Skip to main content

We tried playing PC games on MacBook Pro M1 Max via Parallels — it’s bad

MacBook Pro 16-inch 2021 sitting on a patio table
(Image credit: Future)

There’s no question that Apple’s new MacBook Pro 14-inch 2021 and MacBook Pro 16-inch 2021 are powerful laptops. The M1 Pro and M1 Max processors packed within different laptop configurations mark a serious jump from the previous M1 chip. As we’ve noted in our review of the 14-inch model, Apple has given long-time enthusiasts the MacBook Pro they’ve yearned for.

While both MacBook Pros are leaps beyond previous Apple notebooks and some competitive laptops, they fall short when it comes to gaming performance. Our own tests of the 14- and 16-inch notebooks revealed lower-than-expected frame rate numbers. The results are surprising considering how, on paper, the M1 Pro and M1 Max should deliver better-than-average gaming performance.

We recently detailed some of the reasons the new MacBook Pros are a waste for gamers. Some commenters stated that it’s possible to run Parallels to play Windows games on the new Apple laptops (as is the case with 2020’s M1-powered MacBook Pro). This piqued our interest so we endeavored to test some AAA games on the 16-inch M1 Max-powered MacBook Pro via Parallels. Our aim was to put titles through our standard litany of performance tests and gauge the results.

Before moving on, we should explain what Parallels is and what it does. Parallels Desktop for Mac (as it is officially called) is software that provides hardware virtualization for Mac computers with Intel and M1 processors. It even has x86-64 architecture emulation for Apple silicon Macs. Parallels allows users to run Windows programs that don’t have Mac versions. It’s also useful for transferring data from PC to Mac. With over 7 million users, it’s an extremely popular program.

Unfortunately, using Parallels on the 16-inch M1 Max MacBook did not provide a smooth gaming experience. To be frank, we faced a host of problems running games on the program. None of the 3DMark tests ran through the software installs. Worse still was the fact that half the games we tried to test failed to load altogether.

Result
Assassin's Creed ValhallaDid not load
Borderlands 3Loaded but didn't run
DiRT 5Did not load
Far Cry New DawnLoaded, ran and played
Far Cry 6Did not load
Grand Theft Auto VLoaded, ran and played
Metro ExodusLoaded, ran and played
Red Dead Redemption 2Did not load
Shadow of the Tomb RaiderLoaded but didn't run

Titles like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, DiRT 5, Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Red Dead Redemption 2 did not load. Borderlands 3 loaded but failed to run (there is a distinction between the two). We had better luck with Far Cry New Dawn, Metro Exodus and Grand Theft Auto V. They loaded, ran, and played well enough. However, the 3DMark tests did not report results accurately.

We can’t say we’re surprised by these results. After all, Parallels is a virtual machine. It isn’t a native app made specifically for running games. Though some titles are indeed playable via Parallels, it’s not an ideal solution (to say the least).

Colleagues we spoke with at other Future publications and elsewhere in the industry say that this is, for the lack of a better term, a “known issue” that even the M1 Max can’t solve (at least for the moment). Based on our research and what our colleagues believe, this comes down to matters of compatibility between Microsoft and Apple products. There’s also the perpetual difficulty of getting programs to run as intended in a virtual machine like Parallels.

After spending nearly an entire workday testing games, we’ve concluded that AAA PC gaming may be possible on the 16-inch M1 Max-powered via Parallels — though it’s a dicey proposition. Some titles will run but others will fail to even load. The inconsistency isn’t great and is proof that Apple’s hardware is still not suitable for AAA gaming experiences. As far as we’re concerned it’s not worth the time or headaches trying to play games through Parallels will engender.

(Image credit: Square Enix)

These results are disappointing considering the power of the M1 Max GPU. But it’s not so much an inherent problem of the chip as it is about developers not optimizing games for macOS. Apple provided us with a list of some AAA titles playable on macOS. Notable games include Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Borderlands 3. We tested both on the 16-inch MacBook Pro with an M1 Max chip and they ran well, with Borderlands 3 hitting 40fps at 1080p and Shadow of the Tomb Raider averaging 85fps at the same resolution. While those are solid AAA releases, similar titles aren’t ubiquitous on macOS.

One of the main issues with a lot of these games is that -- perhaps for good reasons — they're not designed to recognize the M1 Max chip's graphics hardware as something that is capable of running them, or (on the games that do run) something that is capable of running them optimally. We would need to do a deeper dive into the M1 graphics architecture to discover why this is the case. That’s an article for another day.

The M1 Max is a significant step forward for Apple silicon and is more than capable of providing excellent gaming performance. But until things change with game optimization (and publisher relationships), current and future MacBooks will not have the gaming experiences found on other devices and platforms. As far as using Parallels to play PC games on Mac is concerned, you’re free to give it a try. But based on our tests, don’t expect a smooth ride.

Tony Polanco

Tony is a computing writer at Tom’s Guide covering laptops, tablets, Windows, and iOS. During his off-hours, Tony enjoys reading comic books, playing video games, reading speculative fiction novels, and spending too much time on Twitter. His non-nerdy pursuits involve attending Hard Rock/Heavy Metal concerts and going to NYC bars with friends and colleagues. His work has appeared in publications such as Laptop Mag, PC Mag, and various independent gaming sites.


  • SexyRagamuffin
    You are not just running Windows inside a virtual machine to do this. The only versions of Windows that will run on Apple Silicon are the Arm64 beta versions of Windows, which include an x86 to ARM interpreter for legacy Windows x86 software, which is a further roadblock to the games running well.

    This isn't an indictment of gaming on Apple Silicon, as it would pose a similar issue to gaming on Windows 10 or 11 equipped computers that are equipped with ARM processors like Snapdragons, or even the Microsoft Surface Pro X with Microsoft's SQ1 or SQ2 processors (both use ARM instruction sets).

    It would be nice for developers to move their development processes forward to start to handle the future of computing beyond phones and tablets - ARM will soon be in most laptops and desktops because the instruction set allows for a lot better thermal performance in a given configuration, and is showing to be able to scale to high-compute intensiveness.
    Reply
  • therealcaptaincrunch
    SexyRagamuffin said:
    You are not just running Windows inside a virtual machine to do this. The only versions of Windows that will run on Apple Silicon are the Arm64 beta versions of Windows, which include an x86 to ARM interpreter for legacy Windows x86 software, which is a further roadblock to the games running well.

    This isn't an indictment of gaming on Apple Silicon, as it would pose a similar issue to gaming on Windows 10 or 11 equipped computers that are equipped with ARM processors like Snapdragons, or even the Microsoft Surface Pro X with Microsoft's SQ1 or SQ2 processors (both use ARM instruction sets).

    It would be nice for developers to move their development processes forward to start to handle the future of computing beyond phones and tablets - ARM will soon be in most laptops and desktops because the instruction set allows for a lot better thermal performance in a given configuration, and is showing to be able to scale to high-compute intensiveness.

    Absolutely true. These game tests are bogus. They are x86 Mac games (often poor ports) being emulated by the Rosetta translation layer becuase they don't run natively on Apple Silicon (ARM). It really says nothing about the power of the GPU.
    Reply
  • microChasm
    admin said:
    We tested a variety of PC games on the MacBook Pro 16-inch via Parallels — here's what happened.

    We tried playing PC games on an M1 Max MacBook Pro — it was a disaster : Read more
    What a long way to go to waste time on and find fault in an Apple product jumping through SO many 3rd party hoops to do so.

    There is SO much middleware here. Emulators/interpreters, beta OS on ARM architecture, virtual machine software that is really not designed for serious gaming. Do you really think gamers are going to go through all this just to play a game on an Apple Silicon Mac? Heck no, they will wait for top tier game to be released that can be played natively.

    It was an interesting perspective on what could be used to do this, I just feel like it is disingenuous.
    Reply
  • FrederekEakin
    This is actually an important information for prospect buyers.

    Regardless of whose fault it is, the bottom line is one just shouldn't expect to be able to run serious games on these Macbook pros. I don't care if this is not Apple's fault.
    Reply
  • LayingLow
    Windows x86 emulation on Windows ARM is notorious poor, hence the reason it’s still in beta. Unlike Mac application which for most users is seamless running non M1 optimized software. To be a fair and unbiased review you should identify how much of the performance issue is actually associated with the Windows software translation.
    Reply
  • JakoDel
    most of the test stuff didnt even run yet you didnt even bother to try alternatives like crossover lol
    Reply
  • Xaxxus
    What a joke.

    you tried to run games in a virtual machine. Obviously it’s going to run like crap.

    there’s an entire YouTube channel dedicated to m1 gaming.

    you need to use crossover (made by the people who built valve proton).

    the performance through crossover is phenomenal.
    Reply
  • Tony Polanco
    microChasm said:
    What a long way to go to waste time on and find fault in an Apple product jumping through SO many 3rd party hoops to do so.

    There is SO much middleware here. Emulators/interpreters, beta OS on ARM architecture, virtual machine software that is really not designed for serious gaming. Do you really think gamers are going to go through all this just to play a game on an Apple Silicon Mac? Heck no, they will wait for top tier game to be released that can be played natively.

    It was an interesting perspective on what could be used to do this, I just feel like it is disingenuous.

    Thanks for the comment.

    It wasn't our intention to find fault in the M1 Max chip. In fact, we specifically say the main issue is that publishers have not properly optimized their games to run on mac OS. We believe both the M1 Pro and M1 Max GPUs are capable of delivering quality gaming experiences. But as things stand, they don't (unless games are optimized for macOS).

    We received a comment in a previous post saying that you can play PC games on Mac via Parallels without a problem. We tested this ourselves and posted the results. Again, we aren't here to find fault in Apple's new chips. We wanted to post the results of our test as we felt it would be interesting to our readers.
    Reply
  • ImRicklePick
    This is disingenuous to the point of absurdity. On top of the fact that you would need to be running an ARM version of Windows and the fact that everything you do is through an emulation and translation layer, Parallels itself can only allocate a maximum of 2GB of VRAM, and it doesn't handle graphics APIs particularly well (try playing anything using Vulkan through Parallels, I dare you!).

    You have absolutely no idea what proportion of your tests are the results of Apple Silicon issues or Parallels issues, but you certainly don't let that stop you! Your 'article' as woefully ill-equipped to convey any useful information at all, considering how myopic the conclusions reached are.
    Reply
  • Bonaparte
    ImRicklePick said:
    This is disingenuous to the point of absurdity.
    The idea of reporting on how well well Windows games perform on the M1 Macs isn’t absurd in and of itself.

    What’s absurd is the failure to do even the most elementary bit of research into the topic. I thought the people at tom’s guide were supposed to be professional journalists?

    Andrew Tsai, the founder of the PC and Apple gaming wikis has a series of very informative videos on YouTube detailing how many games can perform adequately or even very well on M1 macs , including several that are written off here as unplayable. There is lots more detailed info on the aforementioned wiki.
    Whilst a few simple configuration changes could have resulted in a dramatically better experience using Parallels for the authors of this article, they also fail to make any mention of Crossover, an alternative to Parallels that offers close to native performance for some games.

    If someone at Toms guide had thought to put “m1 Mac gaming” Into Google before they they started to type this article, all this info would have been at their fingertips.
    Reply