Freelance contributor, MacworldAUG 15, 2023 4:15 am PDT
As a person who loves the Mac, it’s sometimes hard for me to see Apple yank the platform around. Some years it gets attention heaped on it, while others it plays second fiddle to the iPhone and iPad (even though those platforms are dependent on the Mac for their third party app development). That’s why it’s been so great to watch the pivot to Apple silicon because the Mac we all depend on for our work is getting the hardware it deserves to excel.
But there’s an elephant in the room. The Mac has fallen short consistently when it comes to gaming, and even though Apple’s making moves to improve things, we’ve been down this road before. Sure, the M1 and M2 have decent graphics performance, but the best games Apple can tout in its keynotes and on its website are as much as five years old. The flagship Mac title announced this year—Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding—was released back in 2019 on PlayStation 4.
With Apple silicon, you can no longer dual-boot with Windows to get access to games as they’re released, and Apple has dropped support for external AMD eGPUs on Apple Silicon entirely. But there’s a way to get into computer gaming without spending a fortune, and that’s by grabbing Valve’s Steam Deck.
The Steam Deck isn’t another desktop or laptop computer per se but is an entire gaming PC in a portable handheld device. If you’re frustrated with the middling state of Mac gaming, here are five reasons you should try the Steam Deck as a supplement to your Mac instead of waiting for the status quo to change.
Dyed-in-the-wool Mac users sometimes refused to use Boot Camp on their Macs because they just don’t want to deal with Windows. I totally get it; Windows, despite its many uses, can be frustrating to learn and upkeep, especially if you’re just using it to get to your games.
That’s why the Steam Deck is so cool. It can run games made for Windows on a Linux operating system using a technology called Proton. If you’ve heard of Apple’s new Game Porting Toolkit, which uses real-time translation to run Windows games in macOS for testing, then you already know how the Steam Deck works. But Proton, unlike Apple’s tool, is meant for consumers and runs its wide array of Windows games at excellent speeds on the Deck. While you’re not guaranteed everything will run, or run well, many of the most popular titles are rated for how they perform on the Steam Deck.
For example, Shadow of the Tomb Raider FPS benchmarks using an M1 Max Mac Studio and Steam on the Deck (with the “Low” preset defaults attached to the same external display as my Mac Studio but at a slightly lower resolution) say a lot: 43 FPS on the Deck and 110 FPS on the Mac Studio. But, look at the prices of these two devices and it’s clear that the Deck provides huge value: for only $399, plus an $80 dock and paired to an Xbox controller I already owned, the setup is a quarter of the cost of a Mac Studio (and, it goes without saying, a lot cheaper than a Max-grade MacBook Pro if you want to game on the go).
Then there’s the compatibility problem: though some games let you play the Mac version via Steam, it seems like few are Apple Silicon-optimized. Only 28 of the 66 games I personally own are Mac-friendly at all. So even if you wanted to play a Steam game on a high-powered Mac desktop, it’s likely that the game isn’t compatible and may not ever work on the Mac.
What Valve has done with the Steam Deck is make a device that has much of the game compatibility of Windows without messing with anything Microsoft, and that’s a big deal.
You can modify the software
I don’t know about you but as much as I think iPads and iPhones can be cool, I like computers. The Mac might get guff for being locked down, but you still have a lot of control and can run apps from wherever you want or use older software you have lying around.
Even though the Steam Deck offers up a game console-like experience, you have full access to run whatever you want, or even switch from the Steam interface over to a full Linux desktop. This means you can also install games from other shops like GoG or Itch.io, so you’re not just stuck with Steam. This leads us to…
Games can be much cheaper
It can be inconvenient to find games that work on a Mac. When you can find games to install on the Mac App Store, you’ll find that yesterday’s big titles are still selling for yesterday’s big prices. When writing this story, I discovered that Shadow of the Tomb Raider (from 2018!), goes for an eye-watering $55 on the Mac App Store, whereas it’s $7.49 on Steam during a sale, and only $30 the rest of the time. It sure feels like Mac users are getting ripped off.
Since Steam is the primary hub for all things PC gaming, you can be assured that even if a game is pricey now, if you wait, it’ll come down in price. Sales are frequent, and even third-party vendors like Humble Bundle often sell games at a deep discount and in mega packages with some proceeds going to charity, giving you codes to use with Steam.
And as mentioned before, since you can get games from non-Steam sources running on the Steam Deck, you can often shop around.
Willis Lai / Foundry
You can use it with your Mac’s accessories…
Underneath its plastic shell, the Steam Deck is a fully modern computer with an 8-inch touchscreen and gaming-friendly controls. Since it’s a modern device, it has a USB-C port for charging and Bluetooth which means it can easily coexist with your Mac’s chargers, mice, keyboards, and other peripherals.
…or dock to a display for at-home gaming
USB-C also lets you use the Deck with an external display for big-screen gaming. You won’t get the best graphics on a high-resolution screen, but the flexibility is super nice to have. Using devices like Valve’s own Steam Deck Dock or third-party alternatives, the Deck can live on your desk (for use with a keyboard and mouse) or plug into your home entertainment center (and use a Bluetooth controller) for gaming on the sofa.
Although we’re all hoping that the state of Mac gaming improves, life’s too short to wait around. You can be up and gaming in only a little time without having to build a PC, without having to wrestle with Windows 11, and while keeping the Mac as your primary computer. Although the Steam Deck isn’t the most powerful gaming device around, it’s an affordable ticket into the world of PC gaming, all without needing a PC.