Running Windows on a Mac (Part 1): Lion vs. Win7 performance shootout

Windows on a Mac is an alluring option for many users. Here's a look at what you can expect.

Tempted by the beautiful Mac hardware? Need or want to run Windows? This 3-part series is your ultimate guide to running Windows on a Mac.

If you're one of the vast number of Mac users who, like me, love Apple hardware but either hate Mac OS X or simply can't work with it for whatever reason (gaming? business policies?), running Windows on your Mac sounds like the perfect option.

Be warned: There are some major concerns regarding performance, battery life and quite annoying usability quirks that Apple decided not to fix in their Boot Camp software.

But don't let that bog you down! In this three-part series, I'll discuss the ups and downs, the gotchas and benefits of running Windows 7 on a Mac -– and offer tips for making your Mac + Windows life easier.

Running Windows on a Mac, part 2: The good, the bad and the ugly
Running Windows on a Mac, part 3: The complete how-to

In this first article in the series, I explore two of the main criticisms when it comes to running Windows 7 on Apple hardware: Performance and battery life. Part 2 will discuss the usability quirks you can expect both on the hardware and software side. Part 3 will detail all the steps necessary for installing Windows 7, getting the latest BootCamp 4.0, running modified drivers, tweaking Windows to run better on Macs and what hacks and tools make your "Mac + Windows" life easier.

Considering Virtualization for serious work? Forget it

Anyone who needs to get some serious work done is not going to use virtualization products like Parallels Desktop or Vmware Fusion. While both solutions allow you to install Windows inside a virtual machine and run Windows applications nearly seamless on your Mac desktop (which is nice), it's merely a compromise. It's ok if you're living on the Mac side of the fence and need that one Windows application, but it's certainly not an option if you decide to run Windows applications full-time and need to get some serious work done: in a recent comparison, ZDNet's Ed Bott found that the virtualization layer and the lack of proper access to native Nvidia and Intel graphics drivers makes for an inexcusable loss in performance. You'll end up sacrificing up to 50% of your Mac's CPU power and a huge chunk of graphics performance. And while you gain a bit more disk speed (especially on SSDs), it just might drive you nuts knowing that you just spent a four-digit sum on a device that's constantly running at half-throttle.

[ See also: Make Parallels 6 work with Mac OS X Lion ]

Going the Boot Camp route

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If you're planning on using Windows applications most of the time, Boot Camp is the way to go. It allows you to create a dedicated NTFS partition, install Windows 7 "natively" and use the Boot Camp software to set up all necessary drivers. In this scenario you're essentially at Apple's mercy to deliver quality drivers and software on a regular basis to keep your system up to date. Unfortunately, the Boot Camp team (if there is such a thing) doesn't seem to care much about its Windows users: Even the latest Boot Camp version 4.0, which comes as part of OS X Lion, has outdated drivers, such as the Nvidia driver pictured at right, which is dated January 2011.

[ See also: OS X Lion requires Windows 7 for Boot Camp ]

Furthermore, AHCI (Advanced Host Controller Interface), is not supported under Windows, which prevents you from using the entire SATA bandwidth and doesn't give you essential disk performance features such as NCQ (Native Command Queuing). In essence, the lack of proper care from Apple means that, from a pure performance standpoint, you're running a compromised system and there's not much you can do about it.

Is this performance shortcoming noticeable in real life? See the test results below.

Battery life: Not a good story for Windows

MacBooks generally sport excellent battery life: My MacBook Pro (mid-2009) originally clocked in at about 5.5 hours using Mac OS X, largely thanks to the effect of the built-in switch between the 9600 GT (performance setting) and the 9400M (energy saving setting). Unfortunately, that option isn't available on Windows 7 and that hasn't changed with the latest AMD Radeon offerings available in the 2011 MacBook Pro lineup. Apple keeps the low power embedded GPU (such as the 9400M or the Intel HD Graphics 3000) hidden from Windows and drains battery life.

[ 6 Free Tools to Make Windows and Mac Play Nice ]

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