Parallels Desktop vs. Boot Camp: Which is best for running Windows on a Mac?

Parallels Desktop 7 promises Apple users the best Windows experience on the Mac. But is it actually better than running Boot Camp? We put both solutions to the test.

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All these nice comforts aside, performance is the #1 factor for many users when it comes to virtualization. If you're running a video editing suite, playing games, converting audio, or doing some heavy multitasking on Windows, you need it to perform as fast as possible without bogging down the rest of your system.

To see how much of an impact you can expect, I put Boot Camp and Parallels through a series of benchmark tests. My test bed is a Core i7 1.8GHz, 4GB of RAM, Intel HD 3000 and a 256GB SSD -- the maxed out MacBook Air 2011 model. To make sure that these tests are not impaired, I turned off features that might negatively benchmark performance such as Windows Update, unnecessary network connections, scheduled Windows tasks, some resource-intense services and SuperFetch, which intelligently populates memory with frequently used data. In order to get accurate results, I repeated each test three times. Here are the results:


Booting Windows natively under Boot Camp is a bag of hurt: The Mac just sits at the blank screen for several seconds and moves over to a DOS-like white cursor on a black screen before it finally launches Windows 7. This procedure takes a total of 45 seconds on my MacBook Air -- that's the time it takes from powering until the second I see the desktop. Even the cheapest Windows 7 laptop beats that. Starting the virtual machine using Parallels takes exactly 11 seconds. Win!

However, the fact that the desktop is visible doesn't mean that Windows is fully booted -- this is where the last phase of the boot actually begins, which includes launching services, initializing network connectivity and running startup applications. To measure the full boot time, there is no better tool than Microsoft's own XbootMgr -- a little boot tracer included in the Windows Performance Toolkit. It logs every single boot activity and gives you various stats to not just troubleshoot PCs but also to determine exactly how long the boot procedure takes. To test this, I ran XbootMgr using the following parameters:

"C:\Program Files\Microsoft Windows Performance Toolkit\xbootmgr.exe" -trace boot -traceFlags BASE+CSWITCH+POWER -resultPath C:\TEMP

The results?


Windows 7 needed more than 2 minutes, 35 seconds to finish up the entire boot process under Boot Camp. Parallels finished the task in 2 minutes, 17 seconds. Clear winner: Parallels Desktop 7!

Application launch performance

Next, I wanted to see how fast applications launched under either system. AppTimer helped with this task, as it determines the exact time (down to the millisecond) it takes from clicking on a shortcut until the application starts responding to user input. It measures both the first "cold" launch (where the data comes from the hard disk) and the subsequent "warm" launches (run from memory).

Internet Explorer 9: According to AppTimer, the cold launch took .9 seconds and all subsequent launches needed 0.75 seconds under Boot Camp. Parallels slowed things down a bit: IE9 took 1.2 seconds for the cold launch and exactly 1 second for all subsequent starts.


Outlook 2010: Under Boot Camp, starting Outlook 2010 took 1.4 seconds (0.4 seconds when launched again). Under Parallels it took 1.9 seconds to cold launch and .7 seconds for subsequent launches.


To be sure, these are small differences, but they add up! All your programs, their features and your data will not respond as fast using Parallels.

Synthetic benchmark: PCMark 7 and CrystalMark

I have come to love PCMark 7 as a reliable way to determine overall PC performance. While it is a synthetic benchmark, it does a great job of simulating real-world loads such as DX9 games, video transcoding, web browsing and virus scanning.

And if you thought that Parallels Desktop 7 had some issues in my application launch test, you're in for a very bad surprise:


Performance dropped by 40% when using Parallels Desktop 7. First I thought that this massive drop was due to hardware constraints of the virtual machine (2 cores, 2GB RAM), but some of the results simply can't be explained by the limited hardware. I looked at the detailed graphs and found some interesting facts:

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