MacBook Pro – Gaming Rig

I love my rMBP. I have the “Late 2013” model, which means I’m one generation back from current – the “Mid 2014” model.

OS X with Citadel

OS X with Citadel

The difference is essentially that I have the 2.3 GHz (i7-4850HQ) with 6 MB on-chip L3 cache processor, instead of the 2.5 GHz (i7-4870HQ) with 6 MB on-chip L3 cache processor. All the other specs are effectively the same between versions.

With that processor, 16 GB of onboard RAM, a 512 GB SSD, and an Nvidia GeForce GT 750M with 2 GB GDDR5 memory video card, this sounds like a reasonably decent spec level to play video games. The issue of course being that most games are made for PC instead of Mac.

I haven’t been a gamer for a while (15 or so years). However, my son is now old enough to play Mass Effect, which is a series that I’ve wanted to play for almost as long as since the first game was released. My son currently plays it on his Xbox 360, and although it is fun to spend time with him while he is playing and we discuss strategy and options, I wanted to play as well. I had no interest in purchasing another game console, so that meant I would be playing the PC version. As my only “personal use” computer is my MacBook, that meant a Windows install. There are many ways to run Windows onto a Mac now. I use, or have used, most of them, so this goal wasn’t frightening.

Virtualization is the easiest way to run Windows on a Mac. The user continues to run OS X, and the Windows instance gets to live in a Type 2 (software with underlying OS) Hypervisor. Parallels, VMware Fusion, and VirtualBox are all hypervisors that I’ve used in an OS X environment. For the last few years I’ve been using VirtualBox exclusively on the various Macs I’ve owned to host my virtual machines. With the purchase of my current rMBP, I’ve added the change of running my virtual environments from SD cards, so as not to take up valuable real estate on the onboard SSD.

Where the VMs live

Where the VMs live

These cards host my Windows XP, Windows 7 x64, Windows 8.1 x64, and Ubuntu virtual machines. Since there are 2 VMs per card and only one SD slot in the Mac, with this method I can only run two of my virtual machines at a time.

My trusted virtualization model doesn’t work in this case anyway, as the games need to talk directly to the hardware. That means no virtualization – the Windows OS needs to be installed as a local OS.

Apple supports a local Windows install very easily with their Bootcamp product. Bootcamp will allow the user to partition the local hard drive, and then allows the user to select the boot partition (Windows or OS X) when the computer posts by holding down the option key. The negative to this model is that I did not want to sacrifice any of my precious SSD space to a Windows partition. The 512 GB is all I have at the moment, and there are no aftermarket drives available for the late-2013/mid-2014 rMBPs for expansion. Apple uses a proprietary non-M.2 PCIe blade SSD.

Now I’m to my third requirement (after no virtualization, and don’t partition my onboard storage) – I have to run this Windows installation from an external drive.

Bootcamp is no help. Bootcamp does not support installing / booting Windows from an external drive. However, there are several people who have done this with slightly older Macs, and I was able to take their work and make small changes for the current rMBP.

First, ignore this post:

Windows To Go

There are several reasons this is a bad choice for this operation. You have to use a USB 3.0 drive that is certified for WTG. This is a real need, not marketing – the USB stick has to present itself as an internal disk. WTG requires volume activation (no retail users allowed). Finally, even if you do built it, configure it for UEFI boot, and otherwise make it all happy, the Mac won’t boot to it anyway.

Here is the first useful post:

How Not to Install Windows on your Mac’s External Disk

This is a great / fun read that goes over the differences between BIOS and EFI, as well as explains why many of the things you’re going to want to try won’t work. He DOESN’T go as far as to explain how to actually accomplish your task.

Here is the second useful post:

install windows 8.1 to external disk

This one kind of works, but it resulted in a lot of bugginess for me. Your mileage may vary. It is very “cut to the chase” but it doesn’t give a lot of detail and hand holding for non technical users. 

Here’s the third and most useful post:

Mac: Install Windows 7 or 8 on an external USB3 or Thunderbolt drive without using bootcamp

Yay! Helpful info! Let me save you a little bit of time. First, you can’t install Windows 7 on a USB3 drive, and if you were thinking about installing on a USB2 drive, then moving to a USB3 enclosure, the rMBP only has USB3 ports, so it won’t boot to it anyway. Second, you should go for the Lacie thunderbolt drive, not USB. It’s faster, and works better for the install process. For me it was as easy as following the steps in that post (using an existing Windows 7 machine – on USB) to make the external disk UEFI bootable, deploying the installation image, and then booting to it. I did download the bootcamp drivers to that disk as we’ll, to allow installation of the hardware when I knew I wouldn’t be able to get on the Internet due to the NIC not being recognized.

If you don’t want an EFI partition on both your internal storage and your external disk, this post also looks interesting:

Guide: create external Windows 7 boot drive for Macbook

I couldn’t test it, as my internal disk is encrypted. Having an EFI partition on both disks does’t really bother me, but it should work.

With the information I’ve linked to, a thunderbolt / USB combo drive, and a copy of Windows 8.1, I now have a working Windows 8.1 install for my MacBook, and have been using it for games for about 3 and a half weeks. So far no blue screens, or any unusual behavior. I call this endeavor a success.

Windows 8.1 with Liara

Windows 8.1 with Liara

 And here we have the happy gaming machine…

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