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Boot Camp vs. VM when running Windows on a Mac: How to select the best option

Running Windows on a Mac is no longer daunting, though choosing between Boot Camp or a VM still requires careful consideration. Here are tips for selecting the best method.

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Image: Dong Ngo/CNET

Running Windows on a Mac was once a process fraught with tribulation, though now it's a common operation that should be painless. With continued Mac performance gains, Boot Camp improvements, and two capable virtual machine (VM) technologies in VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop for Mac, Apple professionals have multiple options to reliably power Windows installations on Macs. The only trick is knowing which option—Boot Camp or a VM—works best for your intended Windows purposes. Here are recommendations for common scenarios.

SEE: Gallery: 10 screen sharing programs for Windows and Mac that make collaboration and support easy

Single proprietary Windows app

Likely the most common Windows-on-a-Mac need, many Apple professionals also require Windows due to the need to run one critical proprietary, often industry-specific, Windows application. Despite cloud-computing and web-based trends, some applications continue only providing full functionality when run within a dedicated Windows environment.

I possess such first-hand experience; an industry-specific professional services automation application powers my business' daily operations. While possessing mobile and web-based options, the program only provides full functionality—such as financial and accounting features—when run natively within Windows.

Unless the sole proprietary program possesses intensive processing requirements, such as is commonly true for video editing and three-dimensional drafting, running Windows within a VMware or Parallels VM typically proves most convenient. Tasks commonly completed using OS X continue to prove immediately available, while the single Windows application is just a few clicks away and behaves as if it's just another application needing to be opened within OS X. No reboot is required. No OS X applications or functions are sacrificed.

Recommendation: VMware or Parallels VM

Multiple proprietary Windows apps

Some Apple professionals must run multiple Windows applications simultaneously. An example is a Mac user who frequently manages workflow processes using a Windows-based industry-specific application and often enters customer-related information within a Windows-specific tool.

Such a scenario is trickier. A single universal recommendation is more difficult, but not out of the question.

Assuming the Windows applications don't require intensive system resources, running Windows within a VMware or Parallels VM will again prove most convenient for the same reasons a VM is advantageous when running a single Windows-dependent program, as described above.

But, if the Windows programs require considerable graphics and processor power, or if all the computer's memory is required to provide proper performance, Boot Camp may be required to deliver the most reliable operation. However, it's more likely that, if the proper Mac model is selected and possesses the correct video performance capacity and corresponding CPU and memory upgrades, a VMware or Parallels VM will prove best.

Most multiple proprietary Windows app needs I encounter require either a combination of Windows-specific browser plug-ins and the Windows OS or low-level resources but the Windows OS, meaning these applications can usually be capably accommodated using a VMware or a Parallels VM.

Recommendation: VMware or Parallels VM, with some rare exceptions as noted

Frequent and intensive Windows operation

Occasionally, some Mac users must run demanding Windows applications. Video editing, audio mixing, three-dimensional drafting, development testing, animation, production lighting, scientific and architectural applications can all stress even powerfully configured Macs. When such circumstances arise, Mac users are typically best served running Windows within its own environment using Boot Camp.

In such situations, Boot Camp helps ensure most all system resources are dedicated to the Windows installation. Many common functions—including less-demanding tasks such as internet access, email, printing, and file share access—can still be accessed from within the Windows environment for convenience sake, while the demanding Windows-dependent programs receive the benefit of additional CPU and memory resources, in particular.

Recommendation: Boot Camp

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About Erik Eckel

Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president o...

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