What games can I run in XP on my MacBook Pro?
February 16, 2010 12:58 AM   Subscribe

I'm a hard core Mac nerd who's a total Windows novice. Can you explain the weird RAM and graphics memory totals I'm seeing in Windows XP (SP3) on my MacBook Pro, and give me some idea of what I can actually expect when it comes to performance in games?

I'm on a late-model MacBook Pro 13" (2.53ghz Intel Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM, NVIDIA GForce 9400M). I'm running XP primarily to try some of the Windows-only games I've missed out on in two decades of being a Mac fanboy.

I'm trying to assess what I'll actually be able to run. What has me confused is that the numbers I'm seeing in System Properties and the NVIDIA Control Panel don't match up with what I thought I had installed.

System Properties (in My Computer in XP) is telling me that I have 2.72GB of RAM, when I have 4GB installed, and the NVIDIA control panel is telling me that I have 512MB of graphics memory, when I thought the 9400M just borrowed system memory for graphics. What's going on here? Even taking the 512MB into account there's still something like 0.7 gigs of RAM unaccounted for.

I guess my main question is how do I take these (slightly confusing) numbers and compare them rationally to games system requirements? What can I realistically expect to run? For example, the most advanced game I've tried running so far has been Mass Effect, which surprised me by running just crackerjack once I turned the screen resolution down a notch. Am I going to be able to play Mass Effect 2? Am I going to be able to handle Left 4 Dead? Any other recommendations for games I'll be able to play here that I can't find for my PS3?

Bonus Question: Are there any Windows tricks I should know about to squeeze extra performance out of a machine like this? I'm not hoping to run Crysis here, just looking to get some cool stuff from Steam.
posted by raygan to Technology (13 answers total)
Windows XP has an inability to recognise I think more than 3 gigs of RAM (give or take). So in Windows, that RAM is going to waste. However, no modern game requires more than 2 for optimal performance, and certainly not Mass Effect 2.

Graphics cards use their own on-board memory and have nothing to do with system memory. 512 sounds about normal for current cards so I wouldn't sweat there. I'm not sure what the current state of good cards is, but the nice side effect of the consolization of PC games is that any game that runs on an Xbox 360 should run great on a PC. If Mass Effect 1 ran great for you, Mass Effect 2 should run as well. Even better, I think, since they optimized the engine more.

I haven't upgraded my computer for 3 years now and I can still run most games at 1680x1050 with all options on high at great framerates. Sometimes stagnation is a good thing!
posted by Silentgoldfish at 1:06 AM on February 16, 2010

Best answer: You're correct in that the 9400M borrows system RAM. Silentgoldfish would be right when talking about high-end graphics cards, but most notebook GPUs use shared RAM. 32-bit Windows systems are unable to use more than 3.3 GB of ram, which is exactly what you are using. XP doesn't need any more RAM than this anyways, so don't sweat it.

When looking through system requirements for games, most only require 2 GB at max for Windows XP.

Here's a list of games that will work just fine, although maybe not at max settings:
-Anything based on the Source engine (Left 4 Dead 1/2, Team Fortress 2, Half-Life 2, Counter-Strike Source)
-Call of Duty 4
-Modern Warfare 2
-Bioshock 1/2
-Fallout 3

For Mass Effect 2, you appear to barely meet the minimum requirements, so I think you're ok.

As for tricks to run things better, just make sure to defragment your hard drive (Start->All programs->Accessories->System tools->Disk Defragmenter) about once a month, and don't get any spyware from using internet explorer. ;)
posted by JauntyFedora at 1:40 AM on February 16, 2010

Response by poster: That's pretty encouraging, Silentgoldfish! I didn't know that about XP not being able to address 4GB of RAM. Is it possible that moving to Vista or Windows 7 improve performance at all?

As for the graphics card, this is what Apple has to say about it in their Tech Specs:
"NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor with 256MB of DDR3 SDRAM shared with main memory."
And then in a footnote:
"Memory available to Mac OS X may vary depending on graphics needs. Minimum graphics memory usage is 256MB."

I guess I don't even really know what that means when it comes to game performance. It certainly doesn't match up to what I'm seeing in XP. Weird!
posted by raygan at 1:40 AM on February 16, 2010

^to clarify, for Mass Effect 2, your graphics card barely scrapes by, the rest of your system is fine.
posted by JauntyFedora at 1:41 AM on February 16, 2010

Response by poster: Oops, missed your comment, JauntyFedora. Thanks for the recommendations and clarification.
posted by raygan at 1:42 AM on February 16, 2010

It's not got anything to do with XP other than the fact that you're using the 32 bit version of XP. If you used the x64 version you would see all the RAM. The issue is that besides the video card there are other memory mapped devices and they require parts of the address space too. It depends on the details of the hardware, so there is no hard and fast limit; it's incorrect to say that "XP can only access 3.3 GB", it completely varies.
posted by Rhomboid at 2:05 AM on February 16, 2010

Response by poster: I actually tried to install 64 bit XP first, but the Boot Camp drivers didn't support it. They only support 64bit under Vista or Windows 7. I'm pretty happy with XP so far, and I'm not dying to go out and buy a copy of Windows 7, but if it would have superior performance I'm willing to consider it. Is that worth looking into?
posted by raygan at 2:46 AM on February 16, 2010

Yeah, I was going to mention the 64 bit version of XP. If the games run on XP they're not going to need more then ~2g of ram.
posted by delmoi at 4:00 AM on February 16, 2010

Not to hijack, but I've been wondering the exact same thing. I'm specifically wondering if Star Trek Online would run, and how well.
posted by joshrholloway at 6:58 AM on February 16, 2010

This isnt an issue with XP. Its an issue with all 32-bit operating systems. Only 4 gigs of RAM can be addressed. Some of that address space is used by the BIOS/system, at least 256 is used by the video card, and the rest is used by Windows. To use it all I recommend switching to Win7 64-bit, but its not really a big deal. Most games are written knowing that limitation. I don't recommend 64-bit XP. Too many horror stories (manufacturer driver support is weak) and its an 8 year old OS anyway.

That 9400 will probably be able to handle modern games. As you've learned the trick is just to adjust the graphics settings per game. Usually turning down the resolution a notch or two is all it takes. If that doesnt work then try turning down textures or disabling anti-alias.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:21 AM on February 16, 2010

Its an issue with all 32-bit operating systems.

This is not true.

32-bit 686 hardware has a maximum virtual segment size of 4 GB, and can address up to 4 GB of physical RAM, or 64 GB of physical RAM with PAE enabled. You can think of the virtual addressing as multiple 4GB "windows" into 64GB maximum physical RAM. Usually a process will get one virtual address space, so processes are usually limited to 4 GB, but there's no hardware reason they couldn't have more virtual address spaces (segments) allocated.

Most 32-bit x86 Linux distributions will support 4GB out of the box these days, but don't have PAE enabled by default (I think it requires rebuilding the kernel).

Conclusion: Windows sucks
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:07 AM on February 16, 2010

you might want to check out can i run it they do a pretty good job and have yet to be wrong.
posted by dstopps at 10:58 AM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

You are unlikely to play any games that require more than 2G. Age of Conan is the only game I can think of that required a 64 bit system. If you upgrade to Windows 7, 64 bit, you will have access to all your memory but for gaming, I just wouldn't bother.
posted by chairface at 1:25 PM on February 16, 2010

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