Macs have come a long way when it comes to Virtual Reality technology and nowadays you can enjoy VR on your Mac – if you get the right headset and equipment. However, it’s not quite as straightforward as it should be just yet. Here we straighten out the current situation for VR gaming on Mac and explain what you’ll need and which is by far the best VR headset for Mac in 2018.
Overview: VR Headsets & Gaming On Mac In 2018
The outlook for VR gaming on Mac in 2018 is extremely bright. VR technology is set to boom on Mac, mainly due to the long-awaited announcement by Apple in 2017 that macOS 10.13 High Sierra would support VR technologies and hardware.
This has really opened the flood gates to VR on Mac and once setup, you can use video editing software such as Final Cut Pro X, Epic Unreal 4 Editor, and Unity Editor to create 360° video and VR 3D content.
Gaming however is another question entirely and we’ll go into why shortly.
Firstly, it’s important to understand that VR requires a few things in order to work on Mac.
A High End Graphics Card
Most iMacs and MacBook Pros from 2015 onwards already have this. A powerful graphics card is required by VR headsets in order to deliver the rapid frame rate that VR requires. The only Mac compatible VR headset – the HTC Vive – requires an Intel Core i5 or higher which MacBook Pros from early 2015 and iMacs from mid 2015 have or above in more recent models. In terms of power, the latest iMacs are the best Macs for VR with Radeon Pro 555 or 560 processors and up to 4GB VRAM in the 21.5 inch 4K iMac. The 27 inch iMacs have even higher spec Radeon Pro 570, 575 and 580 processors with up to 8GB VRAM. Apple’s most powerful Mac, the iMac Pro is more than capable of handling VR but it will set you back almost $5,000.
However, even if you’ve got a Max that’s technically powerful enough, you will be really pushing the limits of the internal graphics card and it’s recommend you use an external graphics card in an external enclosure (more on this below). VR requires a minimum of 90 frames per second in order to deliver anything that’s not going to make you feel a bit nauseous while playing. Your Mac’s internal graphics card may struggle with this which us why an external eGPU enclosure and graphics card is the best way to go. If you have anything older than a 2015 Mac, you’ll definitely need an external graphics cards in an eGPU Enclosure.
An external graphics unit enclosure is basically a big box to plug in an external graphic card (see below). The problem until High Sierra was that eGPU units are incompatible with macOS 10.12 Sierra and below. Although it is possible to get eGPUs to work with older versions of macOS, it requires technical hacks which are complicated, messy and not always reliable. However, the good news is that at the 2017 World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC), Apple announced that High Sierra would finally support eGPU enclosures in any Mac with a Thunderbolt 3 connection thanks to an upgrade to the Metal 2 framework.
You’ll also need a Thunderbolt 3 Port on your Mac to connect to the enclosure. MacBook Pros built in 2016 or later and certain models of iMacs from 2017 onwards already have Thunderbolt 3 ports built in but it is however possible to use a Thunderbolt 3 adapter on older Macs that only have Thunderbolt 2 ports.
At the moment, Apple is only selling its External Graphics Development Kit to registered Mac developers that want to create and develop VR games on Mac. The kit costs $599 and includes a Sonnet eGPU, Radeon graphics card and Thunderbolt 2 to 3 adapter. The truth however is that any cheaper eGPU unit with a Mac compatible graphics card and Thunderbolt 3 connection will do. There aren’t many on the market yet but the most notable is the Aktio Node which officially supports Thunderbolt 3 and High Sierra.
An External Graphics Card
To place inside the unit, you’ll also of course need a graphics card. The problem is that not all graphics cards are supported by High Sierra but a few such as the Sapphire Radeon Nitro definitely are. It’s important to check before you buy both the unit and graphics card that they are Mac High Sierra compatible.
A VR Headset
Finally, you’ll need the really fun bit which is the VR headset. Although there are many models of VR headset out there, there’s only one that officially works on Mac – the HTC Vive. It really isn’t worth buying anything else at the moment if you’ve got a Mac and next we take a closer look at why. In late April 2018 a rumor emerged that Apple is working on it’s own wireless VR headset set for release in 2020 although nothing has been confirmed by the company. It’s certainly highly possible considering that Apple has already announced it will ditch Intel chips in favor of it’s own ARM chips by 2020, due in part by the need to deliver the blistering speeds required for AR and VR technology.
HTC Vive: The Best VR Headset For Mac Users
Apart from the hardware, the other major requirement to enjoy VR games on Mac is of course gaming developers or platforms that are willing to support it on macOS. The bad news is that at the moment, there are virtually none. The good news is that the one stand out exception is Valve’s Steam platform and specifically SteamVR.
Steam is one of the biggest distribution platforms for games on both Mac and PC and is the only major gaming platform officially supporting VR gaming on macOS. The HTC Vive was developed by both Valve and HTC to work specifically with the Steam platform which means it is easily the best option for Mac users. With the HTC Vive, you’re guaranteed both Mac compatibility, better stability and far more game support than buying any other headset.
Note that on the HTC site, it still says that the HTC Vive is not compatible with Macs. However, we can confirm that it definitely does work and Apple is also endorsing it on the High Sierra promo site. The confusion may be because initially, there were problems with the HTC Vive on Mac until NVIDIA released updated GeForce graphics drivers.
The bad news however is that so far, there are still no Mac games on the Steam VR Store that support VR. There simply haven’t been many VR manufacturers or software developers focusing on Mac, mainly because of the lack of support in macOS. This will undoubtedly change rapidly throughout 2018 however as more developers add Mac VR support for their games now that High Sierra supports VR.
Can The Oculus Rift Be Used On Macs?
The Oculus Rift was one of the first successful VR headsets to hit the market but it still does not support Macs. Originally, Oculus stated that Macs are simply not powerful enough to support it but technically, all the ingredients are now there for it to do so. However, since the announcement of VR support in High Sierra and the development of more powerful iMacs, Oculus – which is now owned by Facebook – hasn’t changed its position and will focus on PCs for the near future.
As we’ve seen, things will only get better for Virtual Reality on Mac in 2018. At the moment, the HTC Vive VR headset is still the only game in town for Mac users as it’s the only one to officially supports Macs. However, as VR starts getting traction on macOS, there will surely be more VR headsets released throughout the year that are compatible with Macs.
You can get a taster of what it’s like to use an HTC Vive below playing the game Contagion VR Outbreak.
You can also watch a setup of an iMac using an HTC Vive for VR gaming here:
If you have any questions or thoughts about using a VR headset on your Mac, let us know in the comments below.