The hidden costs of running Windows on a Mac

Summary:Thinking of running Windows on a Mac? You can choose Boot Camp or a virtual machine, but are hidden costs in performance for both options. You might be surprised to find which one is faster.

You can run Windows on a Mac. That’s a big selling point for Apple, which gives this feature a marquee position on its “Why You’ll Love a Mac” page. Apple pitches it as the way to run “specialty software.” You know, “that one Windows application … that’s not available for the Mac.”

That’s actually a pretty compelling pitch for me. I have a handful of Windows programs that don’t have Mac alternatives, and I have both a Mac and a Windows PC on my desktop. So if a virtual machine can handle both Windows and OS X apps gracefully, I would have a much easier time moving back and forth.

On the Mac, I originally installed Windows 7 on a Boot Camp partition. But after a recent memory and disk upgrade I’ve been looking at virtualization software for OS X, which allows me to run Windows without having to first shut down OS X. It’s not exactly seamless, but it works. Before you try it, though, you should learn about the costs—some of them not so obvious at first glance.

There’s the monetary cost of software, of course, but there are also some hidden performance costs. In this post I discuss both.

The cost of software

You can pay for virtualization software or find a free alternative, but Windows itself isn’t free. And if your can’t-live-without it Windows app is Microsoft Office or an accounting program or a point-of-sale system, well, you have to pay for that too.

Let’s run the tape:

  • Windows 7 Professional $250 Under Windows license terms, the only option a normal consumer has for Windows 7 in a VM on a Mac is what’s called a Full Packaged Product (FPP) license. (Upgrades are only allowed if you are replacing the installed copy of OS X or a previous version of Windows installed in a VM. OEM copies are allowed only on new physical hardware.) At the Microsoft Store, that shrink-wrapped product costs $300. You can find it discounted from legitimate resellers for roughly $250, so let’s use that price.
  • Virtualization software $0-80 I’ve been testing VMWare Fusion and Parallels Desktop 6 for Mac. A full license for either one costs $80. I've been able to find discounts that take the cost into the sub-$60 range. VirtualBox is a free option, but when I looked at it a few months ago it was behind the others in terms of Windows support. If you plan to use Boot Camp exclusively, you can skip this line item.

That’s a bare minimum of $250 on top of the premium cost you pay for Apple’s hardware. It’s at least $300 if you use commercial virtualization software, and possibly much more if you need to pay for additional licenses for Windows apps.

The hidden performance costs

What I found even more interesting was the decrease in performance that you get when you run Windows on Apple hardware. To measure performance, I looked at the raw data that Windows captures when you run the Windows System Assessment tool (WinSAT.exe). You can look at the five numbers that make up the Windows Experience Index (WEI), but the detailed numbers are much more illuminating.

I looked at these numbers on my late-2009 Mac Mini, with a decent Core 2 Duo CPU, 8 GB of RAM, and a 7200RPM Seagate Momentus XT hybrid disk. The latter two pieces of the puzzle are recent upgrades, with the disk being a substantial improvement over the original sluggish 5400 RPM drive. I have Windows running in Boot Camp and in multiple virtual machines.

In addition, I collected performance information from my colleagues Zach Whittaker and Christopher Dawson, both of whom have new MacBook Airs running Windows on the side.

I was shocked at the differences in performance. Click through to the next page for details.

Page 2: Performance hits, misses -->

Topics: Apple, Enterprise Software, Hardware, Microsoft, Processors, Virtualization, Windows


Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

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