Metal for OS X is so huge, I no longer need a Mac Pro


Metal, Apple's optimized set of 3D tools for developers, first showed up on iOS last year in the form of a particularly beautiful Unreal Engine demo. it provided answers for serious problems that my development team faced when making cinematic games on the iPhone and iPad.

But Metal for OS X? The particle effects on stage were less impressive than last year's iOS demo, and moreover, while watching the demo onstage, I couldn't help but note that Unreal Engine games barely exist for the Mac. There's Tomb Raider, the Borderlands trilogy, X-Com, and a handful of indie titles, but many major games like Mass Effect haven't been ported.

I worried that "Metal" had become Apple's version of "Blast Processing," a catch phrase in the 90s for the Sega Genesis. In commercials, Sega would gloat that only the Genesis had "Blast processing." The only problem was, Blast Processing didn't really do anything that mattered.

But it turns out, I was wrong.

Metal for OS X is huge — and it's going to be a much bigger deal on the Mac than it is on your iPhone or iPad. If you use a Mac to produce professional content, chances are, Metal is about to drastically speed up the professional apps you use like Adobe Illustrator and Autodesk Maya.

Why Metal matters

Let's take a step back for a moment: Metal is a set of tools that Apple's third-party developers can use for 3D rendering. It bypasses the OpenGL framework — which on OS X is notoriously slow, dragging professional Mac apps down in comparison to their Windows counterparts.

To give you an example, Giant Spacekat has a Mac at our office with both Windows and OS X installed. When we use the Unreal editor on the Windows side, importing a spaceship and assembling its materials only takes 10 seconds. On the OS X side, this same operation takes almost 50 seconds. If you're a professional user, those kinds of render delays make a huge difference in what platform you want to use.

Instead, Metal lets developers use tools that run "at the metal," optimizing the framework on a per-device basis. Only Apple can do this, in part because — compared to the competition — the company has a much more limited set of hardware than Android or Microsoft.

During Monday's keynote, Apple showed operations in the Unreal editor that would have slowed my Retina MacBook Pro to a crawl. Using Unreal 4 on OS X is painfully slow — so slow I've considered buying a Mac Pro to compensate for the performance lag.

But if Metal is really as fast as it seems, I'm hoping I won't have to.

It's good for the game-makers

After Adobe's spotty track record with Flash, it's easy to be suspicious at the company's ability to produce applications optimized for Apple's hardware. But when the company stopped by Apple's State of the Union presentation to show off how Metal has improved both After Effects and Illustrator, I was really impressed: After Effects rendering in particular showed a drastic improvement.

Two of the most important companies making professional apps for 3D professionals have also committed to using Metal in their apps: Autodesk and The Foundry. That's huge. Any 3D professional knows that the faster your machine displays your changes, the more detailed your work can be. Autodesk Maya users, for example, might be able to look forward to leaving complex shaders active as they model and animate.

It's fantastic for Mac gamers

Metal for OS X is even better if you're an active gamer on the Mac. After all, the framework won't just be limited to the Unreal engine: All the major game engines are committed to working with Metal. This includes both Unity and companies with proprietary engines like Blizzard and 2K.

As such, not only will we see some great Unreal games on the Mac, but some of the most important game companies will be making applications for OS X.

Perhaps most exciting is the commitment to Metal from Aspyr, a company that specializes in Mac ports of Windows games like Civilization. As grateful as I am that Beyond Earth made it to Mac, it's hard to not grouse when these ports consistently run much worse than on Windows. With Metal, we may be able to look forward to equally fast games, no matter the platform.

Time to construct some Metal

The devil is obviously in the details, and we'll see how Metal holds up in the real world when El Capitan rolls out this year. But, from everything I've seen at WWDC so far, Metal is the biggest reason for creative professionals to be excited, and I can't wait to start developing for it.

Head of Development at Giant Spacekat. Host of Isometric and Rocket on Relay.FM. Godzilla of tech feminists.

  • :-)
  • I'm of the firm opinion that OpenGL runs like poo everywhere. Strange seeing you write for iMore. Will there be more game related content here now? Mac gaming will only grow if people show interest. Sloths fight leopards. You can't open a bag of chips. Clearly humans are the weaker species.
  • We're trying to expand our gaming coverage, yeah! Maddy Myers is coming on as a freelancer; Brianna writes for us on occasion for our Experts and Network column.
  • Keeping an eye on this. Will be nice to play games natively rather than having to boot into Windows.
  • I don't know really, but won't Swift 2 + Metal allow companies to make OSX a platform to design for along with the other major platforms? For example does this mean we can see a native Call of Duty same day and date as console and Windows PC? Of course as always if the bigger developers won't add OSX support, then your existing iOS game developers will expand to it.
  • I think this perspective is a bit off base. It's not that you now don't need a Mac Pro for gaming because of Metal for OS X. It's more in line that NOW the Mac Pro might actually be worth it for someone who is serious about gaming depending on how performance gains really plays out in practice. You see the fact of the matter is ALL Apple "Desktop" computers use LAPTOP processors and GPU's yet they cost the same as or more often than not MORE than any other PC manufacturer who uses desktop class components. This is where the Mac Pro comes in... the Mac Pro is the ONLY computer Apple sells that use desktop grade components (with some components being workstation class even). This means that although expensive, for a serious gamer who spends $700+ on a video card, they might actually spending the money for an all in one solution with powerful hardware. Other than this though the unfortunate reality is Game developers don't really target laptop hardware - although games work on laptop hardware of course but it's not their main focus. This puts developers and hardcore gamers in a vicious circle. Game publishing companies will only put REAL resources in developing for a platform if it means a good ROI for them and hardcore gamers really drive that - but hardcore gamers won't buy a laptop class device to game on instead of a desktop class device and headline game developers don't target laptop devices instead of desktop devices which means that %95+ of OS X's install base is excluded from headline/flagship gaming franchises and thus there's no real money in it for publishers. This move alone with Metal is a GREAT start but it by itself will change nothing. The missing component is providing desktop machine with actual desktop components for a competitive price to consumers to instead of laptops being sold at desktop/workstation prices. The likelihood of Apple doing this however is slim as the margins aren't as good and a company exists to make money, no matter how good of a product they WANT to offer to consumers - making money is their core end game above all else.
  • MacPro =/= gaming machine.
    "Hardcore" gamers who would spend >$700 on a cutting cutting edge GPU would NOT be happy with a MacPro. Sure, those GPUs in the MacPro can run video games, but they are designed for large 3D models & rendering etc, not for gaming. They simply don't have the same bits & pieces physically on the cards; shader engines, etc. gaming systems are all about speed, not large deliveries. Gaming needs a million Ferraris delivering one piece of info each, workstation cards are dump trucks that can carry all one million pieces of info at once, but at a slower speed. I tried to make my Cheese-GraterPro into my "everything" entertainment center, it was painful and expensive. Now my gaming PC is simply expensive :-) Sent from the iMore App
  • "ALL Apple "Desktop" computers use LAPTOP processors"
    iMacs use desktop ones.
  • In theory this is true. But I would like to point out that any one can do it relatively easily. Android not so much due to the java under the hood part but windows side yes. Metal is really the result of a lot of really cool R&D tech that has been going on for years and really change the way some computing theory for number crunching goes like off loading a lot more to work on to the heavily under used graphic card chips that are REALLY good at what they are designed to do.
    It comes down to having good drivers and interfaces. AMD and NVidia could easily get it put in place mix with Microsoft DirectX. I really see metal as something that would be about damn time Apple. It was needed for years to put real work in place for their OS. They can take some advantages of their hardware limited scale but even Apple scale has gotten pass the point where it really only them on the computer side. Mobile devices is a different story but PC side Microsoft can and does do it to a point on DirectX.
    Your example of the 10 sec Microsoft vs 50 sec Apple speak volumes at how much Apple needed to this and I am glad they finally are. It was sorely needed.
    I say all this saying I am glad they are doing it. Metal has my attentions and I really want to see where it goes.
  • I think that you should donate it to me!
  • As an active Diablo 3 & Starcraft II enjoyer, I'm rather interested to see what Blizzard does with Metal.
    On a more professional note, I'm extremely interested in what developers such as e-on might bring to improve their software on the Mac platform.
    Very interested indeed. Sent from the iMore App
  • I'm interested how this will affect the new MacBook. Sent from the iMore App
  • I'm excited to hear that Metal on OS X is not only for specific applications, but will underpin all Core Graphics and Core Animation functions. This means that not only programs written specifically for Metal will get enormous speed boosts, but so will every other application that uses the standard Cocoa graphics frameworks, even the Finder!!
  • Congrats on Brianna working for iMore. Rene is really assembling a formidable cast of iMore Avengers!
  • Mac Gamers? 0_o I guess you mean people that have a Mac that want to play a game or two. Serious PC gamers build their own rigs with Windows as it has overall better driver and hardware support for gaming and you can build a very powerful gaming rig for far less than buying Apple. Has always been like this.
  • Change is in the air...
  • It seems to me that Metal will be to Mac gaming what Windows 10 will be to Windows Phone market share: the best shot they have of making serious inroads, making an impossibly long shot into a barely possible long shot (I am super duper cheering for Windows Phone, though - a position that probably isn't winning me any brownie points here on iMore). ;-) Still, Metal (and 10) can only help, and so they are worth getting excited about! ----------------------------------------- [Only-Quasi-Related-Nit-Pick]: The 4th-generation of home gaming (aka "The 16-bit era") is my favorite era of gaming, and the era where I at least come the closest to brushing up against "expert status" on system hardware. I wrote an 8-part series (for a combined 60 pages, or so) on the 16-bit console wars on a now defunct online Video Game magazine about two years ago delving as deep as I could into the hardware. As such I feel qualified to throw the flag on your treatment of "blast processing". Sure, the term itself is "marketese", and sure, Sega tried to milk it for all it was worth, stretching the truth as much as they could, but not only a) is it based on fact, but b) the SNES spec sheet itself stretches the truth faaaaar more egregiously than the blast processing campaign ever did. I can sorta forgive the slight exaggerations of "blast processing" in light of the all-but-flat-out-lies of the spec sheet. Now, that's only an assertion I made to counter your assertion. Neither one of us have actually put forth an argument yet. Enthusiastic, but friendly discussion on the matter - including actual technical arguments for my assertion available upon request. :-) Meanwhile, the brown flag has been thrown. ;-) Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • So I'm confused. Will this improve the graphics on my games I use now, like Sims or Civ 5? Or will it only improve graphics for games which run on Metal graphics engine or whatever it is?
  • It's been over a year and here's a total on the number of pro apps and games which have Metal support. Zero. It's not going well. Meanwhile Apple's OpenGL implementation is still 5 years out of date, and there's not so much of a hint of Vulkan support.