver that was on nvidia’s site too:

  23. Anorak says:

    Oh I should add to my last post that if you look on the Blizzard forums they are full of complaints like this. It’s not the hardware it’s the drivers and optimization!

  24. Greg McAusland says:

    Quite shocking that a mac pro (of any spec to be honest) from 2009 had so much trouble running the game.

    I can only imagine how disappointing that must have been..

    Anyone got a general opinion of the card that comes in the 27″ imacs now? and if the rather expensive higher spec one would be worth the cost?

  25. Adrian says:


    Funny how little Mac guys know about gfx cards and performance…and pricing!

    Guess thats one major limitation to a Mac.

    Want a badass card?

  26. Gabe Couch says:

    [email protected] if anyone wants to get some multilayer.

  27. Kevin Greene says:

    Thats sad.

    Hopefully your macpro is being used for something else besides gaming.

    A couple for thoughts here:

    Blizzard makes their games processor and ram intensive. Graphics cards are nice but as long as you have a competitent one (like the oem card) you should have been fine.

    This leads me to my next point…

    This had nothing to do with your graphics card. Or shouldnt have.

    Blizzard has admitted that its mac version of the game does not run as well as its pc equivalent. They have a solution coming. You could have just gone out an bought a copy of windows 7 home and had a blast with your original equipment. Or you could have just waited.

    Think you wasted your money

  28. Mike says:

    “We live for Auir”. been jones’n to try it out. thanks for the heads up.

  29. I know that C64 is one of the best graphic device…

  30. You tried EXTREME graphics yet?! I’m still bumpin my measly MBP for SC2 :(

  31. Kevin says:

    You paid $350 for an HD4870 and though you got a good deal?

    That card is old and most places don’t even sell them anymore, hence why the guy at the store couldn’t find one for you.

    Alternatively, you could’ve gotten a card 2 generations newer for cheaper:

    Spend that extra money on a mini-display converter sold by apple so you isight will still work for $25.

    And if you don’t know how to upgrade, let me introduce you to a little thing people like to use called “google”. It’s free.

  32. Frank says:

    I have a mac pro, and when I get bored of blogging about hybrid cars and indie movies, I just play a game of good ol’ minesweeper. Graphics cards use up too much power, which I can neither afford nor support because I am so eco-friendly.

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