Gaming On The 11″ MacBook Air

Perhaps the most common question asked about the MacBook Air is: “How does it handle gaming?” With the Air now representing the entry-level of Apple laptops it’s no surprise that prospective buyers would be interested in how it handles games. Gaming on the Mac is still in its infancy, but there are plenty of titles out there that run on the 11″ MacBook Air, some fairly well. If you want to know what these are, how to get them up and running, and how they perform, then read on!

Choosing your hardware and setting up Windows and/or Steam

For the purposes of this article I’m using the mid-range 11″ MacBook Air with 4GB RAM and a 1.6GHz Intel Core i5. If you bought your Air in 2011, or are planning to, then this should be a reasonable comparison to your own setup.

My first recommendation is simple; don’t buy the low-end 2GB Air unless you absolutely can’t afford the upgrade. RAM on the MacBook Air simply isn’t upgradable, so you’re going to sorely miss that extra 2GB if you’re planning to play games, particularly if you’re going to use Parallels 7 to get a little Windows gaming fix.

Secondly. Don’t install your games directly on the MacBook Air hard drive. It’s likely you’ve got a 128GB model, or the worst-case 64GB. In either of these scenarios a few installed games can quickly diminish your available disk space. The best way to get a disk space boost is to skimp out on the 256GB model Air and spend around £45 on a 500GB external hard drive. This serves a dual purpose; you can back up with Time Machine to this drive, and you can also install Steam games to an external hard drive using a very simple tweak.

Yes, this means you’ll have to have a hard drive dangling off your Air to game, but you’re likely not going to be doing this on the move, and probably not even on your lap given how hot it can get. Also, yes, you will not be able to reap the benefits of your MacBook Air’s SSD speeds within games.

Steam Gaming On The MacBook Air: Getting Started

Steam can eat through disk space quickly, so it’s best to save your internal disk and relocate Steam’s game folder to an external, portable hard-drive. There are advanced ways to relocate specific, large games rather than your whole Steam library, but I wont go into detail on these.

Make sure you format your drive to “Mac OS Extended (Journaled)” and don’t use the “Case Sensitive” version, Steam doesn’t like it. To get Steam to use your external hard-drive is a little less simple than it should be (why isn’t it an option, Valve!?) but not too tricky.

Fire up “Terminal”, you can find this easily using Spotlight. Terminal is a little daunting at first, but simple commands are easy enough to learn. To move your Steam install to your external disk, do the following:

  • Type in: cd /Volumes/
  • Hit tab and you should see a list appear. Look for the name of your external drive here, and make note of it. Mine was /Volumes/Content
  • Type in: cd ~/Library/Application\ Support/
  • And then: cp -R Steam /Volumes/Your Drive Name/Steam
  • Then: mv Steam Steam-Backup
  • And finally: ln -s /Volumes/Your Drive Name/Steam Steam

You can now close Terminal.

In both instances, replace “Your Drive Name” with the name of your external hard drive, as noted earlier.

You can now fire up Steam and begin installing your game. You should see the “Available Disk Space” in Steam reflect the size of your external drive, rather than your internal. Note: Steam will not work unless the external drive you copied its data folder to is connected. If you want to use your internal data folder again you can try the following:

cd ~/Library/Application\ Support/
unlink Steam
mv Steam-Backup Steam

Windows Gaming On The MacBook Air: Getting Started

If you’re using Windows in Parallels 7, try to mount a second expanding disk which lives on your external hard drive and install your games there. You don’t strictly need to do this, you should already be able to see your external disk within Windows and install things to it, but a virtual hard disk keeps things tidy.

You can do this by choosing the “Virtual Machine” option in Parallels 7 and then “Configure.” In the window that pops up you’ll want to visit the “Hardware” tab.

At the bottom of the hardware list, you should see + and – buttons. Hit the + and pick “Hard Disk” from the little menu. Pick a new “Location” and make sure this is on your external drive.

You next need to fire up Windows. I’m using Windows 7, but the steps shouldn’t be dissimilar in Vista or even XP. Windows should automatically detect and install the drive, but it won’t be “initialised” yet.

Go to Start, and then type in “Disk Management”. Pick “Create and format hard disk partitions.”

A prompt should pop up entitled “Initialise Disk.” Hit “OK”.

You should see your new disk in the list at the bottom of Disk Management. It will likely be called “Disk 1.” Right click on it, and select “New Simple Volume.” Hit next twice, pick a drive letter of your choice and hit “Next” again. Give your disk a name and hit next and then “Finish”. You can now close Disk Management.

Download and install your games to this new disk, and your primary Parallels disk should remain lean enough to back up with Time Machine. Yes; Parallels will nag you if you start it up without the external hard disk connected, but should suffer no other ill effects.

Now is also a good time to get yourself a account. It’s a treasure trove of classic Windows games, many of which will run a treat in Parallels. The vertical resolution of the 11″ MacBook Air: 768 pixels, lends itself exceptionally well to old games which support 1024*768.

Oh, and Minecraft runs fantastically well on the 11″ MacBook Air, too!