The hidden costs of running Windows on a Mac

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.

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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, Hardware, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Processors, Software, Virtualization, Windows

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149 comments
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  • A good article, Ed. But just a few more points to consider

    A quick internet search revealed these WEI score clarifications published when Vista was introduced. (If Ed could update the following for Win 7 machines, perhaps that could be a useful bit of information.)

    A WEI score of 4.0: PCs of mainstream and high-end performance of 2006/2007, with the option of using demanding applications and games. Windows Media Center enables smooth playing and recording of HD video.

    A WEI score of 5.0: PC for demanding usage and for Windows Vista without any limitations. It meets the requirements for video processing, graphics and games needing high PC performance.

    A WEI score of 5.9: The best of 2006/2007 (at the same time as Windows Vista was introduced to the market)

    Any WEI score higher than 6.0, IMO, is useful for determining game rig performance bragging rights.

    As readers can see, Ed's published "Boot Camp" WEI scores indicate a solid Windows experience for dual OS uses of Apple hardware. However, even those "VM" WEI scores suggest a more than adequate performance capability for running MS Office Suite apps.

    Obviously, if a person uses apps in both OS environments on one computer and those apps are able to perform at an acceptable level, than any "performance hit" or cost penalty is irrelevant.

    Also, another point to reiterate is that when running Windows in a VM, the more RAM installed on the host computer, the better. (Personally, I have both a high end late model iMac with 16 GB of RAM and a SSD drive plus a 4 GB MacBook and both machines run Windows in a VM machine quite nicely.)
    kenosha77a
    • RE: The hidden costs of running Windows on a Mac

      @kenosha7777
      I agree - a very useful article. Well done Ed.
      Wakemewhentrollsgone
    • RE: The hidden costs of running Windows on a Mac

      @kenosha7777 Your correct. I use VM Fusion 3 and it's not like my native i7-920/SLi with 12 Gig RAM Monsterbut its' good for development and everyday work, and I get the best of all three worlds on one machine.
      ItsTheBottomLine
    • RE: The hidden costs of running Windows on a Mac

      @Ed Bott <br><br>"I have a handful of Windows programs that dont have Mac alternatives"<br><br>You probably meant to say "Mac versions", since there are always "Mac alternatives" to similar programs in Windows.<br><br>It's unfortunate that Windows users don't have the same option to run Mac programs that have no Windows versions (or even Mac OS X itself).<br><br>"Thats a bare minimum of $250 on top of the premium cost you pay for Apples hardware. Its at least $300 if you use commercial virtualization software, and possibly much more if you need to pay for additional licenses for Windows apps."<br><br>That's stretching things a bit. Virtual Box is actually quite a nice free alternative to the other commercial virtualization applications. And since many Windows users already have boxed copies of a newer version of Windows that they bought for their PCs, for many Windows users the price of using their Windows programs on a Mac would be $0 using either Virtual Box or Boot Camp.<br><br>"I looked at these numbers on my late-2009 Mac Mini, with a decent Core 2 Duo"<br><br>You are talking about an older, bottom-end Mac that is only about 1/3 the speed of the current model. If you ran Windows on a bottom-end Dell from 2009 you would not see any speed difference.<br><br>Windows running in a virtualization application does take a minor speed hit (usually not noticeable unless you are using graphics intensive programs). This is because it is running in emulation.<br><br>But Windows running in Boot Camp has no performance hit at all! Windows runs at full speed in Boot Camp just as it would on a similarly configured PC.
      Harvey Lubin
      • Did you actually read this post?

        @Harvey Lubin

        I mentioned VirtualBox in the paragraph before the one you wuote. I even included a link to it. I explained why I didn't choose it. (It didn't support Aero until the version that was released literally three weeks ago.)

        Half of my figures are from NEW 2011 MacBook Airs. The single hottest machine Apple sells right now. And the late-2009 Mac Mini is neither slow nor cheap. It's a very competitive machine, especially after it's been upgraded.
        Ed Bott
      • RE: The hidden costs of running Windows on a Mac

        @Ed, Yes I read your article.

        Your reply misses the points entirely, and responds to things that I did not write. I did not write that the 2009 Mac mini was "slow", only that it is much slower than the current model, which is true.

        But the main points which you seem to have missed are:

        Point: Any virtualization of an OS on any platform (including on Windows PCs) will have a performance hit due to the fact that it is running in emulation, and NOT natively.

        Point: Running Windows and Windows programs in Boot Camp is exactly as fast as it is on a similarly configured Windows PC. It is NOT slower!

        Point: For many Windows users switching to a Mac, the price of running Windows and the Windows applications that they own is $0. Saying that the cost is "a bare minimum of $250" is totally untrue!
        Harvey Lubin
      • RE: The hidden costs of running Windows on a Mac

        @Harvey Lubin

        "For many Windows users switching to a Mac, the price of running Windows and the Windows applications that they own is $0."

        Most windows users have windows via OEM, which is not legal to move to a vm. An incredibly small percentage would have a full retail version.
        rtk
        • Nope

          Microsoft has clarified that you are allowed to run an OEM license of Windows 7 & 8 on a VM, if you even bother with an OEM license of Windows 8, full retail versions are usually cheaper. You just cannot run it on more than one virtual machine or physical computer without the applicable license.
          cmwade1977
      • RE: The hidden costs of running Windows on a Mac

        @Harvey Lubin
        "It's unfortunate that Windows users don't have the same option to run Mac programs that have no Windows versions (or even Mac OS X itself)."
        I've been running a PC for well over 20 years, and never have I thought "If only I had a Mac to run this one Mac-only software..."
        Don't mistake my words, I've had many Apple products (Mac Mini, iPad, iPod, and even a quad core Mac Pro). The lack of software seems to only be in one direction. PC software is not lagging behind Mac software by any stretch of the imagination. I've never thought, if only I had a Mac, I could run that software. But the onslaught of Parallels, bootcamp, and other technologies tends to prove the opposite of that concept. Even software that could have been considered within that realm has recently been castrated by Apple themselves (Final Cut Pro to Final Cut X).
        At the same time, I am now left with a Mac Mini that is useless unless I put Win7 on it and give it away, an iPod that is so tied up in iTunes (a walled garden of DRM) that no one wants it for free, and a towering hunk of beautiful aluminum (Mac Pro) that has zero possibilities of upgrade beyond RAM, that left to consider the Total Cost of Ownership for any of it. Oh, about the iPad.. simple, no Flash, less than 20 useful apps out of the countless available, no Office apps (compatible or otherwise), and as of yet hasn't been anything more than a toy or device for consuming media (ala Netflix relegated).
        Also, OSX dejour has gone from good to great to garbage with each subsequent release. Relying on some 'social' form of service (Apple forums) is a complete cop-out from actual paid employees researching true answers. In short, moving from one side of the fence to what Apple zealots consider the greener side, has proven quite the opposite. Get your Sh@# together, and then continue your rants. Otherwise, stay off blogs with your personal bias'.
        TechNickle
        • So many false statements here...

          It's tough to figure out where to start, but I will take them in order.

          There are indeed some great Mac Only applications, most of which can be used for repairing Windows hard drives WHEN they fail. Yes, there are windows equivalents of these programs; however, they don't do near as good of a job at fixing the hard drives, even when made by the same company. Let's not look at Apple's office suite vs. Microsoft's suite.

          Now, the real kicker for me is the App Store, you buy a piece of software ONCE and you can LEGALLY install it on up to 5 of your computers. Now, you are going to say, ah, but I have installed it on 5 computers and one got stollen. No problem, simply deauthorize all of your computers and authorize the other 4 again (entering your username and password once on each system) and whatever system you replaced the 5th one with and you can still reinstall it there. No serial numbers, etc. to remember either.

          Final Cut Pro to Final Cut X was indeed a mistake, which Apple has fixed and managed to make even better in the end.

          How is the Mac Mini or Mac Pro tower useless? They can still go online, they can still run Windows, OS X, and virtually any program. The Mac Pro can have the following upgrades (and many more): Hard Drive, RAM, Processor (Make sure it is compatible with the motherboard and OS X though), PCI cards, USB Devices, Firewire, etc. Almost any device will just worked when plugged in, yes OS X MAY have to go online to get a driver or two, but it will work. Macbook Pros can also have similar upgrades performed. I have a Macbook pro running 16GB of RAM and I know I can put in at least a 1TB hard drive, possibly larger if I ever need the additional space, although right now I have a 750GB hard drive, so that is sufficient for my needs.

          iTunes has eliminated DRM on all music, so that argument no longer holds true. There are also tons of programs (free and paid) that will remove iTunes DRM.

          The iPad does have Office compatible apps, look at DocsToGo, Mariner Software, etc.

          You accuse Havey Lubin of personal bias, that is not where the bias is. I am not saying Apple products are without flaws, any product will have them, what I am saying is that you didn't even come close to get anything right in your comment.
          cmwade1977
    • A good article??? Not even close...

      @kenosha7777

      This is common sense psycho-stupid babble... Special Eddie just whote that running windows in a VM will suffer some performance loss and that you will have to pay for the OS and VM SW (if not using boot camp)... DUHHHHHHHHHH!!!! A potty trained chimp could tell you both of those things and it would have been far more entertaining.

      You know what... that's not a bad idea... Get yerself a chimp outfit Eddie... Considering all the worthless drivel you write, it might seem acceptable if everyone thought it was coming from a potty trained chimp.
      i8thecat3
      • RE: The hidden costs of running Windows on a Mac

        @i8thecat3
        No I bet you a whooole lot of people don't know that running windows under a vm takes a performance hit. For a lot of people especially fanboys they think running windows on a mac is magical and instant with no cost in any way.
        rengek
      • You're so busy typing insults...

        @i8thecat3

        That you missed the whole part about running Windows in Boot Camp. WHICH IS NOT VIRTUALIZATION.

        Now please go away before a moderator drops a house on you.
        Ed Bott
      • Your Point Exactly?

        @i8thecat3---Sounds like you choked on a hairball on #3 cat, till you turned blue, and suffered consequent irreparable brain damage to ' whote' a post like this.
        Seriously, what does your diatribe add to the discussion, in terms of making any points at all on a technical plane/basis?
        PreachJohn
        • Anybody Else Have This Same Problem?

          @ZDNet--After years on ZDNet, suddenly my password was ' incorrect'. I changed it back to what it always was, and so got back in to post.
          What's going on?
          PreachJohn
      • RE: The hidden costs of running Windows on a Mac

        @i8thecat3
        Have you been put in your place yet, or should we start a fund for your chimp outfit?
        TechNickle
    • RE: The hidden costs of running Windows on a Mac

      @kenosha7777 - agreed and well-said.

      I do use Parallels 6, only for MySQL server and Toad, and MN Office 2010 (Windows version). The Mac version is garbage, so I'd rather pay the "hidden costs". If Microsoft actually bothered with some effort ("work", the opposite of "being lazy"), then we wouldn't need to chuck out $250 for Microsoft Windows on top of Office, which no longer has upgrade pricing as well... <i>Things that make you go 'hmmm'...</i> :)

      I've used Photoshop for Windows via Parallels and can play kiddie 3D games like Unreal Tournament 2004 at very high frame rates on my 2009 Mac Pro (desktop tower).

      There's no much that actually demands a computer's full CPU attention in Windows, and most of those apps (not all) can be found on the Mac as well.
      HypnoToad72
  • The I/O improvement

    Is normal. This is what the Mac OSX provides by disk caching. It is also what makes putting servers in a VM a good thing. You get most (if not all) of the effect of a SSD (the original kind, not the flash memory).
    jessepollard
    • Nope, that's not it

      @jessepollard

      You can see the effects of cac hing in Sequential Reads. That's why I chose Random Reads. The differences are caused because in Boot Camp Apple restricts I/O to the IDE channel, whereas the virtualization solutions recognize the AHCI/ATA channel and load the proper drivers.
      Ed Bott
      • RE: The hidden costs of running Windows on a Mac

        @Ed Bott

        Do you have a reference for this or is it based on observation? I did some searching and couldn't a mention of this issue.

        It would be useful if you mentioned which version(s) of Boot Camp you were using.
        philip.robar@...