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Apple, Steam, Mac Mini and Gaming - What’s Next?

Apple has released the new Mac mini which features improved graphics and faster performances, amongst many other new features such as the long-awaited unibody enclosure.  Not to mention the HDMI port on the back, which makes the Mac mini “come to the big screen”. As I saw this new iteration of Apple’s little big desktop computer, I couldn’t help but thinking about the direction Apple is going with gaming on Mac OS X.

The new Mac mini seems perfect for gaming. It’s got the specs, it’s got a great design, it can connect to your external HD display and enable you to enjoy a great Mac OS X experience. If you look at the new machine from a gamer’s perspective, it seems like Apple wants to prove that they’re able make great computers that can run great games. Apple’s features page indeed says that the NVIDIA GeForce 320M on the Mac minis can run games such as Doom 3, Call of Duty 4 and Quake 4 up to 2 times faster than the previous generation. But take a look at the picture on the left: that’s a Mac mini hooked up to an Apple display running a Steam game. Now that’s interesting.

Since Steam’s arrival on Mac OS X, 8.46 percent of Steam users are running Valve’s gaming platform on Macs. These are good numbers, considering that it’s been less than two months. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a 20 percent by the end of this summer. Clearly, Valve must be happy about all these new users, which mean tons of new extra money for every game they purchase through Steam. But - there’s a huge “but”. Guess what, unlike Applws wants you to think now, performances haven’t been that great on Mac OS X. To cut short, Steam runs better on Windows PCs and many Steam games for Mac OS X have problems such as lagginess, crashes and such. Same hardware, different operating systems: Steam runs better on Windows. That’s it.

As MacRumors reports today though, Apple is aware of the situation:

“The reason for the discrepancy has been described as due to relatively immaturity of drivers on the OS X side as well as other slowdowns. Some modest improvements may be seen with the upcoming release of Mac OS X 10.6.4, but more dramatic improvements remain in the pipeline.”

Modest improvements are coming with software updates, but it’s pretty clear that the “pipeline” is full of new Macbooks and Mac Pros. New computers (coming later this year; right after the summer?) with even faster processors, graphic cards and updated drivers to run games as perfectly as Windows machines can. SSD by default could also help a lot in terms of performances, and we have proof. On the other hand, Valve itself is promising improvements coming soon:

“Performance is going to improve as drivers are updated. I would expect modest improvements in short term and larger ones in longer term. No, I can’t put dates on them. We are making a lot of progress is identifying specific issues that need work inside the game and inside OpenGL and drivers. Apple, ATI and NVIDIA are all involved.”

With Steam on OS X, Game Center on iOS 4, the iPod Touch leading the way of Apple mobile gaming and this new Mac minis today, I have the feeling Apple is planning something big for gamers. They’ve been out of the market for too much time and now they want to catch up in their very own way, just like they did with the iPhone. Think of Steam as the AT&T of gaming: Steve Jobs needs it. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see some exclusive Steam / Apple deal coming in the near future. What do you think?

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