Apple launched its new Mac Studio M2 desktop this month, giving one of its most powerful Mac desktops a shot in the arm.
While the base Mac Studio M2 ships with the already beefy M2 Max by default, if you're willing to spend upwards of $3,999 you can get one with the new high-end M2 Ultra chip. With a 24-core CPU and 60-core GPU it's basically two M2 Max chips fused together, and if you get the upgraded M2 Ultra (which bumps the price up to an eye-watering $4,999) it gives you a 60-core CPU and a 76-core GPU to play with.
That's a lot of money for a lot of processing power, which is why I'm grateful Apple saw fit to loan us one to write our Mac Studio M2 review. The review unit the company sent us came with a maxed-out M2 Ultra (24-core CPU, 76-core GPU), as well as 128GB of RAM and a 2TB SSD, which means it costs just over $6,000.
One look at Apple's marketing materials and it's obvious that all that pricey power is meant to entice creative professionals of all stripes, from video editors to software developers. But the first thing I did after setting up our review unit wasn't batch-editing photos or burning through video projects — no, it was downloading Steam to see how this thing handles my favorite games.
Mac gaming is looking better than it has in a long time
I've been thinking, buying and writing about games and computers my whole life. I remember when Mac was the place to be for games like Marathon and Myth, and while I've mostly been a Windows man I'm happy to dip into macOS to have some fun.
So when our Mac Studio M2 Ultra review unit arrived, one of the first things I did was download Steam and start pulling down all the Mac-compatible games my humble broadband connection could handle. And while I was a little disappointed to see how few modern Steam games have Mac-compatible versions available (more on that later), I was psyched to find out how well our maxed-out M2 Ultra could run games like Hitman, No Man's Sky and Total War: Warhammer III on a 4k gaming monitor.
I'm pleased to report the answer is quite well, in my opinion. While I did occasionally see some startlingly long load times and hitching when doing things like jumping between systems in No Man's Sky, I generally found these games run smoothly and look great in 4K with the power of a maxed-out M2 Ultra and 128GB of RAM behind them.
This is nice to see because it feels like macOS fans haven't had any good options for a decent gaming desktop in a long time. Sure, you could get a 2022 Mac Studio M1 or a Mac mini, but neither really had the power to run games anywhere near as well as the best gaming PCs in the Windows market. The Mac Studio M2 Ultra is the first Mac I've used in a long time that feels like it could be called a gaming PC without stifling a laugh, and that's a nice feeling.
Unfortunately, it comes at a price of roughly $6k. And while you can get into a new Mac Studio M2 for as little as $3,999, that's still too much money for what you get if your chief concern is playing games. Even the maxed-out Mac Studio M2 Ultra we reviewed can't run games nearly as well as Windows gaming PCs that cost thousands of dollars less.
So while I've had a great time playing games on our Mac Studio M2 Ultra all week, and I think it's probably the best Mac gaming desktop yet, it's still hard to recommend if you only want to use it for games.
But while Apple could certainly do something about lowering that price a few notches, I can't chalk all the issues with gaming on Mac up to the folks in Cupertino. While Apple has historically been pretty quiet about games and Mac gaming in particular, in recent years we've seen the company take meaningful steps to improve the state of gaming on Mac.
Back in 2022 the company was talking up the advent of the M2 chip, Metal 3 and macOS Ventura as watershed advancements in Mac gaming that would allow Mac fans to enjoy hits like No Man's Sky and Resident Evil Village with modern bells and whistles (like image upscaling and variable refresh rates) running natively on macOS.
These promises gave many of us new hope for Mac gaming, hope that was dashed somewhat when we started seeing how well Macs with M2 chips performed in our gaming benchmarks, like the graphical performance tests in Borderlands 3 or Sid Meier's Civilization VI: Gathering Storm. These games are far too old to be held up as a good graphical showcase or stress test, but we still use them because we can reliably run them on both Mac and Windows PCs and compare the results.
|Row 0 - Cell 0
|Mac Studio M2 Ultra
|Mac Studio M1
|Dell XPS 8960
|Sid Meier's Civ 6
|Rise of the Tomb Raider
And while the Mac Studio M2 Ultra we recently tested does run these games better than its predecessor, it simply can't compete with contemporary gaming PCs. As you can see from the chart above, the Dell XPS 8960 gaming PC we recently reviewed delivers 3x the frames as the Mac Studio M2 Ultra does in a game like Borderlands 3, despite costing roughly half as much (~$3,149).
But that doesn't negate the fact that the Studio M2 Ultra does run that game at a solid 60 frames per second, which is good to see. And given my experience playing Resident Evil Village, which has been optimized for the M2 chip, I think gaming on Mac could get a lot better if more game developers make time to optimize their games for Apple silicon.
I know that's not a simple or easy ask. I know there isn't always a good business case for a company to pour resources into porting its games and optimizing them for modern Macs. It's on Apple to show developers why they should invest time and money into making their games sing on Mac, and it does seem like the company is stepping up to do that in a bigger way than ever before.
I say that because of the Game Porting Toolkit Apple showed off at WWDC 2023 this year. My colleague Tony Polanco thought Apple's Game Porting Toolkit could be a revolution for Mac gaming, and I see why: Developers can use it to quickly get their game running in an emulated Windows environment on macOS, allowing them to get a quick sense of how well it runs on a given Mac config and what needs to be done to optimize performance.
Will that make it easier for more game developers to port their games to Mac? I sure hope so. I can dimly remember a time when Macs were the place to play some of the best games on the market, and it would be nice to see macOS muscle its way back into the conversation as a decent gaming platform.
My experience gaming on the new Mac Studio M2 Ultra for a week has left me feeling good about that prospect. It's far from the best gaming PC, but it is the best time I've ever had gaming on Mac.
Couple that with the promise of a new dedicated Game Mode coming with macOS Sonoma later this year, along with the support of more high-profile developers like Kojima Productions, and I'm feeling more optimistic about the future of Mac gaming than I have in a long time.
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Alex Wawro is a lifelong tech and games enthusiast with more than a decade of experience covering both for outlets like Game Developer, Black Hat, and PC World magazine. A lifelong PC builder, he currently serves as a senior editor at Tom's Guide covering all things computing, from laptops and desktops to keyboards and mice.