Windows vs OS X: which is faster?

Apple hardware is everywhere, and if you don’t already own a Mac, you may well be considering one for your next PC. In our reviews, the MacBook Pro 13in with Retina display and the 27in iMac both sit atop the A-List in their respective categories, while the MacBook Air received a Recommended award. Even in business, Mac desktops have become a viable choice, thanks partly to their ability to run both OS X and Windows, whether via a virtualisation package such as Parallels, or via Apple’s Boot Camp dual-boot system.

But which system should you make your main operating system? OS X has the advantage of better security and better integration for things such as multitouch gestures and function keys, but Windows has its own strengths, including more games and broader support for legacy software.

OS X and Windows are based on different kernels, with different approaches to multitasking and virtual memory

One factor that’s difficult to quantify is performance. OS X and Windows are based on different kernels, with different approaches to multitasking and virtual memory. What’s more, while many mainstream applications are offered on both platforms, they’re implemented in different ways, as dictated by the different platform architectures. As such, they perform the same jobs quite differently.

With that in mind, we set out with a stopwatch to time how long OS X and Windows took to complete a variety of common desktop tasks. Our mission was to find out whether Apple’s native OS gives a performance advantage over Windows, or whether it’s actually slower.

To ensure our results were representative, we tested the OSes on the same hardware – a pair of mid-range Mac systems with relatively limited power, where performance could easily be a real-world issue. One was a 2008 iMac with a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo E8135 processor, 3GB of 667MHz DDR2 RAM and a 250GB Hitachi Deskstar P7K500 3.5in hard disk. The other was a 2011 MacBook Air, with a 1.6GHz Core i5-2467M processor, 4MB of 1,333MHz DDR3 RAM and an Apple SM128C SSD.

Both machines were set up as Boot Camp dual-boot systems. Since most Mac users keep their operating system current, we used the latest release of OS X 10.9, Mavericks; for Windows, we used the most popular version of the OS, namely Windows 7 Home Premium, running natively on the hardware.

Test 1: Browser performance

We started our tests by looking at web-browser performance. After all, these days we use our browsers for everything from sending and receiving email and working on documents to watching movies and playing games.

To get an all-round picture, we tested each platform with a selection of five benchmarks. The SunSpider, Kraken and Octane tests focus on JavaScript performance, reflecting the general responsiveness of apps such as Gmail and Google Drive. The CanvasMark and Peacekeeper benchmarks assign more weight to the graphical and entertainment capabilities of HTML5, giving an indication of each platform’s multimedia performance.

We first carried out these tests using the browser bundled with each OS – Safari 7 on OS X and Internet Explorer 10 on Windows 7. Our graphs below show the results across both browsers on both platforms. The first shows scores from the Octane, CanvasMark and Peacekeeper benchmarks: these all return absolute scores, so taller bars represent better performance. The Kraken and SunSpider benchmarks return results in milliseconds, so here a lower score is better.

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