Building a $200 Gaming Mac

Sub $200 gaming PCs. There are a lot of examples on YouTube that show they can be done, but that they can also be downright good performers for the budget minded gamer. But for some in this world like myself, the Macintosh life is just too ingrained to give up. Gaming on a Mac has long been laughed off, as many of the Mac product lines just aren’t capable of anything beyond lightweight gaming, and the computers that are capable are very high budget. But is it impossible for a Mac user to build a respectable gaming computer for less than $200? I decided to track down the answer to that question.

The Mac Pro

The 2006 Mac Pro. A beast long past its prime.

This is my new to me 2006 Mac Pro that I bought off of eBay for $85 plus $40 shipping or a total of $125. The particular listing drew me to it with its specs. An original Intel Mac Pro, or 1,1 that was equipped with two Xeon dual cores clocked at 2.66ghz, effectively a Core 2 era quad core setup. In addition, I was getting 6gb of ECC DDR2, and a relatively ancient Geforce 7300gt. All of this in the absolutely beautiful Cheesegrater Mac Pro chassis, which was pictured in very good condition. 

This would be the perfect basis for my $200 gaming Mac build. While it wasn’t going to run the latest MacOS, it was capable of running 10.11 El Capitan using unofficial patching methods and Windows 10 Professional would be able to handle the gaming side of things. All I needed to do was find some cheap storage, and upgrade that GPU with something much more respectable and I would be golden.

But that isn’t the computer that I ended up receiving. Instead, I received a Mac Pro in much rougher shape but at the same time, a one that was a pleasant surprise.

The Mac Pro(n)

The 2008 Mac Pro. Now with more cores and porno!


This is my new to me 2008 Mac Pro, 3,1 equipped with two Xeon quad core processors at 2.8ghz, for an effective 8 cores of computing performance. Inside its unfortunately damaged case, which included battered feet and handles, I found 2gb of ECC DDR2, an ATI Radeon HD 2600xt, and a Girls Gone Wild 2 dvd as a slightly revolting bonus. After a much needed HazMat grade sanitizing, the Mac Pro(n) was able to begin its journey from aged workstation beast to capable gaming machine. To get going I needed to purchase a couple of upgrades. Storage, RAM, and a GPU with $75 to work with. 

Upgrades Gone Wild

Graphics cards EVERYWHERE.

Getting a different Mac Pro than I had expected quickly threw my original upgrade plans out the window. My original plan hadn’t included any thought of RAM, as I had decided the 6gb it was coming with would handle the games I would be trying just fine. With what I received only having 2gb, RAM quickly jumped to the top of the priority list. While MacOS can be efficient with that tiny amount of RAM, Windows 10 was going to be unusable. And so, I took to eBay to find myself some additional ECC DDR2. Last time I had bought similar RAM was a couple of years ago, and I was able to find 32gb for roughly $30 shipped. Times have changed though, and the best I was able to find was 16gb for $25 shipped. While I could have gotten by with 8gb easily, it was only a $5 cost difference between the two capacities, and I decided to go bang-for-the-buck in this instance.

For storage, I decided to be extra cheap. While I would have loved to have bought a bargain basement SSD, using ~$20 of my remaining $50 for a 128gb SSD was not something I was okay with while still needing a GPU. I went ahead and grabbed two used 500gb Western Digital Blue hard drives for $5 off each Facebook Marketplace and called it good. One would be able to hold MacOS, the other would have Windows 10, and as a spry young person, I would be able to afford waiting a few years each time I need an OS to boot.

My final part that I needed was a better GPU. With only $40 left this would be a little tricky. Using a Mac Pro presents a few small issues as MacOS really only likes to run on a very small set of GPUs natively, and there are very few third party cards that are fully supported. With their limited supply, fully supported GPUs for a Mac Pro tend to demand higher prices than the Windows equivalents. Another issues stems from the PSU. While being rated for 980 watts, the PSU does not have any standard 6 or 8 pin connectors available to use. Instead, the motherboard can deliver that power through two mini 6 pin ports, which were included with the machine. But these issues could be worked around. Since I already had the ATI Radeon 2600XT that came with the machine, and was fully supported, I decided to use a second, unsupported card to do the lifting in Windows and gaming.

Not too long ago, I wrote about swapping my Vega 56 with an RX 460 I had laying around and whether it would meet my needs as a gamer. Well, it just so happens I had purchased that RX 460 off Facebook Marketplace for a whopping $40! Meaning, I could slap that card in the Mac and I would be in business! The RX 460 required no extra power beyond what was supplied by the PCIe slot, so the need for the mini 6 pin cables went away. As an added bonus, the RX 460 is partially supported in newer versions of MacOS so I could use it for the MacOS side as well.

OR, I would have if this computer supported the card. Turns out, the RX 460 requires SSE 4.2 support from the CPU to work on Mac, something the Harpertown Xeons in this Mac Pro do not have. So, for the second time in this gaming build, I am changing plans. Instead, I jumped online, and was able to acquire a GTX 670 4gb model for a steal at $37 locally. This card would handle everything I throw at it with ease, but presented a challenge of its own. Power. My particular GTX 670 required an 8 pin and a 6 pin connector to be powered adequately. The two mini 6 pin plugs on the mainboard can easily be adapted to two regular 6 pin connectors, but getting an 8 pin and a 6 pin would be harder to accomplish. I ended up having to buy a couple of adapters on Amazon to tackle this problem. The first adapter is a two mini 6 pin to single 8 pin cable, and the other is a dual SATA to 6 pin cable. This put me slightly above budget, having cost $12 for the two adapters, but I was willing to let that slide if it meant getting the 670 to work.

OR so I thought again. Turns out that my janky adapter strategy wasn’t going to work. The GTX 670 just refused to display anything when in the Mac Pro, despite working fine in other computers. So I had to rethink my plan again. This Mac Pro is no longer a computer. It is a rollercoaster. I don’t like rollercoasters.

Not wanting to spend a few more days waiting for a new graphics card to arrive, or have to buy another graphics card at all, I set about searching around my piles of parts looking for anything that might fit the bill. My savior came in the form of a GTX 660 Ti my friend’s dad had given me in a computer he no longer used. The card would provide me limited support in MacOS 10.13, but that would once again mean I only had to deal with the 2600XT when I needed recovery or the boot screen. The card also had lower power requirements and therefore hopefully better compatibility with the Mac Pro, needing only two 6 pin power connectors. For the sake of the budget, I went ahead and looked at local deals and eBay to see what a fair price would be for the 660 Ti, and came out with a figure $40. After struggling with the previous two card, it was a relief when the 660 Ti was able to boot into MacOS without issue.

Everything showing successfully in MacOS High Sierra.

Unfortunately, I had still needed to deal with Windows.

Installing Windows itself ended up being simple. This Mac Pro is too old to support Windows 10 through bootcamp, and installing straight from a USB drive was a no go as well. But working around this was easy! All I had to do was install it on a different computer and steal the hard drive! Or rather, take one of the two hard drives I had bought and shove it in another computer temporarily. First boot using the stock 2600XT worked great, and things were looking promising. But, like most of thus build, it all fell flat. Windows refused to show any output on the 660 Ti until I installed drivers for it, and Nvidia drivers refused to install while I was using the ATI card I had running alongside. While I could have just put the hard drive and 660 Ti back in the computer I used to install Windows, and install the graphics drivers from there I decided to make my life difficult and elected to fix the problem in the Mac Pro.

In addition to my 2008 Mac Pro, I recently bought a 2009 Mac Pro. That Mac Pro came with an Nvidia graphics card, the GT 120.With my patience wearing thin, I pulled the GT 120 from the 2009 and violently shoved it into the 2008, hoping and praying that perhaps two Nvidia cards would play better together than an ATI and Nvidia card like before. To my relief, this double Nvidia combo allowed the 660 Ti drivers to install and the card instantly became useable in Windows! With that taken care of, I was able to throw the 2600XT back in the system, verify everything still worked, and move on to gaming!

Using the $200 Mac Gaming Computer

A powerhouse computer sits next to an aging workhorse.

Using the Mac Pro on the MacOS side is throughly enjoyable. Even with its hard drive, applications feel snappy and the whole system feels responsive. Web browsing and video streaming is handled easily, and light photo editing happens without slowdown. Even though I have been accustomed to the blazing speeds my more recent MacBooks present, the Mac side of this gaming computer is perfectly usable for everyday tasks.

Switching between MacOS to Windows presents a small annoyance, but nothing too terrible. In order to boot into Windows, I had to plug the monitor into the 2600XT so that I could see the boot screen to make my OS choice, and then plug the cable back into the 660 Ti once Windows began to boot. Tedious, but not a deal breaker in order to get the benefit of both OSes.

In contrast to the MacOS side, the hard drive that Windows is installed on makes general usability very bleak. Apps take a long time to load and processes seem to randomly freeze up. Outside of gaming, daily tasks should be confined to the MacOS side of the machine unless you want to suffer endless frustration.

Gaming is a different story though.

Benchmarks

To test the performance of the $200 Gaming Mac, I selected a small set of games and Cinebench R23. The games were selected because they are ones that I have been playing recently and I believe them to be a good mix of CPU and GPU bound games. Where possible, I ran MSI Afterburner to get more in depth statistics, but for some reason it refused to cooperate with a couple of the tests.

Oh boy. That didn’t age well…


Starting with Cinebench R23, the Mac Pro yielded a multicore score of 3127 and a single core score of 407. Despite having 2 physical CPUs and 8 cores, the aged architecture and relatively low clock speeds show their shortcoming here, being handily beaten out by laptop chips, even those a few generations old. And to show how much progress has happened in the Apple lineup, let’s compare it with something newer. My new Apple Silicon based M1 MacBook Pro comes in at a multicore score of 7708, and a single core score of 1511, absolutely stomping the Mac Pro.

Moving on to the games, I started with Valorant. As a free-to-play game, it tends to run well even on modest hardware. Using the low graphical settings at 1440p, the gaming Mac Pro was able to average 59 frames per second, with 1% and .1% lows at 43 and 38 respectively. These numbers were gathered across three Deathmatch rounds, where I was able to perform about as well as I do on my main gaming PC. Which means I at least wasn’t last place. I would be perfectly content playing Valorant on the Mac Pro on a daily basis.

The next game was Destiny 2. Running at 1440p with low settings again, Destiny was very playable for me. Sprinting around and shooting enemies in the EDZ region, the Mac Pro provided an average of 35 frames per second, with 1% lows of 28 and .1% lows of 24. 30 FPS is fine for me, but for those looking to get closer to 60, lowering your resolution to something like 1080p will likely tickle your fancy a bit better.

Civilization VI provided a good test for the dual Xeons in the system. Running the built in benchmark, which simulates a late game scenario, the Mac Pro averaged 24 frames per second, with a resolution of 1440p and using the High preset. With the slow pace of Civilization games, 24 FPS works out alright and being CPU bottlenecked means you are looking at about the best you will get, even if you turned down settings.

Finally, I ran Cities: Skylines. This test was a little peculiar. Loading up a medium sized city of about 31,000 population, I was greeted with reported averages of 12 frames per second at 900p with high settings. Changing to 1440p and high presented zero change, with the reported average continuing to be 12 FPS. Despite that gameplay felt smooth, and I would have easily been able to play for an extended period of time. What makes this a strange result is that the city was built on a PC using the exact same graphics card, but an even weaker Core 2 Quad Q6600, where it averaged 24 FPS. Inconclusively, I am chalking this up to FPS counter error, I think?

Overall, gaming on the Mac Pro was fine for what I played. I believe that all but the newest titles would be enjoyable to play, assuming the CPUs are compatible with the games.

Conclusion

Is the $200 Gaming Mac practical? Is it something I plan to use moving forward? Is it something I recommend other people trying to replicate? No, no, definitely not. There were too many levels of torture involved in this build. And the need for additional hardware to get things working rules out all but those who for some reason have a million other computers lying around to assist your ill-advised scheme. It is also heavily dependent on someone sending you the wrong Mac Pro to get anywhere near the results I was able to get. But in most regards, this project was a success. If you really did want to put yourself through everything to build this Mac Pro, you would have a pleasant gaming experience in Windows, and a usable Mac side for daily tasks. But I think shortly into the experiment the question changed from “Can you build it?” to “Should you build it?”, and the answer to that question is a resounding “No”.

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