Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows can now live nicely together without fighting -- if you've got either Boot Camp or Parallels Desktop for Mac. Here's how well they work.
Apple's Mac OS X operating system gets more and more compatible with the PC world with each new release -- it supports both general industry standards and many proprietary de facto standards, and it integrates cleanly with networks, back-end systems, authentication, and authorization systems like Active Directory, network storage, and other historically PC-centric enterprise assets. In fact, an increasing number of key enterprise features have become significantly easier to administer on a Mac than a PC.
Nevertheless, there is an entire range of products that require not just interoperability, but need an actual Windows operating system to operate, and it is this area that Boot Camp and Parallels Desktop for Mac both address.
Back in the spring, I took a close look at both
Apple's Boot Camp, which allows Windows XP to run at native speeds on Intel-based Macs, and Parallel's Workstation 2.1 which, while slower, allows Windows to run in a window inside Mac OS X, instead of requiring a reboot. At the time, both solutions were quite new -- Parallels had just come out of beta, and Boot Camp was (and still is) in beta -- but both options for running Windows on Macs proved themselves to be well worth considering, even in that early state.
Six months later, I was able to try them both again, this time on a new Mac Pro. Besides a recent change in name from "Parallels Workstation for Mac OS X" to "Parallels Desktop for Mac," I found that the latest version of the Parallels Mac virtualizer (Build 1970) has garnered a substantial increase in speed and additional maturity, but Boot Camp 1.1.2 (beta), while still getting the edge for speed, compatibility and graphics capability, needed a workaround to operate on the Mac Pro.
Boot Camp Vs. Desktop
In my battery of tests, which included office automation applications (Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Visio), Java code compilation, Photoshop operations, audio and video encoding, and a series of benchmarking applications, Boot Camp was faster across the board than Parallels Desktop. However, the gap is narrowing, and the flexibility that Parallels offers of being able to switch between Windows and Mac OS X environments and applications without a reboot is compelling. Parallels Desktop's new virtual machine installation process is simple and easy, and unlike Boot Camp, which supports only Windows XP SP2 and Vista, Desktop supports virtually any flavor of Windows, Linux, FreeBSD, OS/2, Solaris, or MS-DOS.
One area where Parallels is not gaining ground, however, is 3-D graphics, which still run slowly under Desktop, if they run at all. According to Parallels, the company is continuing to work on this issue, and promises significant improvements in the months ahead. Another ongoing limitation of the Parallels product has to do with the inability to encode data from CDs and DVDs, such as audio tracks from music CDs. This prevented me from running the cross-platform iTunes encoding test, and is an unfortunate shortcoming. (One solution is to work with CD and DVD data on the Mac side and transfer the files across as needed, using the shared folder feature of Parallels Desktop.)
Unfortunately, Boot Camp, which had in previous versions proved to be vastly superior to Parallels Workstation in speed and capability, as well as ease of use, was so difficult to work with on the Mac Pro review unit that it was practically unusable. Driver issues between the otherwise-excellent ATI Radeon X1900 XT card, the 23-inch Cinema Display, and Windows XP made installation and use of a Windows XP SP2 instance virtually impossible. Even attempting installation of Windows resulted in a total lack of video (black screen) until I replaced the Mac Pro's 23-inch display with an old VGA monitor.
After installation, however, the problem remained chronic. It turned out that this was an issue other users have faced, and I was able to find an effective workaround. The open-source program WinACD, once installed on the Windows side, solved the problem. However, it has the shortcoming of not being loaded until relatively late in the boot sequence, which effectively prevented use of multiple users on the test platform.
(The week after this review was complete, Apple released an EFI Firmware Update [v1.1] which solved the video/display issues I noted here.)
Which To Use?
Parallels Desktop continues to improve, and it is clearly the most flexible option for running Windows (as well as other operating systems) on Macintosh computers, for a very reasonable cost. Boot Camp still wins the speed and compatibility comparisons, and has the advantage of being a free download. But this latest round of tests highlighted the fact that, while a remarkable and workable product, Boot Camp is definitely still in beta.
Full support by Apple for Windows partitions on Macs is scheduled to be included in the next major release of the Mac OS X operating system, Leopard, due in the spring of 2007. The Mac virtualizer battle is about to heat up, however, with industry stalwart VMWare preparing to release a product for Intel-based Macs, though likely at a higher price-point than Parallels Desktop for Mac.
One thing is certain -- the options for running Windows on Macs keep getting better, and that helps makes the future look bright for an increasing number of Macs in the enterprise.
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