Windows on Mac: What you need to know

Most of us feel pretty comfortable when it comes to our Macs. Over the past few years we’ve learned the ins and outs of Mac OS X. But the release of Boot Camp has knocked many Mac users out of their comfort zone. What does it all mean? Can you really run Windows on a Mac? What’s required to do so, and what are the potential pitfalls if you try?

Relax a little bit. Macworld has put together a comprehensive list of questions and answers about Boot Camp, installing and running Windows on Mac hardware, and more. And if you’ve got any lingering questions, feel free to stop by the discussion thread linked at the bottom of every page of this story.

Using Boot Camp

How does Boot Camp work?

Boot Camp is software that helps users of Intel-based Macs install and use Windows XP on those systems. The Boot Camp Assistant helps you change the set-up of your hard drive so that it has two partitions—your existing Mac volume and a new Windows-compatible volume. The Assistant also burns a CD-ROM that contains drivers —files that Windows needs so that it can operate your Mac’s hardware efficiently.

Once the Boot Camp Assistant does its job, your Mac reboots and—thanks to a recent firmware update—you can insert your Windows XP installation CD and it will be recognized as a bootable volume. When the lengthy Windows installation process concludes, you insert the CD-ROM that the Boot Camp Assistant burned, which installs the appropriate Windows drivers, as well as a Windows utility (much like the Startup Disk preference pane) that lets you choose your startup volume.

Wait—I thought all I had to do was install Boot Camp and then I’d be running Windows.

No, you need to have your own full version of Windows XP Service Pack 2. (And yes, we specifically mean SP2—when we tried installing SP1 during one of our tests, it didn’t work at all.) You can’t just copy the version of Windows that came with any old PC, because it can’t be installed on any system other than the one it came with. You can’t buy an “upgrade” copy, because you’re not upgrading from a previous version of Windows. A full version of Windows XP SP2. It’ll cost you $150 to $200.

OK, I understand that Boot Camp requires a version of XP that includes Service Pack 2, but I only have an original XP disc. Is there a way to create a SP2 disc with what I have?

Yes. You can use a process called slipstreaming. This tutorial explains exactly what you need to do. Note that you’ll need to have access to a PC for this process.

Does Boot Camp provide all the drivers I need?

Boot Camp provides the basic drivers for audio, video, Bluetooth, AirPort, Ethernet, and keyboard and mouse. If you have peripherals that require their own drivers in XP, you’ll have to download and install those yourself.

How is Boot Camp different from the software hack that lets me install Windows XP?

You’re referring to the two enterprising hackers who got Windows to install on Intel-based Macs a few weeks before Boot Camp’s released. However, installing that hack took quite a bit more effort than Boot Camp. You had to choose which operating system you wanted to use every time you rebooted. The hack didn’t include any Windows drivers for Mac hardware, so Macs that used the hack to install Windows XP generally didn’t work very well. And you need to have a Windows PC in order to create a modified Windows installation disc. Boot Camp is better than that hack on all counts.

So I don’t have to choose which operating system to use each time I boot. But how do I set which OS I’m booting into?

There are several different ways. From Mac OS X, you can use the Startup Disk preference pane, which now displays Windows disks alongside Mac OS X volumes. From Windows, you can use the Startup Disk Control Panel that Boot Camp installs. Or if you prefer, at boot time, you can just hold down the Option key to get a drive-picking utility that will let you select which volume you want to start up from.

On dual-boot OS 9/OS X systems, I could hold down the X key on restart to boot into OS X. Will that work with the Windows-OS X dual-boot systems?

No. At least not on any of the test systems we tried it on.

Can you use an external hard drive for Boot Camp and Windows?

Apple says it’s not supported with Boot Camp. Boot Camp is designed to partition your internal boot disk. However, we’ve heard reports that if you format an external drive in a PC-compatible format and reboot into the Windows installation CD, that you can install Windows on an external drive and boot from it. But we haven’t confirmed it ourselves.

How much hard drive space does it really take up to partition off, install Windows, and install one app?

You could install Windows XP and an app or two in a 5GB partition, with some room to spare. But 10GB would be a more realistic figure, assuming you have some other drive where you’ll store all your XP applications.

Once Boot Camp has been installed, can I adjust the partition “divider” to allow more/less HD space on either OS?

No. Once you’ve set the partition size, you’re stuck with it until you remove it entirely.

How difficult is it to “undo” and “un-partition” if I don’t like how Boot Camp works and want to go back to what I had before?

It’s very simple; just boot into OS X, re-run Boot Camp, and click the “Restore the startup disk to a single volume” button. The XP partition will be destroyed, and your hard drive will be returned to its original one-partition configuration.

What happens if something goes wrong when I install Windows (getting stuck at partitioning, for example)?

You may very well have to reformat your hard drive and start over with a fresh OS X install. As Apple notes, Boot Camp is a beta, and its use on a production machine is not recommended. If you’re going to try this, make sure you have a current backup before you do anything!

Will Boot Camp allow me to install Linux on my Intel Mac and have the option to chose between three operating systems?

To some degree, yes—though the process isn’t simple. It’s described here if you’re feeling adventurous.

Will the Media Center Edition of Windows run on a Boot Camped-Mac?

Yes, though you’ll have to use Nero on a PC to combine the two CDs into one bootable DVD for the Boot Camp installer to work with.

One last time: what are the system requirements to run Boot Camp?

You’ve got to have an Intel-based Mac with Mac OS X 10.4.6 and the latest Firmware Update for your particular machine installed. And, like we stressed earlier, you need to have a full installation copy of Windows XP with Service Pack 2.

Using Windows

Will any Windows program run on a Mac if it’s using Windows XP?

In our testing to date, pretty much everything has run. Remember that a Mac running XP is actually just like any PC running XP. So assuming your hardware matches the requirements, that program should run. We’ve tested Office 2003, Photoshop, and Dragon Naturally Speaking, and all three appear to work just fine.

What limitations are there to a Mac running Windows XP?

Windows XP can’t use the built-in iSight camera on the MacBook Pro and iMac, nor can it use the MacBook Pro’s keyboard backlighting. There’s no support for the Apple USB Modem. And there’s no support for the Apple Remote. And not all keys are supported on Apple Bluetooth keyboards.

How does Windows perform on a Mac?

According to PC World’s WorldBench 5 testing tool, about as well as on comparable PCs. Keep in mind that the processing technology used in the first round of Intel-based Macs is essentially a laptop technology; Apple used it not only for its MacBook Pro laptop, but for its two ultra-compact desktop systems, the iMac and Mac mini. As a result, all of those systems perform in comparable fashion to PC laptops with similar specs.

What we haven’t seen yet from Apple is a high-performance desktop Mac with an Intel chip inside. And until we do, we won’t really know how a desktop Mac running Windows would compare to a PC counterpart.

Well, I’m sold. What kind of software am I going to need for my Windows-on-Mac experience—utilities and the like?

You’ll definitely want an anti-virus solution of some sort; there are many out there to pick from, and given that we’re Mac users here, we’re not sure which one might be best. But here are some free ones to start with:

  • Google Pack: A collection of free programs from Google, including a special version of Norton Anti-Virus with six months’ of free virus updates. Also includes Ad-Aware SE Personal, a free spyware/adware removal tool.
  • AVG Anti-Virus: A free anti-virus tool that’s had some good reviews on the net.
  • We’ve also worked with our sister publication PC World to come up with this list of the best PC antivirus programs.

    You may need some other utilities as well, depending on your particular situation. If you’re using a MacBook Pro, or future Intel laptop, for instance, you’ll find you can’t right click, which is a key action in Windows. You’ll need the free Apple Mouse Utility to fix that problem.

    If you’re using an Apple Bluetooth keyboard, you may find the Eject and Volume keys don’t work. We’re not yet aware of an easy fix for either of these. For the Eject key, however, you can install the freeware program CD Tray Pal. This app puts a CD icon in your task bar, so you can eject discs without opening a Computer window and right=clicking on the disc’s icon.

    Back up a second— viruses ? Am I at risk to those if I run Windows XP on the Mac?

    Absolutely. When you’re running Windows, your Mac is no different from any other PC running Windows. You should probably protect yourself by installing Windows antivirus software; you can find a summary of Windows-compatible virus fighters here.

    That doesn’t mean my Mac OS is vulnerable to viruses, does it?

    That’s a complicated question. By default, Windows XP can’t see Mac hard-drive volumes. So if your Windows installation was infected by a virus that tried to delete files on your hard drives, it wouldn’t even see your Mac files and they’d be safe. But if you install a program like Mediafour’s MacDrive, which gives Windows XP the ability to see Mac volumes, your files could be vulnerable to a virus that deletes files.

    When you’re running Mac OS X, even on an Intel-based Mac, you’re not susceptible to Windows-based viruses.

    How do I move files back and forth between the Windows and Mac OS X environments?

    You’ve got a few different options. If you format your Windows volume as FAT32 (limitation: files can’t be any bigger than 4GB, and the partition must be less than 32GB), Mac OS X will be able to see the drive and even write files to it. If you format the volume with the NTFS format, your Mac will be able to see the drive, but won’t be able to write files to it.

    Windows, by default, can’t see Mac volumes at all. You’ll need to install a utility such as Mediafour’s MacDrive to give it that power.

    Will my iTunes Music Store songs play under Windows XP just like they do when I’m running OS X?

    Yes they will. However, you’ll need to authorize your Windows XP installation to play back store files—meaning your Mac will now count as two authorized iTunes computers. (You can only authorize five computers at a time per iTunes account.)

    I’ve already used my Windows and Office registration numbers on my PC. Can I use those same numbers on my Mac?

    If the license agreement for the software restricts it to one machine only, then no. Some programs allow for multiple installs, but you’ll have to check the license agreement. Windows and Office are one-machine licenses, so you’ll have to purchase additional copies.

    Since we’re going to have to wait some time for Adobe’s products to run natively on Intel-based Macs, could I get better performance if I buy the Windows versions now and run them on a Mac using XP?

    Those programs will run at the full speed of the native Windows versions. So you may well see better performance running them natively under Windows than using OS X’s Rosetta emulation technology. However, if you hope to run those applications natively in the Mac OS, you may want to hold off as it’s highly unlikely Adobe is going to provide a free-crossgrade from the Windows versions of its tool to the Universal Binary version that runs under Mac OS X.

    How do I invoke the Windows key combinations such as right-click and Control-Alt-Delete?

    For right-clicking, we’ve already mentioned the Apple Mouse Utility. The keyboard combination Command-Shift-F10 will also bring up the same menu as the traditional right click on a mouse. And there’s also this keyboard remapper optimized for the MacBook Pro.

    Control-Alt-Delete is really only an issue for the MacBook Pro, as it lacks a true Delete Key. OnMac recommends this fix: Go to Start -> Run and enter

    for a utility to let you remap keys on your keyboard. OnMac suggests using the Right Command key on MacBook Pro keyboards—save and reboot, and you’ll be able to use Control-Alt-Right Command to act as your Control-Alt-Delete.

    Emulation and Virtualization

    Now that Boot Camp’s here, does this mean I won’t need to run Virtual PC anymore?

    Well, it’s not as if Intel-based Mac owners can run Virtual PC now—the emulation software isn’t compatible with the Intel-powered Mac mini, iMac, and MacBook Pro. But more to the point, Boot Camp is different from Virtual PC. Whereas the latter program allows you to run Windows at the same time your Mac is using OS X, Boot Camp offers a “one or the other”-type scenario: once you’ve rebooted into Windows, all traces of Mac OS X disappear. You can’t switch back and forth between Windows applications and Mac programs without rebooting.

    While Virtual PC may not run on an Intel-based Mac, there are plenty of similar programs that do. They include Parallels Workstation, Q, and WinTel. However, they’re all under various stages of development and have some serious quirks about them. The good news is, these programs tend to run Windows much faster than Virtual PC did, because they don’t need to emulate the Intel processor used by Windows!

    Which is easier to use—Boot Camp or Parallels Workstation?

    Boot Camp is somewhat easier to configure, though it requires more changes to your machine—partitioning the hard drive and updating the firmware. Parallels is simply an application, so you can run it whenever you like. You do have to do a bit of work to set up the app before you install Windows, however.

    Parallels is slower than Boot Camp, as you’re running Windows within OS X. However, it’s not nearly as slow as Virtual PC used to be, and it’s quite usable. The product is still a beta, however, so there are some issues—USB devices don’t presently work, nor can you play DVDs. Boot Camp has no such issues—if something works in Windows XP, it will work on your Mac running XP.

    It’s hard to say which is easier, as they’re really different products. If you have a need for Windows software alongside your OS X software, Parallels is the best solution. But if you want full driver support, and full Windows speed, Boot Camp is the way to go.

    The Future

    Now that Windows XP can run on a Mac, how long before we see Dell and HP PCs booting up into Mac OS X?

    Our rough estimate would be “never.” Apple has said repeatedly that Mac OS X will only run on Apple hardware, and we don’t expect that to change. Apple makes a lot of money from Mac hardware, and with the Boot Camp announcement, Apple’s hardware is now unique in that it runs both Mac OS X and Windows. One of the reasons Apple’s products are so good is because the company controls both the hardware and the software; allowing Mac OS X to run on a generic Dell PC wouldn’t only gut Apple’s hardware business, but it would potentially reduce the quality of the Mac OS X user experience.

    Will developers stop making Mac software?

    It’s unlikely. Fundamentally, Mac users are Mac users because they want to use the Mac OS. And developers realize that if Mac users wanted to run Windows apps, they wouldn’t be Mac users. It’s possible that some developers who simply don’t get the Mac might try to steer their users toward Windows, but chances are good that most of those developers abandoned the Mac long ago, in the dark days of the late ’90s or during the OS X transition.

    If there’s any single area where we might see a serious change in the amount of Mac software being released, it’s for games that appeal to hard-core gamers. Since many games operate with their own interface taking up the entire screen, there’s very little difference between running those games when booted into Mac OS X or booted into Windows XP. Hard-core Mac gamers will likely invest in a copy of Windows just so they can run the latest and greatest PC games, and therefore those games might not ever make it to Mac OS X proper. However, games played by more casual Mac gamers—those who might not buy a $200 copy of Windows just to play a puzzle or arcade-style game—will likely continue to be developed for the Mac market.

    Will Boot Camp be part of OS X in the future?

    Yes, Apple has confirmed that Boot Camp will be part of Leopard, the next major upgrade to Mac OS X. Also known as Mac OS X 10.5, this future OS X version will be previewed at Apple’s annual Worldwide Developer Conference in August.

    Does that mean Microsoft will stop making Virtual PC?

    Microsoft says that they are “continuing to work with Apple on a possible next version of Virtual PC.” What this means is anyone’s guess, so here’s ours: We figure that either Microsoft will release a new version of Virtual PC to run on Intel-based Macs, or Apple will integrate its features into Leopard. One of those two outcomes will almost certainly happen. In the meantime, companies like Parallels and VMware will try to stake out some ground in the Windows-on-Intel-Macs world.

    What about Windows Vista? Will it be able to run on a Mac when it comes out?

    Enterprising users have gotten Vista running on Mac hardware already. And we would assume that when Vista is officially released, Boot Camp will be updated to allow the latest version of Windows to run it on Mac hardware.

    JASON SNELL is Macworld's Editorial Director. ROB GRIFFITHS is a Macworld senior editor and the founder of Mac OS X Hints. Jim Dalrymple, Christopher Breen, and Philip Michaels contributed to this report.

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