Heresy: Windows XP performance on a Mac

Heresy: Windows XP performance on a Mac

The Mac cult, er, I mean, community seems to be of two minds about the fact the Apple has switched to Intel processors for its computers: One group seems to believe that this is tantamount to sacrilege and Apple has forever sullied its good name. The other group thinks that this is just the right move to motivate all those poor Windows suckers (the meager other 89 percent of all computer users) to finally move over to the Mac platform--also known to some as "the light side of the force."

While my vastly oversimplified exaggerations might incur the wrath of die-hard Mac fanatics, the truth is that the rest of us can easily enjoy the best of both the Mac and Windows XP worlds on a single system--as long as that system is an Intel Mac. Apple's own Boot Camp Public Beta allows you to install Windows XP SP2 onto an Intel Mac, giving you a dual-boot system. Parallels takes a slightly different approach with its Parallels Desktop for Mac, a virtual machine application. Instead of Boot Camp's dual-boot approach, Parallels Desktop runs Windows XP directly on the Mac OS desktop (in what Parallels calls "near-native performance")--allowing you to run both OSs simultaneously and switch back and forth seamlessly.

The final version of Boot Camp is supposed to be integrated into the next major release of the Mac OS, Leopard--due out sometime when Steve Jobs probably thinks we'll least expect it. Expect to see a full review of Parallels Desktop for Mac on CNET very soon. To whet your appetite in the meantime, however, CNET Labs ran a few of its home-brewed benchmarks on a MacBook Pro with the Mac OS, Boot Camp, and Parallels Desktop to see how application performance stacks up between the three.

For our tests we used a 17-inch Apple MacBook Pro , running Mac OS X Version 10.4.6, with a 2.16GHz Intel Core Duo processor, 2GB of DDR2 SDRAM, a 100GB 7,200rpm hard drive, and an ATI Radeon X1600 graphics chip. Boot Camp was set up with a 10GB partition for Windows XP; while the Windows XP virtual machine in Parallels was set up with a 20GB virtual disk.

Photoshop CS2 image processing test
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Windows XP Pro SP2 (Boot Camp)
278
Mac OS X 10.4.6 (native)
501
Windows XP Pro SP2 (Parallels)
604
Note: Time in seconds

Strictly speaking, our Photoshop CS2 test isn't completely fair. The Mac OS version of the app does not run natively, but instead runs under Apple's Rosetta emulation layer. But the Mac version still outperforms the Windows XP version on Parallels. Our test is designed to be very CPU, memory, disk, and graphics intensive. Parallels just wasn't up to the challenge. Additionally, each Parallels virtual machine is represented only by a single processor thread. So despite the multithreaded nature of both Photoshop CS2 and our test workload, Windows XP on Parallels does not support multithreading. Score one for Boot Camp.

Microsoft Office 2003 test
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Windows XP Pro SP2 (Boot Camp)
756
Windows XP Pro SP2 (Parallels)
1810
Mac OS X 10.4.6 (native)
N/A
Note: Time in seconds

Our Microsoft Office 2003 test is a Windows-only test. There was no contest here: Boot Camp ran circles around Parallels, with Boot Camp running the test almost 2.4 times faster than Parallels. Score another one for Boot Camp.

iTunes encoding test
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Mac OS X 10.4.6 (native)
181
Windows XP Pro SP2 (Boot Camp)
208
Windows XP Pro SP2 (Parallels)
235
Note: Time in seconds

iTunes is an Apple app after all, so it's no real surprise that the Mac OS was the speediest on our iTunes encoding test. Boot Camp wasn't too far behind, and Parallels once again brought up the rear.

Quake 4 test
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Mac OS X 10.4.6 (native)
33.5
Windows XP Pro SP2 (Boot Camp)
27.9
Windows XP Pro SP2 (Parallels)
N/A
Note: Scores in FPS

Parallels doesn't officially support DirectX yet, but that didn't stop us from trying to run Quake 4 on it anyway. Alas, it was an exercise in futility--it did not work--and in fact, at one point, even forced a spontaneous system reboot! Surprisingly, with the game resolution set to 1,024x768, Quake 4 actually produced noticeably faster frame rates on our test than with Boot Camp. Perhaps the Mac has a future as a gaming platform after all?

Boot time
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Windows XP Pro SP2 (Parallels)
24
Mac OS X 10.4.6 (native)
26
Windows XP Pro SP2 (Bootcamp)
47
Note: Time in seconds

The one test where Parallels was the speediest was on our boot time test. The Mac OS was right behind it, with Windows lagging behind. But, hey, it's Windows--what do you expect?

But this also just goes to show the danger of drawing too many conclusions from this type of testing. Making adjustments to system settings, files that load at boot time, disk cache sizes, and so on can all have significant impact on not just boot times, but even on overall performance. A few tweaks to Photoshop CS's settings, and we probably could have gotten it to run faster on the Mac. If we spent more time tweaking Parallels, we probably could have beefed up its overall performance.

Other than our Quake 4 glitch, Parallels was very stable. And we truly appreciated the flexibility of being able to switch back and forth from the Mac OS and Windows XP by merely moving the mouse. As to the mundane tasks that probably make up most of your computing time (such as word processing, e-mail, and browsing the Internet), you're not likely to notice Parallel's performance degradation. I'll admit that I didn't spend a ton of time with Parallels, but what I did see was a useful, stable platform that allows me to have my cake and eat it, too.

 

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