Boot Camp versus Windows Emulators

By Mark L. Chambers

A number of excellent Mac applications let you run Windows in what’s called a virtual machine. Although your Mac is still running OS X, these emulators create an environment where Windows can share system resources such as hard drives, RAM, and even peripherals.

These Windows emulators have four big advantages over Boot Camp:

  • Versatility: Unlike Boot Camp, where you’re restricted to creating only one Windows partition (which must be running Windows 7 or Windows 8), Parallels Desktop allows you to create as many virtual machines as you have hard drive space. Plus, you can run multiple versions of Windows, or even other operating systems such as Unix, Linux, and DOS.

  • Portability: An emulator allows you to store your Windows installation on a separate hard drive — even a large-capacity USB flash drive! With Boot Camp, the Windows partition you create must reside on your Yosemite boot drive (which can sometimes eat up space on smaller-capacity MacBook drives).

  • Shared data: If you have Windows and OS X applications that you must run concurrently (such as FileMaker Pro on the Mac side and Microsoft Access on the Windows side) and they use the same data with both Yosemite and Windows, an emulator is your only option.

  • No need to reboot: With Boot Camp, you must reboot to run your Mac under Windows. Windows emulators don’t need a reboot.

Here are two major reasons to choose Boot Camp over a Windows emulator:

  • Performance: One word: speed. No software Windows emulator will ever run as fast or perform as trouble-free as Boot Camp. A Mac running Boot Camp is actually running as a true Windows PC, able to access all the system resources Windows demands without an emulator slowing things down.

    It makes sense when you think about it. Because you’re running Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion on top of Yosemite, your Mac has to devote a significant amount of computing time to just keeping OS X running. Some Windows applications simply won’t run well under emulation, such as today’s memory- and processor-hungry 3D games.

  • Peripheral control: If you’re running a software Windows emulator and you plug a USB flash drive into your Mac, which OS gets to use it? How about your digital camera or that external Blu-ray recorder?

    Although Parallels Desktop has all sorts of automatic and manual controls you can set to determine which operating system gets to use what, a Mac running Boot Camp owns everything you plug into it free and clear, with no troublesome conflicts between operating systems arguing over peripherals.

Many Mac owners consider that the most important advantage for Boot Camp is it’s free. You need a licensed copy of the full version of Windows you want to run, but there’s nothing else to buy.

Do not install Boot Camp without backing up your existing data on your Mac’s hard drive! Boot Camp modifies your hard drive. In case of catastrophe, you can always use your Time Machine backup to restore your Mac’s operating system and all your data — yes, that’s yet another good reason for you to pick up an external drive and use Time Machine on your Mac!