The Mac mini: the best game console in the house

With a little work you can turn your Mac mini into a powerful Windows gaming system. So why not?

I just heard something: A tectonic eruption of eye-rolling from PC gamers. Look, if you've got a custom rig with Nvidia Titan hardware and 4K displays to run Crysis 3 in ridiculous mode, move along. There's nothing for you here. If, on the other hand, you already have a Mac mini, or if you've been thinking about getting one but think it's underpowered for gaming, what I have to say may surprise you.

One of my kids wanted to play Windows games that weren't available on the Mac. He can certainly play plenty of games that are out for the Mac, but most stuff still isn't out for the Mac. That's not going to change. Apple accepts that, otherwise they wouldn't provide you with the Boot Camp Assistant utility to begin with.

Our victim is a 2010-era Mac mini. That's the last Mac mini model to sport a built-in SuperDrive. It has Nvidia GeForce 320M integrated graphics. Not as fast as the average gamer GPU card in a custom-built PC, granted. But enough to run a lot of games at acceptable frame rates.

It may surprise you, but the Mac mini is an adept little Windows gaming system. Its graphics speed can't compare to a dedicated gaming rig, but it doesn't have to. Because while it spends some of its time running Windows, it's also a great general purpose Mac running the latest version of Mavericks.

Better at Windows games than Mac games

Whatever Mac mini you use will probably run Windows games faster than it is does Mac games. Windows graphics tend to run faster than OS X graphics do on the same hardware, thanks to more extensive Windows driver optimization and underlying differences in the way the OSes are structured.

It took a few afternoons to get everything squared away. This Mac's been well used since it was new, and its drive partition didn't pass muster with Boot Camp Assistant. Once Drive Utility patched things up I was able to get started.

I used Windows 7, which has broad game support and is available in Home Premium trim for $99 or less from online retailers.

The alternatives

Running Mac games natively and exclusively is always an option. There are a lot of good games on the Mac, games that will run well or decently on the Mac mini. They're available from the Mac App Store, Steam, and elsewhere.

If you're looking for a Windows game experience but are reluctant to have to reboot your Mac each time to do it, you can install software that bridges the Windows gap.

VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop get the lion's share of attention, partly because they broad appeal for Mac users who also want to run business software and specialty apps that won't run on OS X natively. Both continue to optimize their releases for the broadest and fastest driver support they can.

CodeWeavers' CrossOver is worth a special look from gamers. It's optimized for games, and unlike the other two or Boot Camp, doesn't require you to have a Windows license.

Putting the pedal to the medal

How well does it actually run, you ask?

A lot of it depends on the individual performance requirements of the game. Obviously some games employ enormously sophisticated 3D engines that want more horsepower than the Mac mini can muster. Many don't, and the relatively modest integrated graphics in the mini are perfectly sufficient to play them.

If you keep your expectations realistic, you can usually tweak settings and resolutions enough to get a really playable experience. For many games, that's frame rates of 20 to 30 frames per second; for others, it's even higher, with higher levels of detail possible.

I've played a combination of FPS, strategy and RPG games on our little Mac mini, and it's held up well. My 14 year old has been pretty happy; he's been dividing his time between various Steam games he couldn't play on the Mac and other fare; a particular favorite is Smite, a multiplayer online battle arena strategy game from Hi-Rez Studios. He also says that old favorites he could play on the Mac, like Valve's own Team Fortress 2, subjectively run better on Windows than on OS X.

The bottom line

I'm never going to ditch my Mac in favor of a Windows PC — I prefer the Mac user experience to the Windows user experience, that's all there is to it. But I can't dispute that there are a lot of fun Windows games to be played, and I'm grateful that Apple's made it easy to equip my Mac as a Windows PC.

As much as I love Sony and Microsoft's game consoles, they're just that — game consoles. The greatest thing about using a Mac for Windows gaming is that you're still using a Mac at the end of the day.

Tune back in tomorrow as I walk you through installing Boot Camp yourself. In the interim, I'm curious to see what you think: Have you set up Windows using Boot Camp Assistant? Are you tempted to?

Peter Cohen