Apple’s Metal API and World of Warcraft running at 5K resolution

Apple’s Metal API has already improved graphics performance in World of Warcraft. But how does the game run at 5K resolution on the iMac?

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In yesterday’s post I talked about how Apple’s Metal API has made a big difference in my World of Warcraft experience. I’m getting higher frames per second and overall smoother graphics while playing the game.

However, I goofed by not discussing the specific resolutions I was running the game at on my 5K iMac. So let me clarify, the numbers I presented yesterday were running at the default 2560 x 1440 resolution.

Some folks have been wondering how the game would perform with Metal running at 5K on my iMac. So I’ll cover that in this post, but before I share the numbers let me explain a few things about changes in the Legion pre-patch.

Blizzard's new graphics setting menu

Blizzard used to have graphics settings in WOW such as “Low” “Good” or “Ultra” but now, in the Legion pre-expansion patch, the system has changed to numbers that range from 1 to 10.

The 1 setting is obviously the lowest and 10 is the highest (sorry Spinal Tap fans, there’s no option for 11). Anyway, the screenshots you see below are of the game running at 5K at each level of graphics setting.

The numbers: World of Warcraft running at 5K in Orgrimmar

For these screenshots I went to an area with a reasonable number of characters and NPCs on the screen. I initially wanted to take them in a battleground with lots of stuff moving around, but that was impossible because what was on the screen was inconsistent, and the point of these screenshots are to show you the frame rate at each level of graphics settings at the 5K resolution.

For this informal test, I went to Orgrimmar and hovered in flight form in front of the auction house. As I did this characters were moving all around me, and you’ll see the frame rate go up and down.

Note that I’m running WOW on the third macOS Sierra beta. 

Here’s the specs for my 5K iMac:

Late 2014 model

4 GHz Intel Core i7

32 GB of RAM

4 GB AMD Radeon R9 M295X video card

You can see the specific graphics settings in each of the screenshots below. Sometimes the frame rate was better at a higher setting than a low setting, probably due to the people moving around on the screen in Orgrimmar.

You can see the frame rate right below the System menu.

I’ll list the numbers here for those who don’t want to bother looking at the screenshots:

Setting 1:     35.8 frames per second

Setting 2:     36.1 frames per second

Setting 3:     38.2 frames per second

Setting 4:     35.7 frames per second

Setting 5:     33.1 frames per second

Setting 6:     31.8 frames per second

Setting 7:     29.7 frames per second

Setting 8:     29.1 frames per second

Setting 9:     27.4 frames per second

Setting 10:   28.4 frames per second

The recommended setting for me is 7, so that’s what I’ve been using to play at 5K. It strikes a good balance for me between luscious eye candy, and very solid performance whether I'm out questing or gathering, or battling the evil and filthy Alliance in battlegrounds.

All in all, I think that the performance of World of Warcraft at the 5K setting is quite good. Bear in mind that these numbers all reflect sitting in Orgrimmar, which is quite laggy at times anyway. The Orgrimmar numbers are not necessarily what you will experience with the Metal API in WOW if you leave Orgrimmar and go to less congested areas.

Here are the Orgrimmar screenshots in order from the 1 setting to the 10 setting:

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I found that I got better FPS when I was out of Orgrimmar’s congestion. For example, see the screenshot below of me hovering at Angler’s Wharf in Pandaria with the game running at 5K on the 10 setting. I was getting about 40 frames per second there. Obviously if I went with a lower graphics setting I'd get an even higher frame rate, but I wanted to see what I'd get at the 10 setting.

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Should you run WOW at 5K?

All of this brings up the issue of whether or not it’s worth it to run World of Warcraft at the 5K setting versus a lower screen resolution. My advice is to play around with the settings and see what looks and runs best for you.

I think WOW looks fantastic on a 27-inch screen at 2560 x 1440 or at 5K. I’ve opted to run it at 5K on the 7 setting and that seems to be a sweet spot for me. Your mileage may vary and if you want a higher frame rate then do consider running at a lower resolution. It will still look great, and you'll get even better performance.

Bear in mind though that some games don’t even offer a 5K setting. World of Warcraft is one of the notable ones that do run at that screen resolution. So don’t be disappointed if you find a game that uses Metal in macOS but doesn’t run at 5K.

Metal makes a difference regardless of screen resolution

I’ll finish here by noting that Metal really has made a significant difference running World of Warcraft on my iMac, whether it’s at 5K or a lower resolution. Everything is smoother and I’m getting overall higher frame rates, even in heavily congested places like Orgrimmar.

If you’re a Mac WOW player and you haven’t already bought the Legion expansion, go for it. The pre-expansion pack game play changes are great, and Metal will breathe new life into your Mac’s WOW performance.

Update: Blizzard has clarified in a post in the World of Warcraft forum exactly what the 5K setting means in the Legion expansion. It turns out that the render is set to 50% by default, which means that it’s actually rendering to a 2560 x 1440 backbuffer.

Here is the quote from Blizzard in its entirety:

Assuming you are running in Fullscreen or Windowed mode, resolution should change the game world's resolution; however, for retina display macs, it has half the effect by default. Retina display macs default to a render scale of 50% in legion, which means for what ever resolution is selected, the game world will be rendered at half that resolution.

For example, a 5k iMac with a resolution of 5120x2880 will default to a 5120x2880 resolution with full scale, crisp, UI and will render the game to a 2560x1440 backbuffer. The main motivation for this is because every mac with a built in retina display currently ships with a mobile GPU that has trouble rendering the game at full resolution.

If you want to increase the game resolution without changing the UI, you can change the render scale slider in the Advanced tab to anything you want (65%, 75%, 100% etc). 100% is the WoD default and default for non-retina macs.

SSAA (supersampled antialiasing) sets the render scale to 200% to do its supersampling, so in the iMac's case, SSAA would render the world to a 10240x5760 backbuffer, apply the AA and then supersample the backbuffer to the screen, which unsurprisingly would bring that mobile GPU to a screeching halt FPS wise.

It's also worth noting the AA options dropdown on the first graphics settings page will set your render scale to the default value, 50%(retina mac), 200% (ssaa) or 100% (everything else). If you want to change your AA mode/settings without changing the render scale, you need to change your AA mode/settings from the advanced tab. The AA dropdown on the first page is a set of presets. If you don't want to use the limited set of presets, you need to change the AA/render scale options from the advanced tab exclusively.

More at the World of Warcraft forum

So what does this mean for Metal’s performance? Well if you go into the Advanced tab on the Settings menu in WOW and you change the Render Scale from 50% (which is the default at the 5K setting) to 100% you get about half the frame rate.

I did just that when I was at Anglers Wharf in Pandaria and went from about 41 frames per second to about 20.1. You can see for yourself in the screenshot below.

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Now the question arises: Does changing the Render Scale make enough of a difference visually to be worth the lower frame rate? To me it isn’t worth it as I could not see that much of a difference in how the game looked. It’s slightly sharper but that’s about it.

Your mileage may vary of course and I urge you to test the setting yourself to see which one you prefer. I went back to the default 50% setting since my eyes can’t see much of a difference. Note that you don’t have to jump from 50% to 100% in the Render Scale, there are other options between the two.

I hope that clarifies things for folks that were wondering about the Render Scale setting. Yes, it’s somewhat disappointing that the frame rate drops like that but you can also try customizing the default graphics settings for each level from 1 to 10.

So if you have it set to 10 at the 5K setting, with the Render Scale at 100%, try tweaking things like the Shadow Quality, Liquid Detail, etc. and you may get a bit better frames per second performance.

All of this does make me think that Apple would be wise to add more powerful video cards to its 5K iMac computers in future releases. My iMac is the very first 5K iMac, so I suspect we’ll see significantly better performance in future machines.

As for me, I’m still quite happy with the improvements Metal has made to my World of Warcraft experience. Things might not be perfect, given some hardware constraints, but overall they are significantly better than when WOW was running with OpenGL.

Update 2: Just for the heck of it, I kept the Render Scale at 100% at 5K and then started cycling through each setting from 1 to 10 while hovering in flight form at Anglers Wharf in Pandaria.

At setting 1, I got about 52.5 frames per second. At setting 5 I got 32.7 frames per second, and as you can see from the screenshot in my previous update, I got around 20 frames per second at setting 10.

Please excuse me for not doing 10 more screenshots for this, but if you try it out you’ll likely get similar numbers on your 5K iMac.

Here are the screenshots of setting 1 and setting 5:

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So running World of Warcraft at the 5K resolution with the Render Scale at 100% is quite possible, and you should still get very decent numbers if you opt for a low to medium level of graphical eye candy.

Once you get past low to medium (at least on my older 5K iMac) the frame rates start to drop. At that point you’ll have to decide if the lower frame rate is worth the extra eye candy. My choice would be the higher frame rate since I prefer a smoother experience to the maximum amount of eye candy.

One thing I noticed though is that running WOW with the Render Scale set to 100% caused some crashes when I changed the graphics setting from one level to another. That may be due to something on Blizzard’s end since the patch is so new, or it could be that I’m running WOW on the third macOS Sierra beta. I’m not sure but hopefully it will be worked out by the time the final version of macOS Sierra ships in the fall.

Did you miss a post? Check the Eye On Apple home page to get caught up with the latest news, discussions and rumors about Apple.

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