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Steam For Macintosh OS X Review

Rating: 8.5.

The Macintosh has never been pushed hard by Apple as a ‘gaming platform’ and several times in the past their company executives have even been dismissive of gaming in general, clearly wanting to focus more on professional editing and design applications. This attitude certainly hasn’t helped the Mac look attractive for the gaming masses.

The point is, there is no reason why the Macintosh couldn’t be a solid gaming platform, we have already seen titles such as Call Of Duty Modern Warfare and Command and Conquer running natively and they perform just as well as the Windows based counterparts. OSx after all is UNIX, a very stable and high performing operating system.

Steam has been the leading game distribution system on the PC for around eight years now and many developers love the concept as they not only get direct access to millions of customers but they save money on media and labeling costs. Steam is purely digital and it has been proven older classic titles are still selling well, such as the Quake series. Why? Well imagine you are sitting in your room at the weekend, bored, nothing to do. You notice a Steam offer, and for a few quid you can replay a classic. This is how they get a lot of sales – its minimum effort for potential customers combined with some really good weekly offers.

The final release version of Steam on OS X will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has used it on Windows … it really is for all intents and purposes exactly the same. The front end has been relatively easy to design as it uses familiar Web technologies and Steam is ultimately just a customised browser running as an application. Purchase games from the store and then click the library menu to play the purchases … with full access to news and community tabs for interacting online with other gamers.

The PC version is home to over 1,000 games and the Mac Edition currently has only 63 on offer, however I actually consider this a very strong starting point considering the relatively weak gaming Apple arena to date. What makes the deal even sweeter is that if you already have games in your account from previous PC purchases you will get them for free when they are released on the Macintosh (hopefully this remains true for all future titles but we have concerns it might not). Games such as Portal, Torchlight and Braid were already in mine when I first installed it.

Valve told the press that they are promising to release new titles for OS X every Wednesday – which is impressive if it ends up being accurate. The excellent ‘Portal’ from Valve was already a favourite title for Mac gamers via WINE emulators and it runs exceptionally well via the native Steam client. This is being offered free to all Macintosh gamers until the 24th of May 2010 – a very enticing option to get the Apple audience installing the application.

After downloading from Valve, the application updates in a similar fashion to the Windows version – In my time using the program over the last few weeks there have been almost bi daily updates.

Installing a game works exactly in the same manner as the PC version. Double click the game you have purchased and it starts to prepare the installation for you.

The applications currently downloading change into a yellow colour and the corresponding bandwidth meter on the right shows the speed you are getting from Valve’s servers.

So far the list of games is scarce on ‘A-listers’, however with Portal already in the list we can safely assume that titles such as Half Life 2 and Left 4 Dead are in the last stages before official release – they use the same Source engine. This will already have many Macintosh users foaming at the mouth in excitement!

The interface until recently was rather glitchy and I experienced several crashes during the beta phase. That said, the current client you can get from Valve is massively improved and I would even go as far to say that it runs just as well as the PC version. This is obviously dependent on your system – you will need a decent Intel Core 2 CPU and nVidia or ATI graphics onboard … I tested with a 3ghz 17 inch MacBook Pro with onboard 512MB 9600M nVidia graphics running out to a 23 inch Dell screen running at 2048×1152 and the overall experience was very impressive. If you only have onboard Intel graphics then you are pretty much wasting your time.

Users of the PC version of Steam will already be aware that if you want to move the application and installed games to another drive or folder then it is a simple case of just dragging the folder to another drive and location. Unfortunately with the Macintosh version you can’t do this … well not by simple drag and dropping anyway. There may be cases when you are using an SSD drive with little room and you want your game installs moved from the default location to a higher capacity drive.

So how do we move steam and get it to install games on another drive? You need to use the Unix/OSx based Symbolic Link system to get this to work. The Steam client stores all content into a Steam Content folder inside your users documents folder. Copy this to the drive you wish to use for game installation – then delete the original folder inside Documents. Open the Terminal.app and type this:

ln -s /Volumes/DRIVENAMEHERE/Steam\ Content ~/Documents/Steam\ Content

That creates a symbolic link to the content that the application sees in the same manner as a folder. Mac aliases will NOT work (they are soft links). If you are having issues, just drag the folder into Terminal after typing the main command and this will automatically create the symbolic link location. Press the Return key. Hey Presto – whenever you download a game, the program thinks it is creating the files directly into the Documents folder structure within your user account on the OS drive but its being reverted to the other drive in a completely different location.

The benefits are obviously more room and the fact that if you ever lose the OS drive or it corrupts, all your games will be saved ready to be simply relinked when Steam is reinstalled on a newly reformatted drive. While this is not an overly complex thing to do for a semi skilled end user, we would expect Valve to offer external drive installation officially at a later date.

Symbolic Link
Symbolic link icon - notice the arrow bottom left

Game performance with Portal in Snow Leopard is pretty much on a par with Windows 7 64bit Ultimate. I installed Windows 7 via Boot Camp on the same Macintosh and measured about a 5-8% drop in performance on OSX at the same settings. Nothing really that noticeable and a fantastic first effort from Valve, I am pretty positive over the coming months the platform will be fine tuned and enhanced further.

If you are a Macintosh user and have a decent system with nVidia or AMD graphics onboard then I suggest you head over to Valve’s Steam Powered website and snag a free copy of the application. Even if you don’t have any games in a previously configured PC account they are letting people play Portal for free until the 24th Of May.

KitGuru Says: Is this finally the program to kick start Macintosh Gaming? With Valve’s industry weight behind the launch we think so.

Discuss in our forum over here or just leave a quick comment below.

Rating: 8.5.

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