Five years ago, youíd have been pretty much screwed for an elegant solution. Now, Iím happy to say, weíre spoilt for choice. There are many solutions, great solutions, for running Windows on your Mac, and which is the right one for you depends entirely on what kind of Windows apps you need to run and how heavy your Windows usage will be. Read on for a guide to the three main ways to install and run Windows on your Mac.
Do I Even Need Windows?
Before you even start on this strange adventure, I recommend thoroughly searching out Mac alternatives to your required app/s. Itís cool to be able to run Windows on your Mac, but I still wouldnít do it if I didnít have to. Adding another operating system to your Mac can take up plenty of hard drive space, RAM and other system resources depending on which method you go with and will, at least to some degree, taint your experience in Mac OS, even if only by keeping you out of it. More powerful machines with more RAM and faster CPUs will handle running dual OSs in parallel better, but thereís always a cost.
Use the Googles or check out the following sites for common equivalents before you take the plunge:
Option 1: Run Pure Windows via Boot Camp
If you want to run plain vanilla Windows on your Mac, either as your full-time operating system or something you can reboot into whenever needed, thereís nothing faster than Boot Camp. Boot Camp is a free technology from Apple thatís built into your Mac if you have a version of Mac OS at least as recent as Mac OS 10.5 (Leopard). It allows you to choose between Mac OS and Windows when you turn on your Mac, and it works beautifully. Once installed, when turning on your Mac (after hearing that warmth-inducing startup chime), you can simply hold down the Option key to see an icon for each operating system. Click one, and youíre done. Easy.
And setting up a Windows installation using Boot Camp isnít much harder. In fact, itís much easier than installing Windows on a self-assembled PC, as all the optimal drivers for your Macís components are installed in a single bundle from your Macís installation disc. This is a killer implementation from Apple. Your function keys, trackpad and graphics card drivers are ready to go right out of the box.
To get started with Boot Camp, all youíll need is a recent version of Mac OS (at least 10.5) and a Windows installation disc. If you havenít taken the plunge and tried Windows 7 yet, this may be a perfect opportunity to upgrade. Windows 7 is a big improvement over all previous versions of Windows and I highly recommend it.
Windows performance on Mac in Boot Camp is excellent and on par with equivalent models on the PC side. In fact, in 2007 the then-current Macbook Pro model was benchmarked against its equivalent non-Apple counterparts and hilariously earned the highest score when running Windows Vista in Boot Camp. 'Full' Windows performance and efficient use of system resources are Boot Campís strong suit. Follow the steps below to get started!
To get started with Boot Camp, open Finder and navigate to your Applications folder, then drill into the Utilities folder. Here youíll find Appleís Boot Camp Assistant, the single app that makes all the magic happen.
From the Welcome screen below, make sure to print the Installation and Setup Guide, which does a great job of holding your hand throughout the process.
Unless youíre insanely lazy, following Appleís printed guide is the way to go. But for now, Iíll assume you are!
Follow my highly condensed steps below to complete a Windows installation using Boot Camp:
- Back up everything.
- Open the Boot Camp Assistant as above (from Applications > Utilities)
- Select 32GB partition size (or to taste) and NTFS file system.
- Select ďStart the Windows InstallerĒ and insert your Windows installation disc.
- Click ďStart InstallationĒ. Let your Mac restart and follow the on-screen instructions to complete the Windows installation.
- Make sure you choose the partition you created earlier for the Windows installation (this can be judged by partition size), lest you accidentally nuke your Mac OS installation.
- After installing Windows, boot into Windows by holding the Option key during boot and choosing Windows from the selection screen.
- Insert your Mac OS X installation disc to install all your Macís drivers and Apple Boot Camp system tray app.
So why wouldnít you want to run Boot Camp? Well, there are a couple of obvious drawbacks. For all the time youíre in Windows using Boot Camp, youíre not in Mac OS and have no access to the Mac applications you know and love without rebooting into Mac OS. This may be less of an issue for you if you have a clean separation in your day; for example, you may be a full-time Windows user at work and full-time Mac user at home, with no crossover at any point. Youíre lucky; Boot Camp was made for you and you need look no further.
But for those of us who rely on immediate access to applications on both platforms, Boot Camp falls short. Letís explore some alternatives.
Option 2: Run Windows Within Mac OS
Virtualization is the most powerful and flexible solution for users who need regular access to many apps on both platforms from a single machine. Appleís switch from PowerPC to Intel CPUs in 2006 has made it possible to run Windows on a Mac very efficiently without the need to emulate PC hardware. You can now natively run Windows either on its own (ŗ la Boot Camp) or in a layer on top of Mac OS using a dedicated application to manage the interaction and interface between Windows and Mac OS.
The three most prominent Virtualisation apps are VMWare Fusion, Parallels Desktop and VirtualBox. VMWare and Parallels are both paid applications (USD$79.99 for either), where VirtualBox is a freeware solution that has less features but offers still-impressive performance and functionality considering the lack of price tag. Iíll use Parallels for the purposes this guide, which is known for its impressive VM performance (VM=Virtual Machine, in this case Windows), fast suspension and resuming of sessions and seamless integration with the Mac environment.
Installing Windows in Parallels is surprisingly simple, much like Boot Camp. This is especially true for Windows 7, with its one-button approach to a standard installation. Follow the basic steps below to complete your installation.
- Open Parallels and click File > New to start the wizard.
- Choose your Windows version and click Express Windows
- Include details as prompted (Product Key, User Name etc).
- Select VM name, Location and Sharing settings on the Name and Location screen. Pay special note to the Sharing option. Sharing the Home Folder or All Folders between Mac OS and Windows can spread Windows Files into your Mac folders, like the standard contents of My Documents on Windows appearing in your Documents folder in Mac OS. I personally prefer to set this to Do Not Share and add folders manually from the Configure menu later.
- Click Create to install Windows.
- After creation, boot into Windows and click Virtual Machine > Install Parallels Tools from the Parallels menu. This installs much-needed drivers for your Mac hardware and other components into windows to aid better integration.
The strengths of virtualization are many. The ability to run any Windows-compatible application inside Mac OS X without having to reboot and to do so with great performance make it very hard to pass up. Parallels and VMWare even offer viewing modes that integrate Windows apps with your Mac OS interface, making them look and feel more like Mac apps. If you prefer, you can keep your meats and milks completely separate by having Windows restricted to its own full screen display with its standard UI style (I personally prefer this as I do a lot of support work walking people through the standard Windows environment). Using Spaces, you can even give Windows a dedicated space to keep it always-open in full screen view without ever having to minimize (or go to windowed mode) to switch back to the unadulterated Mac experience. If you donít use spaces, Cmd-H achieves this simply, too.
All this power comes at a cost. Running Windows and Mac OS at the same time demands a lot of your Mac and chews a lot of system resources. It naturally varies depending on which Windows version you run and how you set up your resource/optimization settings in the host application and is of course also hugely affected by the specs of your Mac. If you have a Mac Pro with 8GB of RAM, donít stress. You can run Windows 7 with all the frills turned on (like Aero) without issue. But if you have a first-gen Macbook with 1GB RAM, you'll struggle. You should scrape by with a light Windows XP VM, but donít expect to leave all your Mac apps open while running full Windows 7, for example. Even if Parallels*lets you, it would be horribly slow.
One very simple habit that can help for resource-starved machines is to suspend your Windows session every time you switch back to Mac apps, then resume Windows when needed. This is very quick and painless in Parallels. Pausing VMs is much faster and saves CPU cycles, but this still keeps your Windows session in RAM, leaving you short on memory.
So, approach the virtualization option with caution. Personally, Iím running Windows 7 Ultimate in Parallels Desktop 5 on a 13Ē Macbook Pro 2.53GHz with 4GB RAM and having nothing but success after 6 months of running this configuration every day at work. I donít bother pausing or suspending it throughout my work day. I leave it open so I can switch in and out of it instantly, and as long as I donít load up either OS with a heavy app like Pro Tools or Final Cut Pro, I donít have resource issues.
Option 3: Fake it with Crossover
If I could get away with using Crossover for my Windows apps, I would. The great thing about Crossover is that it doesnít require you to install Windows at all. None of the resource issues or constant reboot annoyances apply to Crossover. Itís a Mac app that allows Windows apps to run from a simple drop-down menu of installed apps, then displays them on your Mac desktop just like any other Mac application.
But before you get too excited, know that if this all sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The issue with Crossover is that it only supports certain Windows applications, some of which are only supported in their older versions. If you rely on a common Windows application like Word or Outlook (which incidentally*are supported in their current versions), check out the Crossover compatibility page to see if itís supported and you might be in luck. If you need to run a custom CRM application at work, however, donít hold your breath.
Also, in the long term, be aware of the possibility that youíll need to move up to a newer version of your app for work or other purposes to stay compatible with other users, and if crossover doesnít quickly add support for the newer version (which is often the case due to the intricacies of the WINE project on which Crossover is built).
But for the lucky ones who only need to use apps which are supported in Crossover, youíve found your golden ticket. Crossover is very stable, very fast and very light on your system.
Take Your Time
Whichever option you choose, the apps and utilities explored here are all widely trusted and will give you a great experience running Windows on your Mac. Take your time to explore them thoroughly before committing to one, making sure to select what's best for you in the long run. When it all clicks and you find the right fit, you'll be cross-platform computing in no time!