The personal website of Chris Coyier

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 Apple.com 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.