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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A story of responsiveness

Performance is not just about MBps, FPS and milliseconds. To the typical user, performance equals responsiveness. Does everything feel snappy? How quickly can you switch from one application to another? Is there a visual lag when bringing up a browser window or playing video? How quickly do menus and sub-windows of your applications pop up (and close)? Over the past few weeks I've gotten a pretty good impression of how Parallels Desktop 7 runs Windows 7. And I didn't just use it on my MacBook Air, but also on my 17" MacBook Pro and even played around with it on a Core i7 3GHz iMac with 8 GB RAM for a couple of days.

My conclusion: while Parallels is an incredible technical achievement, the Windows power user will notice a drop in performance. This drop ranges from quite significant (gaming, video encoding, heavy multitasking) to just a bit of an annoying lag. For example, Parallels 7 produced noticeable delays when running IE9 with more than 10 tabs. Switching between these tabs on Boot Camp, however, is instant. Even keyboard input lags behind ever so slightly. Also, when running under high usage, audio stuttered every once in a while, which is annoying when listening to music but an absolute "no go" when running professional audio applications on Windows.

Looking at all the benchmarks, you'd think that running Parallels Desktop 7 would be quite frustrating. But for most people, it's actually not. If you're just doing some basic office applications on your Mac, you will likely not feel a difference. Folks who are doing some advanced multitasking and perform CPU/GPU intense tasks should stop and think twice. Is the convenience of running both Lion and Windows side-by-side worth the performance loss?

Performance winner: Bootcamp.

Convenience

Boot Camp makes your Mac feel like a Windows machine. You hold down the "ALT/OPTION" key during boot up, select your Windows partition and you're up and running in Windows 7. While it gives you the full-on Windows experience, it has its quirks.

Parallels is pure awesomeness when it comes to convenience, usability and integration. Seriously, I was blown away by it. Not just by the smooth installer and the built-in OS download feature, but by the level of perfection the folks at Parallels worked at the integration. First, there's "Coherence" mode which brings all your Windows applications and windows to your Mac desktop:

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The apps even show up in OS X's dock. Even more impressive: Quick launch icons and the Start menu are easily accessible:

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While this coherence mode is stunning and has been perfected over the past few versions of Parallels, it's still a CPU sucker. Both my MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro's fans were running at their absolute peak while I was switching between Mac OS X and Windows apps in coherence mode. It's a great feature, but in dire need of some speed optimization.

If you want, you can also go full screen and work with Windows 7 as you normally would. The only way to get back to OS X then is by moving the cursor to the top of the screen and -- boom -- the Mac's toolbar appears. This full screen mode even works across multiple displays.

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A shared folder makes exchanging files between the host and guest OS fairly easy. Also, the level of hardware integration deserves much credit: Parallels literally forwards all hardware devices to the OS, such as a Wi-Fi dongle or a USB sound card. Yes, I managed to get 5.1 surround sound via Parallels to my home theatre. Impressive.

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