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Mac OS X: A Gamer's Perspective
April 26, 2001 | Michael Eilers

What if a team of programmers made the ultimate gaming OS – a UNIX core for stability and rock-solid networking abilities, built upon a kernel that supports symmetric multiprocessing and fast I/O as well as the full power of the PPC chip. Add core gaming technologies such as OpenGL and QuickTime integrated deeply into the OS and top it off with a flexible, easy-to-use GUI and you have the killer platform for gaming.

Has anyone made such an OS as of yet?

Yes, and no. Apple’s OS X is an excellent start down the path to an astounding OS for gaming, but there are significant roadblocks to overcome and a bumpy ride for early adopters. If your catalog of games extends back to the mid-90s and your gaming rig is still under 350 MHz, you are likely to find gaming under OS X a frustrating and unsatisfying experience. But if you’ve got a fire breathing G4 under the hood and a taste for the latest games on the shelf, the future is very bright for Mac gaming – as soon as Steve and company iron out the last few wrinkles.

This article is not intended to be a comprehensive review of Mac OS X itself; everyone from the New York Times to Salon have attempted such a task, with decidedly mixed results. Switching from one OS to another is never a painless task, and as you most likely use your Mac for much more than gaming, the decision whether or not to gamble your $129 on Apple’s next-generation OS is yours alone. However, if you’ve already decided to purchase and install this OS, we’ll give you a little preview of what to expect from your gaming experience.

Core Technologies
The critical difference between OS X and previous incarnations of the Mac OS is of course the OS core, the kernel and “plumbing” that gives it a newfound hope of stability and performance beyond a Mac user’s wildest dreams. Note that I say “hope” – frankly, that promised UNIX-level stability is not here yet, and I experienced many a catastrophic error during my first two weeks with OS X that should not be a part of any OS deemed usable for critical applications.

Mac OS X gets rid of the concept of a “monolithic” OS that sits right on top of the processor and depends upon rigidly structured access to memory. That is precisely the reason why Mac OS 9.1 and the previous versions are so fragile, because a single monolithic process is taking place at any time and if some part of the system fails – a block of memory which was expected to be free is instead busy when the OS asks for it, for example – that process fails and the whole works comes to a screeching halt. If you visualize the OS as a train on tracks, Mac OS 9.1 is a single train loaded with cars (applications) screaming down a single track. If any one of those cars derails, the entire train goes to pieces in a shriek of rending metal. Yes, just like in The Fugitive.

Mac OS X, in sharp contrast, puts each car on a separate track, and gives each its own piece of the engine; the kernel of the OS and the memory system also get their own separate tracks. Thus if any one of those applications should hit a car stalled at the crossing, the others can continue uninterrupted. This is known as “protected memory,” and is considered the rule rather than the exception in almost every other OS out there besides the Mac OS. Thanks, Steve, for finally lifting us out of the Stone age. It also means that the cars share the same engine simultaneously (yes, this breaks the metaphor – sue me) so that more than one can run at the same time without bringing the others to a crawl. The ability to run all the "cars" at the same time is called "preemptive multitasking" and is also a standard feature on all modern OSs. Windows NT could do it four years ago.


Archives  Features  Mac OS X: A Gamer's Perspective