Latest OS X update boosts Team Fortress 2 performance

Roughly three months have passed since Valve unleashed its Steam digital distribution service (along with a handful of its Source engine-powered games) onto Mac OS X. Following the initial disappointment of early performance results, we’d heard rumblings of Valve working closely with Apple engineers to eke some extra speed out of Snow Leopard’s graphics drivers, which until now had never received much optimization for gaming.

With yesterday’s release of the appropriately named Snow Leopard Graphics Update, we’re beginning to see some encouraging results, while also learning a bit more about the partnership between these two companies. A lengthy post over at the official Steam blog goes into greater detail about the technical hurdles Valve and Apple have come across while trying to turn OS X into a proper gaming platform—and some of the techniques they used to overcome those challenges:

Apple has some very nice performance analysis tools that allow us to diagnose performance issues like the occlusion query stall described above. Using these tools, another area that we’ve seen the driver spending a significant amount of time is in code which validates floating-point parameters that we hand off to OpenGL to drive the logic in our GPU-side shader code. . . . We have been able to measure performance improvements in this area with the latest software update, but we are anticipating even more speedups in this area if Apple implements the uniform_buffer_object extension and GLSL 1.3 in a future update. With these additional features, we will be able to sidestep this particular CPU bottleneck, allowing us to win back a bunch of CPU time and, ultimately, performance.

In the past, I found Source performance on OS X good enough to avoid the trouble of Boot Camp, though I had to turn down most of the graphics options from their default settings to keep it playable. However, I didn’t mind trading visual fidelity for the convenience of not needing to reboot to play a game, to dedicate a large amount of SSD space to a second operating system, and to spend time installing Windows or driver updates. I already have a PlayStation 3 that needs to be updated seemingly every time I turn it on. Unfortunately, graphics adjustments didn’t always provide the performance increase I was expecting, suggesting that something in OS X’s drivers was keeping the game CPU-limited. Yesterday’s Graphics Update and the technical insight from Valve appeared to validate that hunch.

I quickly tested the Graphics Update with Team Fortress 2 on a mid-2010 15″ MacBook Pro sporting a 2.66GHz Core i7, a GeForce GT 330M 512MB, 4GB of RAM, and a 160GB Intel X-25M G2 SSD. The graphics settings were left at the default OS X settings, as shown below, with the resolution set to the display’s native 1680×1050. I recorded a timedemo of a 24-player match on cp_granary and compared the playback results before and after the Graphics Update. Just for kicks, I ran the same timedemo on a Boot Camp-ed Windows 7 partition with the latest Nvidia 258.96 WHQL drivers. The results are actually rather surprising.

While 40 frames per second might not seem like anything to get too terribly excited about, when you compare it to the 29 FPS from before the Graphics Update, it becomes clear that Valve and Apple are on to something here. That’s roughly 38% quicker than Team Fortress 2 was running for Snow Leopard users a few days ago! I should also note that the gaming performance delta between Windows 7 and OS X (at least in Source-engine titles) appears to be closing dramatically, with the GeForce GT 330M hitting a similar ceiling in both operating systems. OS X users are closer to getting to blame Apple’s poor GPU options, rather than poor drivers, for their gaming woes.

For what it’s worth, the overall experience still seems a lot smoother on Windows 7, but without FRAPS for OS X, I haven’t figured out a way to compare minimum framerates. That said, the Snow Leopard Graphics Update boost goes a long way for improving TF2 playability at stock settings.

For Mac users with lower-end GPUs like the GeForce 9400M or GeForce 320M, the Snow Leopard Graphics Update could make the difference between keeping a Boot Camp partition and going native. It’s hard not to get excited about this large of a performance gain, especially when taken with encouraging words from Valve about more optimizations being on the way.

As for me, my game plan hasn’t changed. I already played Team Fortress 2 in OS X, albeit with a lot of the graphical goodies turned down. This update just means that I can safely play the game without being embarrassed about the eye candy in my screenshots.

Comments closed
    • satsuper
    • 9 years ago

    It’s too bad TF2 is irritating to play below 60 fps or so, its why I run it in directx8 mode so then all the stupid graphical effects don’t get in the way either and I get a better framerate.

    • leigh crusio
    • 9 years ago

    Quote “However, I didn’t mind trading visual fidelity for the convenience of not needing to reboot to play a game, to dedicate a large amount of SSD space to a second operating system, and to spend time installing Windows or driver updates. I already have a PlayStation 3 that needs to be updated seemingly every time I turn it on.”

    When is the last time a windows update stopped you playing a game or continuing to “work” while it was downloading in the background and installing when you shut down? Concerning driver updates do you honestly update them unless you are having issues or they give a slight FPS increase in a game you are going to play? Comparing them to eachother is not really valid, in my experience my PC “just works” and when Steam runs on Linux half as good as Win 7 I may swap over.

      • indeego
      • 9 years ago

      WU/MU by default will bug you to reboot if you haven’t after a force reboot patch, every 10 minutes, this can and will interrupt games/movies/etc. From an IT perspective I appreciate this because I really do want my machines to stay as secure as possible, from a user standpoint I hate forced reboots and I *&@*ing abhor that I have to reboot just because of most IE patches. That sh1t is oldg{<.<}g I can remember 1999 when Microsoft said they had figured out how to patch without rebooting so much, and to this day I really don't notice a difference between clients, or even serversg{<.<}g

        • countcristo
        • 9 years ago

        You can always postpone these updates until next restart or for 4 hours at least. If you’re at the comp. for the next 4 hours, might as well update the comp or shut it down. It’s the average consumer that I don’t understand who never restarts their comp, ever and wonders why stuff starts to fail after background updates occur.

      • mbutrovich
      • 9 years ago

      You chose one of my complaints and decided to argue that one, rather than realize that it’s the sum of the issues that makes Boot Camp unattractive. Windows and driver updates alone aren’t enough to dissuade me from Boot Camp, but combined with dedicating 25% of my limited SSD space and having to reboot to play TF2, it’s simply not worth it. Especially now that performance is up to snuff.

    • YeuEmMaiMai
    • 9 years ago

    lol we’ll just continue to use a PC where the performance is better right out of the box……..

      • WaltC
      • 9 years ago

      Yes, and here is my own far less brief commentary on the subject…;)

      /[

        • highlandr
        • 9 years ago

        I would point out that he was talking about TF2, and not counterstrike, and that for the most part his post was about how great the improvements are for Mac gaming in general (something that I think we all agree won’t ever be “great”), but I think you’re just too mad in general to respond calmly to this post….

          • WaltC
          • 9 years ago

          Mad? Why on earth would I be mad?…;)

          The point I tried to make was simply that on the game-support improvement roster for Apple and OS X, the initiative in this case obviously belongs to Valve. I also have to take issue with your notion of “how great the improvements are for Mac gaming in general,” as the original blog told us absolutely nothing about “Mac gaming in general” but focused on Valve’s efforts to help bring OS X’s OpenGL into the 21st century, by way of Valve’s development, and focused on only /[

        • MidnightFrost1701
        • 9 years ago

        I actually find it really funny that you wrote /[

          • WaltC
          • 9 years ago

          My credibility is hardly at issue here…;) I wasn’t writing to “enhance my credibility” in any way–I never do. As an aside, when I read a post written by someone else, I don’t ask myself if the poster is “credible,” I ask myself if his post is credible. I was but stating my opinion as opposed to posturing as self-importantly “credible.”

          As to me getting the name of the game wrong–which I surely did–not sure how I did that, actually, but it is easily remedied: where you see “Counterstrike” just substitute TF2, and my post is still 99% accurate (with the exception of course on the ship date of TF2.)

          What’s surprising to me is that my post by far dealt with the state of Apple’s OpenGL support in OS X, at least as reported in the TF2 comments made by Valve as mentioned in the TR article, and the TR author’s assertion that 40fps in TF2 was a signal to him that it was somehow “OK” for him to stop using BootCamp in order to play his games. I made some rather obvious points as to why this literally was incorrect, points that had nothing to do with TF2/Counterstrike–such as the proliferation of D3d games in today’s market versus OpenGL titles being released. Basically, I attempted to point out, if you really want to use your Mac to play games, BootCamp is the only way to go, and acceptable performance in TF2, or Counterstrike, for that matter, has nothing to do with it.

        • derFunkenstein
        • 9 years ago

        tl;dr

    • Usacomp2k3
    • 9 years ago

    Thanks for the little report. That is indeed good news as competition is never a bad thing.

    • TheBob!
    • 9 years ago

    This is good news.
    Wish I was still hearing about that rumor of a linux port. 🙁

    • internetsandman
    • 9 years ago

    Hmm, weird, I currently play on my old 20 inch iMac with and old Radeon HD 2600 Pro, and I turned up the settings higher than that and still game smoothly. I don’t have AF or any filtering enabled though, and to be quite honest I’m not sure how those increase quality exactly. But the game seems to run smoothly for me most of the time, apart from the most intense scenes of course lol

      • derFunkenstein
      • 9 years ago

      Well, it does say “certain Macs”.

      Higher-quality filtering will alleviate banding of textures at different distances and overall improve the sharpness of those textures. If you turn on Anisotropic Filtering and then go back to plain old Bilinear and can’t tell the difference, you should probably get your eyes checked. :p

    • MadManOriginal
    • 9 years ago

    WON BUTTIN MOUSE LOLOL

      • tejas84
      • 9 years ago

      Grow up…..

        • MadManOriginal
        • 9 years ago

        No, you!

      • YellaChicken
      • 9 years ago

      It shouldn’t happen but this made me LOLOL!

      • sweatshopking
      • 9 years ago

      madman that’s funny as hell. man i LOL’ed when i read that.

      • bentbent
      • 9 years ago

      very funny

    • Shining Arcanine
    • 9 years ago

    I heard that there were updates to Stream for both Windows and Mac OS X and someone online said that his Windows performance increased from the update. Was Stream updated on both Mac OS X and Windows 7 before these benchmarks were done?

      • mbutrovich
      • 9 years ago

      Everything was fully updated as of yesterday’s TF2 update.

    • Firestarter
    • 9 years ago

    Makes you wonder how the performance is in non-Source games vs their Windows counterparts. Equally crappy?

      • derFunkenstein
      • 9 years ago

      depends on who did the port, really. Blizzard’s games run well in my experience. Games ported by Aspyr are slow like poop.

      • adam1378
      • 9 years ago

      Sims 3 is slow as poop compared to pc. I will have to try the new update to see if there is any difference.

        • derFunkenstein
        • 9 years ago

        Sims 3 uses Transgaming Cider. It’s like WineX in Linux, only it’s a commercial port for OS X.

          • dashbarron
          • 9 years ago

          I think it’s pretty cool Blizzard has always developed for the Mac folks too.

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