WINDOWS 10 ON M1 MACS: WHAT YOU CAN DO (VIRTUALIZATION, SORTA) AND CAN'T (BOOT CAMP)
Macworld|April 2021
VIRTUALIZATION IS KEY, BUT THE LACK OF A CONSUMER VERSION OF MICROSOFT’S M1 -COMPATIBLE OS KEEPS THE SITUATION IN DOUBT.
JON L. JACOBI

There’s no doubt that Apple’s new M1 Macs have shaken up the marketplace with its low power consumption and fantastic performance—even with nonnative Mac apps, surprisingly. But users who want to run Windows on the Mac are officially and natively left out in the cold.

Admittedly, those of us who run Windows on a Mac are a distinct minority. I run Windows 10 quite a bit on my iMac for professional reasons (and sharper small fonts), and the M1 Mac’s lack of Boot Camp support seemed to be a nonstarter for me. And after witnessing the M1’s scintillating performance in the testing for this article, I was not happy about it in the least.

Fortunately, the situation is far from hopeless. Thanks to Parallels (go. macworld.com/t2pa), the venerable Apple virtual machine software company, the Windows 10 for ARM preview will run on an M1 Mac with surprisingly workable performance. It’s hardly like running Windows natively via Boot Camp, but it’s not half-bad with native ARM apps.

Alas, Windows on the Mac involves a slew of “ifs” and “maybes.” Primarily, there is no guarantee that Microsoft will acquiesce to make Windows 10 for ARM (the required OS) available to end users. I’m guessing the company eventually will, given the upbeat moods of the participants I queried. But who knows? There are many forces in play.

ARM VERSUS ARM

Just in case this whole deal is new to you: Apple’s M1 (go.macworld.com/am1c) is a system on a chip (SoC), based on the Advanced RISC Architecture/Reduced Instruction Set Computing/Instruction Set Architecture (ARM RISC ISA). Thanks to unified direct-access memory, integrated GPU cores, and cores dedicated to common tasks (such as H.265 video encoding), it’s fast as all get-out.

But its most surprising trick is its ability to run x86/x64 Mac apps at more than acceptable (if not quite native) speeds. It’s faster than my 2015 iMac with an Intel Core i7. This is partly due to the Rosetta 2 install-time translation, but Apple also doused the M1 with some of what I call its “special sauce”—sly tricks that include support for x86 memory ordering, one of the main differences between Intel and ARM architectures.

ARM is hardly new. It’s in nearly every mobile phone, most portable devices, TVs, and more, though under licenses that allow the vendors to call their ARM implementation anything they want. Even Microsoft has supported ARM for quite a while, first with Windows RT (8.1/32-bit ARM), and now with Windows 10 for ARM.

The full Windows 10 for ARM is currently available only to OEMs, while end users must make do with a beta on the company’s Windows Insider Preview site. You can run most software (it’s a beta, so some x86 apps crash), but you can’t configure things like the desktop background without an activation key. I saw no way to grab one, so I didn’t.

The most recent Windows 10 for ARM betas add x64 to the existing 32-bit x86 emulation, so the OS can run just about anything written for Windows. However, emulation can be very slow. Unless Microsoft rewrites that code to take somehow take advantage of Apple’s special sauce, you’ll never be able to run heavy-duty x86/x64 Windows apps with acceptable performance on Apple’s M1.

Whether Microsoft is considering optimizing for the M1 is something I asked the company about, with no direct answer forthcoming. However, there’s an article (go.macworld.com/h2ts) on Microsoft’s Answer site about running the Windows 10 for ARM preview on M1 Macs. Hmmm.

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