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The MacBook Hybrid

Written by on November 23, 2008

My new MacBook Pro arrived a few days ago, and while I have always had a Mac, my work is centered on Microsoft technologies. So my main computer, for the last 8 years, has been a Dell computer (at home), and an IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad at work... But now I can do everything on the Mac thanks to virtualization, and it is so cool!

Switching to Mac, as the primary place to work, is not easy when you rely on Windows only products. For instance, our main development tool is Visual Studio 2008, and you cannot get that on a Mac, nor can you switch to an alternative. The other problem is that I currently do not want to buy Mac licenses of all the products I got. Adobe CS4 alone costs a gazillion greenbacks. Office is cheaper, but still costs $135.

On my old Mac I had Parallels. It's a virtual machine that allows you to run Windows in a "virtual window", and it was terribly slow. This was mostly because my old Mac only had 1GB of RAM, and it was a Mac Mini.

With my new MacBook Pro I wanted to solve this particular problem. And what I did was to buy a high-speed hard disk and add 4GB of RAM. That should solve the hardware performance issues.

I also turned away from Parallels and instead bought VM Fusion. In all the reviews I have seen on the net, Fusion is not only faster but also more capable than Parallels.

...and it works brilliantly!

How it works

The great thing about VM Fusion is that you can run Windows applications in a mode called "Unity". This allows you to run Windows applications like it was a native application on your Mac. Here is a screenshot where I am listening to iTunes (Mac), writing this article (Word 2007/Vista), checking something in Chrome (Vista), and keeping tabs on my RSS feeds in NetNewsWire (Mac).

And apart from the Vista border in the Windows programs, it all looks like the Windows applications was a natural part of Mac OS X.

Here is another screenshot where I am running Photoshop CS3 (Windows version) while finding the images I need in Safari (Mac).

...or what about this one. Managing files in the Mac OS X Finder and Windows Explorer completely simultaneously (it even supports drag and drop between them).

And the last example is the dock, where Windows applications are handled just like any other application.

It is unbelievably cool!

...and it is fast

Of course, the big question is... is fast enough? Yes, it is incredibly fast.

I ran the PassMark Performance Test to see just how fast it was. It felt pretty snappy, but I wanted to see some figures.

I tested the following setups:

  • Lenovo ThinkPad T61, 2.0 GhZ, 2GB RAM, Vista Ultimate
  • Lenovo ThinkPad T61P, 2.6 GhZ, 3GB RAM, Vista Ultimate
  • Dell Inspiron 9400, 2.0 GhZ, 2GB RAM, Vista Ultimate
  • MacBook Pro, 2.4 Ghz, 4GB RAM (2GB for Vista), VM Fusion running Vista Ultimate (full screen mode)
  • MacBook Pro, 2.4 Ghz, 4GB RAM (2GB for Vista), VM Fusion running Vista Ultimate (Unity mode)

...and here are the results:

I am completely blown away. Running Windows Vista, in a virtual machine, in Mac OS X, on a MacBook - is faster than running Vista directly on a Lenovo ThinkPad T61P (and "P" is the high-end model).

How can this even be possible? How can Windows be faster on a Mac, running inside a virtual machine? It defies any form of logic. My MacBook is now officially the fastest Windows computer I own... and it is not even running Windows directly.

There are a few downsides to all of this. While Windows applications are overall faster, 3D performance is severely lacking. You cannot play high-end 3D games, or use 3D design applications. It simply cannot translate 3D performance through VM Fusion fast enough. Not that I care about that, that is what Xbox 360's is for.

The same goes for video. Video in a window is not a problem, but video in full screen is. But why use Vista for playing video? Why not just use VLC directly in Mac OS X.

There are few other quirks, mostly related to Unity mode (not in full screen). One is that there is an occasional "stutter" when you start to drag and drop your mouse cursor. And copy/paste rarely works (but it does in fullscreen).

So the top tip of the day is...

If you want a really fast computer for running Windows applications...
get a MacBook Pro.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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