I last looked at Windows gaming options on OS X in 2010; the choices haven’t gotten any better. However, Parallels 7 was recently released and boasts improved Windows performance in a virtualized environment, so it’s time to take another look.
I tested these three games using my 2011 15-inch MacBook Pro under OS X: Lord of the Rings Online, EverQuest 2, and Age of Conan. Of the three, Lord of the Rings Online ran the best, Age of Conan ran the worst, and EverQuest 2 ran “just ok.” Parallels 7 still does just Direct X 9, so games like Lord of the Rings that take advantage of Direct X 11 won’t run perfectly.
For benchmarks, I used my current Windows-on-a-Mac gaming setup, which involves both Apple’s own Boot Camp utility (which lets you run Windows natively) and CrossOver (which lets you run Windows apps in OS X without actually installing the Windows OS itself).
The last time I looked at Windows gaming on the Mac, Parallels’s performance noticeably lagged behind the frame rates I got in CrossOver. With Parallels 7, frame rates in both were much closer, getting around 50 FPS in LotRO and 35-40 in EverQuest 2. And since you’re running games in basically a native environment, unlike in CrossOver, you can get games up and running with a minimum of fuss. CrossOver often requires extra configuration and patience to get games running. Also, if you’re close to filling up your Parallels drive, it’s easy to resize it.
I didn’t notice any obvious performance differences between Parallels accessing a Boot Camp partition or Parallels running off its own .pvm file (Parallels’ own native Windows installation container). Both seemed to give me the same frame rates and load times. Even when I put Parallels into a position for it not to succeed, like playing a game while using Handbrake to convert a video file, my MacBook didn’t come to a girding halt. While it was slower, I could still play the game.
I noticed one consistent issue in playing all the games: right-clicking with the trackpad to look around was uncontrollable. If I plugged in an external mouse, its right button worked just fine. I could get around this problem by adjusting my keybindings in-game to something funky like pressing alt-contol-arrow button, but that’s really a pain to get used to.
Also, you’re going to take a performance hit running in a virtual environment. Running the games in anything other than Full Screen mode (you can still alt-tab or Mission Control back to your OS X apps) in Parallels seemed to cause problems. I had numerous issues loading games past their login screen in Coherence mode; the same problems didn’t crop up nearly as often in Full Screen.
If you play any game or in any situation where reflexes or timing really matter, like a multiplayer shooter or during a raid in an MMO, I can’t recommend a virtualized solution at all. In those cases, you’ll need to be running the game in Boot Camp (or, OS X if you’re lucky and that’s an option).
The bane of my computing existence is Windows’ activation process. Given the nature of my freelance work, I’m often blowing my activation limit and need to call Microsoft to get it reset. If you use Boot Camp and create a Parallels virtual from that, you’ll use up two activations.
Also, of all the games I looked at, Age of Conan ran horribly on Parallels, averaging out to about 8 FPS. I was getting 25 in Boot Camp, so it’s not like it’s a stellar performer anyway. I also noticed the avatars in Conan weren’t smooth, as I could see the polygons that made up their shapes under the skinning when running the game in Parallels.
I’m pretty happy with Parallels 7 for gaming. Having current hardware has a lot to do with it, but Parallels seems to at least come close to the performance I’m used to from CrossOver, without the hassles. After a week or so of testing, I’m going to delete my CrossOver game installs and instead use Parallels for Windows gaming, and Boot Camp when I need to get really serious.