Losing Boot Camp for Arm Macs is no great loss

Apple says that Boot Camp, the Windows dual-boot feature of MacOS, is going the way of the dodo when the first Apple Silicon-based Macs are released. While it's a feature that may be missed by some, it's really no great loss. We explain why.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Can we talk about Boot Camp for a few minutes? Boot Camp is a utility that allows Intel-based Macs to boot into a native Windows operating system.

Boot Camp is essentially a side-effect of the architectural design of Intel-based Macs. Fundamentally, Intel-based Macs are very close in implementation to PCs, often sharing some of the same off-the-shelf components. It was almost inevitable (at least from an engineering perspective) that a boot loaded that could load Windows would be available for these very PC-like Macs.

What wasn't inevitable was that this feature would come from Apple. That was a bit of a surprise. But Apple has historically been a hardware-centric company and if selling a few Macs that could run Windows would sell a few more Macs, nobody at Apple felt a strong need to stand in the way.

Introduced in 2006 as a beta of OS X Tiger, Boot Camp has now been with us for 14 years. I have run Windows on my Macs during all of those years, but I haven't always used Boot Camp. In fact, most of the time I use Parallels and virtual machines rather than dual boot.

That's what we're about to discuss: Dual-booting vs. virtualization, especially as it pertains to the new Apple Silicon-based Macs just announced at WWDC 2020.

Say goodbye to Boot Camp

So, let's cut to the chase. Boot Camp is not going to make it onto Apple Silicon-based Macs. In a discussion between Apple uber-fan Jon Gruber and Apple VP of Software Engineering Craig Federighi, Federighi said that Boot Camp wouldn't make it onto the new Macs and that "virtualization is the route," citing the efficiency of modern hypervisors.

The big question is this: Should we care that it's going away? I say "no," and here's why.

Intel Boot Camp vs virtualization

When you run Windows in Boot Camp, you win some and you lose some. You win the fact that Windows is interacting directly with the hardware, without going through a virtualization or hypervisor layer. In theory, this provides for faster performance. You are running an actual Windows PC, not a simulation of a Windows PC.

You lose the ability to run Windows and Mac apps at the same time. You lose the ability to copy and paste between Mac and Windows applications. You lose the ability to spin up multiple configurations of Windows depending on what you need. You lose the ability to move your entire Windows installation to another machine merely by copying a file. You lose flexibility.

But you do save about a hundred bucks with Boot Camp because you don't have to buy a virtualization application like Parallels.

In theory, if the performance under Boot Camp was radically better than the performance under virtualization, then Boot Camp would be the undisputed winner. But is Boot Camp performance all that and a bag of chips?

In three words, not so much.

Let's look at the core question: Who would want to use Boot Camp vs. virtualization? The answer: Gamers. Gamers would generally want to be able to use the full speed of graphics cards, enjoy the bare-metal speed of the native processor, and tap into the full power and might of the native machine.

But no serious gamer in their right mind is going to game on a Mac unless they have no choice. Sure, Macs are adequate for gaming. I like playing Cities Skylines on my 2013 iMac with internal GeForce GTX 780M graphics card. But Cities Skylines is a simulation game, not a first-person shooter. It just doesn't use the same kind of cycles.

If you really want a powerful Mac for gaming, you might think you should get the $6,000+ Mac Pro. But according to Cult of Mac, gaming on the top-of-the-line Mac is "unsurprisingly awful."

So, if gaming on a top-of-the-line, insanely expensive Mac is terrible, surely gaming on other Macs is going to be -- let's be charitable -- less good.

Let's be clear. Macs are not architected as triple-A gaming machines. Macs are architected as Macs, even those with x86 chips and nearly off-the-shelf GPUs.

The bottom line is simple: There is no gaming performance benefit to using Boot Camp other than gaming might suck ever so slightly less than when virtualized. Bare metal or not, performance gaming sucks on a Mac.

Virtualization isn't so bad

For anything other than gaming, virtualization isn't bad. In fact, when I did performance testing of my iMac running Windows in Parallels versus my previous top-of-the-line $4,000 Windows PC, I found the iMac ran Windows tasks an average of 13% faster.

I ran Windows in Boot Camp on a dedicated Mac and it was OK. Not great, but OK. By contrast, I've been running Windows in Parallels for seven years now, on a variety of machines, and I have no complaints. It runs just fine.

Now, to be fair, I always run Parallels on well-configured Macs with faster processors a good amount of memory. If you starve any OS, it will slow down and if you feed it, it will do well by you. If you configure a Mac with at least 16GB RAM and a processor that runs on more than pedal power, you should be fine.

All that brings us back to the Arm Macs

Windows, of course, is x86-based, except for the random Arm-based machine like the Surface X, which runs x86 instructions in emulation. For our purposes, when we're talking about Windows on Arm Macs, we're talking about traditional x86 Windows, not the Windows for Arm implementation that's only available to OEMs.

As our next caveat, we need to admit we have no idea how powerful the Apple Silicon-based Macs will be. The development kit version released now is using a Mac mini enclosure with what's essentially an iPad inside. We can assume that Apple will drive up its processor power over the years because it has such a good track record of beefing up its own processors.

So, it's a fair assumption that the Apple Silicon-based Macs will have reasonably powerful processors. It's even a fair assumption that after a few years, the Apple Silicon-based Macs will have ludicrously powerful processors.

Those processors should be strong enough to emulate x86 CPUs and run Wintel without too much difficulty. The biggest challenge will be how well Apple and Microsoft get along in terms of licensing, but since Microsoft's already developing Office for the Arm Macs, we can be reasonably sure the company won't arbitrarily stand in the way of getting x86 Windows running in emulation on Apple Silicon.

Really, it's just a matter of when.

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