Which Mac is better for running Windows?

Which Mac is better for running Windows?

Summary: MacTech releases its annual head-to-head analysis of how VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop perform with various types of tasks and running both Windows 7 and Windows 8. It also examines how various Mac models performed.


This time of the year Mac managers may look forward to the new product announcements at Macworld/iWorld Expo, the advertisements during the Super Bowl, and MacTech Magazine's annual extensive analysis of VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop performance on a variety of system configurations.

When I spoke to Neil Ticktin, MacTech Publisher, at last week's Expo in San Francisco, he stressed that the report isn't a product review. Instead, he said it is a "benchmarking analysis," meaning that it measured specific performance characteristics as well as issues that came up in the testing. It didn't look at product features and each products user interface, and how it might work in a specific workflow with certain applications, services and data types. This is also often the grist of discussion at MacTech's Boot Camp conference sessions.

In both cases, as with other MacTech benchmarks, we tested performance of the types of things that everyday users typically do. In this case, it was not just testing the raw performance of the Windows OS, but also commonly used Windows applications. Like last time, based on reader feedback, we paid attention to 3D graphics and gaming. We also looked at how well the products performed supporting the new Retina screens.

The goal was to see how VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop performed, under Windows 7 and Windows 8. Furthermore, we wanted to see some of the differences with different Mac models with different graphics and processor types.

And MacTech found differences.

For example, the report looked at how the Windows virtualization was handled on a variety of sizes of the Retina Display. Interface items such as icons looked much sharper on the Retina Display (we would hope so). I was interested by a problem with Windows 8 launching IE in a small-size virtual machine window. Parallels handled the issue while VMware Fusion couldn't launch from the Start Screen interface.

Windows 8 has requirements for screen size that can be an issue for the smaller screen Macs such as the MacBook Air 11". We noticed this when launching Internet Explorer on Windows 8 in a smaller virtual machine window. VMware Fusion cannot launch the version of IE shown on the Windows 8 Start Screen, but it can launch Internet Explorer 10 from the Windows 8 desktop (it's a different version of IE). Parallels, on the other hand, is able to launch both versions of Internet Explorer.

Both VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop tout support for Apple's Retina displays. In reality, however, they do it quite differently. In VMware Fusion, you check a box to enable Retina support. When you do that, the resulting window is tiny (about one quarter the size). What we didn't realize until VMware explained it to us is that at that point, you need to manually change the size of "text and other items" in Windows (7 or 8). To do this, within Appearance and Display, you select the "custom sizing options" and choose the scale (about 200%, but since Windows has a bug at 200%, it's best to use 199%).

In Parallels, you simply choose whether you want scaled (for those items that aren't using scalable elements), Best for Retina (scaling items and giving you higher resolution) and More Space (which gives you the maximum screen real estate). This is similar to how Apple gives you choices for the Retina display in OS X's Display preference pane. Parallels takes the approach of automatically changing the sizing of items, as well as making other adjustments to the interface so that they are reasonable sizes automatically.

However, both VMs have "incredible clarity of text and objects" on a Retina Display, MacTech said. Even better for Windows users on Macs with Retina Displays, the Parallels experience is better than the usual native Windows experience.

Trust me when I tell you that, in person, the difference between Retina on Windows and is even more astounding than for OS X.

One worry with earlier iterations of these virtualization architectures was overhead. In this year's analysis, Parallels came out on top by a few percent. MacTech said that neither solution will bog down a Mac's performance. However, there was a battery power difference between them, which could be important for some machines and some users. It appears that Parallels moved stretching out battery life up the new feature list.

The result is noticeable. In our tests, Parallels got 40 percent more battery life on a virtual machine sitting idle than VMware Fusion on Windows 7. This was a couple of hours more of battery life on the MacBook Pro.

If you are using your virtual machine for typing in Word, or using Excel, this is a reasonable approximation. That said, if you are "pegging" the CPU on your machine, or using an optical drive or hard drive, the difference will be less. For most travelers, the light CPU impact of Word/Excel or Internet Explorer use is probably what they are using a virtual machine for.

Check Out: MacTech announces BootCamp II seminar schedule

MacTech ran extensive real-world tests on games and 3D performance. Now, I don't really consider this important in a business setting. If you are working on graphics or video, then you should be in OS X, not Windows. But I recognize that everyone needs their own pastime.

The report also made an interesting point about memory with virtual machines, that may be counterintuitive for our experience with everyday native OS computing.

When it comes to RAM, less is often better. You see, the virtualization products need to do a lot with RAM, so only increase it if you really need it and make sure you have enough actual RAM in your hardware. As a general rule, 1GB virtual machines are the way to go for best boot, suspend and resume times. If you are running virtualization, try to have 8GB or more actual RAM in your machine.

There's so much more in the report. As Ticktin said, each customer will have to determine which solution fill be best for their workflow and clients. Each will provide reasonable performance and good value.

Topics: Apple, Hardware, Operating Systems, Windows, Windows 8

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  • parallels

    i find parallels to be far superior experience for anyone who needs "windows in mac". however, if only occasional windowsing is required, it is better to go with a free product (virtualbox,player)
  • Why run that garbage OS?

    People switch to Mac to get rid of that hideous, ugly and broken piece of garbage. That includes me too :) So why should Mac users use it when OS X is the world's best OS until and unless it's necessary to do so
    • unless it's necessary to do so

      There's plenty of Windows only software :-(. Pretty dumb statement.

      Besides try actually using Windows 7 or Windows 8 and you'll see both are far from garbage. Broken? Ugly, that's personal but you'd be hard pressed to say OS X is prettier than Windows. It's a whole lot of grey.
    • I dont like OS X....

      I was not pleased with my mac. Windows offers a lot more choice in every possible ways... and if you pay well, windows pcs are as good as Macs... people love to compare 2000$ Macs with 400$ PCs just to convince themselves that they are not being fooled by the logo.
      Simon Tupper
      • I agree.

        I own both. Yet, I use Windows 7 99% of the time. I kept trying to like the Mac for months, because I was getting fed up with Microsoft, but the interface is just horrible when using 3 large monitors and running a dozen applications. It just makes no sense at all to put the menu for an application on a different monitor than the application itself. I also hated not being able to increase the button size in different applications when running at 2560x1600 on my 30" monitors. In a couple of the apps I was using, the buttons were unreadable 1/8 inch squares. Plus, there was no consistency in the menus and functions between applications. I eventually gave up and put the Mac on another desk with a single monitor because it works better that way. I only use it for creating music now.

        If Apple were to overhaul the OS X interface to allow interface scaling at the OS level and attach the menus to the application windows, I'd definitely try using it again, particularly with the Windows 8 Fisher-Price interface being the alternative.
    • so 90% use garbage OS for what reason?

      Windows has always been better than OSX, more so with Windows 7 and now 8
    • Why is it the best?

      Details please or else you come across as an addled marketing troll.

      I'm not saying you are, but without details you're not going to win people of your argument - whatever THAT is.
    • Reformed Windows Users !

      Very similar to a reformed smoker a reformed Windows user quits the platform with a chip on their shoulder. By your statement "unless it's necessary to so" speaks volumes that you know more of Windows than OS X
      I run OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, Windows 8 and Windows 7. All three platforms have their qualities.

      The Perfect Line up is a MacBook Air 13" 2012 Dual Booting via Boot Camp Mountain Lion and Windows 7 on VMware Player.

      To catch the phrase "nothing runs Windows better than a Mac" Like it or not or just live with it.

      Windows is far from garbage or are the withdrawal symptons becoming too much to bear LOL.
    • garbage

      Obviously because you wanna run an app which is not compatible with OSX.
      Jean Mathis
  • I'm still waiting for a reason to put Windows on my Mac

    For 27 years there hasn't been one!
    Laraine Anne Barker
    • me too, never felt need for Mac

      After Win8, I find OSX more outdated and bland
  • VMWare

    I use VMWare Fusion after tossing Parallels in the trash. I'm surprised it wasn't mentioned in your article. Much faster experience and much easier to work with when adding any platform. I run not only Windows but several Linux variations and my MacBook Pro doesn't even hiccup once. I did add more ram for a total of 8 gigs.
  • OsX is fine

    But the MacMini will be blurrier with my 1440x900 monitor, as opposed to when I hook it up to the larger 1080p one.
    D.J. 43
  • What number are you at? What was that, all of them you say.

    The life of a Windows user by the numbers. (1) When your PC is hit by a virus, Again or (2) tech-support has you on hold, Again or (3) Norton 360 freezes Again. (3) Everything you buy a new printer it crashes your computer when you install Again . (4) You have the Software Updates blues Again. (5) Your system backup will not restore. Again (6) You did a clean install, Again ( (7) Your arms are cramping up due to the fact you just purchased a 24" Windows 8 touch screen. (8) You're stuck with window 8
  • The last time I tried,

    Bootcamp's nvidia drivers were old, so I went to nvidia's website. This was late-2010 or so. nvidia's site said no Mac driver was available so I'd have to go through Apple.

    A few months prior to that, I was able to obtain a Macbook Pro 2009-friendly nvidia driver and I'm glad I never deleted it, because Apple's version was so obscenely old.

    It was the first dent in the armor, and the armor is the claim Apple ties drivers to the hardware and OS. When going to nvidia provided a more stable, faster solution than what was in boot camp's drivers, and it was appalling to deal with 64-bit Win7, much less back it up...

    but that's nothing, compared to temperature issues. No $2500 laptop should get even close to 90C, never mind higher than it...
    • Old Nvidia Drivers

      Of course from 2011 onwards the MacBook Air had the Intel 3000 HD Graphics Moving up to the Intel 4000 HD Graphics in 2012. The latter being far superior IMHO
  • VMWare Fusion or Parallels Desktop?

    I've used both. Mostly Fusion for the last few years. It seemed to do a better job at recognizing peripherals, especially anything USB. The differences between them were quite minor until it came to support. This past October the latest Fusion revision crashed my system any time I tried to just bring the application up. It took FOUR MONTHS for them to resolve a critical show-stopping problem, sending logs, reinstalling etc. Parallels, on the other hand has been able to resolve any issues in a timely manner. I've since switched to exclusively using Parallels. I do windows development on my Mac Pro. Had I depended exclusively on Fusion I would out of business. When products are roughly equivalent, my deciding factor is who can I depend on when something goes wrong. Having needed support from both, the choice was made for me by the support response and resolution I received. It is an important part of making a choice that pretty much all software comparisons between the two fail to take into account. Now you know.
  • Back in the day... a long time ago...

    When Mac was younger, using 68k processors, the Commodore Amiga using the same 68k processor at the same clock speed could emulate a Mac faster than the real Mac due in part to extra processors in the Amiga custom chip sets that took some load off the main 68k processor. You could run up to OS8.x nicely on your Amiga. I could run Win95 too but emulating the intel processors was a lot slower on the fastest Amiga 68k systems. These days, if I want to see a new OS running on my Amiga display, I need to break out something like VNC, but then my beloved Amiga is just a dummy terminal. Time moves on.
  • "Nothing runs Windows 8 better than a 2012 13" MacBook Air or MacBook Pro"

    Yes you read my opening quote correctly. The latest generation MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. By using the native OS X Boot Camp Windows 7 and Windows 8 will out perform most High End Laptops and Note Books. With the Intel i5, Intel 4000 HD Graphics and 4gb RAM the performance is little short of amazing.

    The Ultimate Dual Boot being Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion and Windows 8

    enough said.
  • PC vs. Mac

    Oh no, not one of those tired old arguments again! I thought we were over this: just pick the one you like and shut up!
    Max Peck