Will the Next MacBooks Be Better Gaming Systems?

Now that Apple has announced plans to hold a special notebook event on Oct. 14, I'm desperately hoping for a new crop of MacBooks that have better video capabilities than the current run does.

MacBooks have been enormously popular since their introduction, but their reliance on Intel-integrated graphics has made them almost wholly unsuitable for most of the graphically-intensive games on the market. They'll do just fine with "casual" games and with older games, but newer games either don't work at all or run so poorly that it's hardly worthwhile to even try them.

Game publishers have responded by noting that "Intel GMA graphics are not supported" in many newer games; in some cases, they're able to eke out enough frames per second on newer MacBooks equipped with the GMA X3100 chipset to make it worthwhile, but that creates a fair degree of confusion for non-technical MacBook users--do I have a supported machine or not?

This is particularly critical because the MacBook has been hugely popular with college students and other young adults, and it only makes sense that they'll want to play a few games in their leisure time.

There has been some suggestion in technical circles that Apple is going to make the move to a different motherboard design with its next generation of MacBooks, to a system that uses more sophisticated graphics hardware from Nvidia or AMD (owner of ATI). If that comes to pass, and I hope we'll find out next week, then that's an excellent thing--the more powerful graphics in MacBooks, the better.

Any new, top-tier games that come out from companies such as Blizzard, Electronic Arts, Aspyr Media, and MacSoft will demand incredibly sophisticated lighting and shading effects--effects that are well beyond the capabilities of the MacBook now. Without a dramatic overhaul to the graphics architecture of the low-end Mac laptop, these systems are going to be obsolete for anything but the most casual entertainment game titles.

Think this problem is specific to games? Think again. Maybe you'll remember last summer, when Apple announced Mac OS X 10.6 "Snow Leopard." Snow Leopard is going to bolster Mac OS X to get the most out of Intel-based hardware. One of the technologies Apple will introduce is called Open Computing Language (OpenCL). And it will leverage discrete graphics hardware unlike anything we've seen before on the Mac.

OpenCL is the first broad attempt at an industry standard for what's known in industry parlance as "General-Purpose Computing on Graphics Processing Units" (or GPGPU). It will enable the operating system to redirect some computationally-intensive processes to the graphics hardware.

Graphics chips found in today's computers are capable of very advanced parallel-processing tasks, such as physics modeling, image processing, and much more--activities that can be complementary to the dual-chip and multiprocessor design increasingly found in the average computer. ATI and Nvidia have competing GPGPU technologies: ATI calls its version "Close To Metal" while Nvidia calls its "Compute Unified Device Architecture" (CUDA). OpenCL is an attempt to create a single standard that programmers can use to access graphics hardware for general computing tasks, regardless of who makes that hardware.

Unfortunately, for all of this, the hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of MacBooks Apple currently has out in the world are a lost cause. Those laptops, while perfectly suitable for a wide variety of tasks in their own right, come up pathetically short in gaming and other tasks where a speedy graphics processor is a requirement.

The first step that needs to be taken is to introduce a MacBook that actually has sophisticated-enough graphics hardware to accomplish these and other tasks. Hopefully Apple is on the ball here and we'll get our first glimpse of that product next Tuesday.

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