Four ways to Windows

When Apple introduced its first Intel-powered Macs in early 2006, the company did more than just launch OS X on a new platform. It also gave Mac users a brand-new way to run Windows apps.

Eighteen months ago, Mac users who had to run Windows software used Virtual PC—and nobody really liked it. Today, we have a bunch of alternatives, with four that really rise to the top: Parallels Desktop for Mac and VMWare Fusion, which both let you install and run a copy of Windows from within OS X; CodeWeavers’ CrossOver Mac, which tricks Windows apps into thinking you’ve got Windows installed when you really don’t; and Apple’s own Boot Camp, which lets you choose to boot into Windows or OS X when you start your Mac.

But those four choices lead to one big question: which one is right for you? In this week-long series, Christopher Breen and I compare the four, as well as take a critical look at how easy each one is to install and configure, how well each runs Windows software, and how well each supports hardware peripherals. Click on the links below to read our profile of each program:

  • Parallels Desktop
  • VMWare
  • CrossOver Mac
  • Boot Camp
  • As you read each of the remaining four parts over the rest of this week, bear in mind that this market is constantly evolving. During our evaluation, both Apple’s Boot Camp and VMWare’s Fusion were still in public beta, Parallels’ latest release had just emerged from beta, and CrossOver had only recently been released. I used the most up-to-date version of each program available at the time I was testing, but some of the details may be out of date by the time you read this.

    Also keep in mind that it’d be impossible for us to do full compatibility testing for every version of Windows, every application, and every hardware peripheral on the Mac market. I chose to focus our software compatibility assessments on Microsoft Windows XP Pro Service Pack 2 (with all the latest updates) and Office XP Pro (2002). Unless specified otherwise, I tested each product on a 15-inch 2.33GHz MacBook Pro with 2GB of RAM.

    Hardware requirements

    To use any of the following software, you’ll obviously need an Intel-powered Mac; none of these programs run on a PowerPC Mac.

    CPU The faster your CPU, the better your performance will be. None of these programs are disappointing in terms of speed. I ran them through some timed tests (see “How They Compare: Virtualization Software”) and some less formal evaluations (using them for everyday computing chores and comparing the feel to native OS X apps). My conclusion: Macs run Windows quite nicely in virtualization mode, and very well when booted natively into Windows. (To be more specific, they run Windows XP quite nicely; Vista is another story. For more on that, see “Which Windows?” )

    But even on a Core Duo mini, these programs all offer performance that’s worlds better than Virtual PC ever was on a PowerPC Mac. For typical Office applications, even a Mac mini will provide performance that’s more than acceptable. The main exception: if you want to use Boot Camp to run Windows games that require 3-D acceleration, you’ll want a more powerful machine; the mini and the MacBook lack the graphics hardware required for 3-D- accelerated video games.

    RAM You’ll also want a lot of RAM. In my testing, with Windows loaded and Word and Excel files open, CrossOver and Fusion used between 45MB and 60MB of real memory; Parallels used more than 100MB. By comparison, running Windows natively in Boot Camp with the same Excel and Word files open required almost 200MB. As you open more programs, and especially if you’re using OS X apps at the same time, your RAM requirements will go up. For Windows 2000 and XP, 2GB is a good starting point; you’ll need more if you’re considering running Vista.

    Extras You’ll also need to be careful about the kinds of peripherals you have connected to your Mac. These programs can vary widely in their support for FireWire, USB, and Bluetooth. If any of your Windows apps require such peripherals, see the “How They Compare: Virtualization Software” chart above to find out about compatibility.

    Who They’re Good For So which of these four alternatives is right for you? Not surprisingly, the answer really depends on what you need. For most Mac users, Parallels will let you do what you need to do in Windows with the least amount of trouble. Tinkerers and hobbyists will love Fusion’s downloadable appliances. Those who don’t need anything but the occasional Windows Office application can probably get by with CrossOver. For others—gamers, people with esoteric hardware needs, and people who pound their CPUs at 100 percent utilization—Boot Camp is the preferred route. The bottom line: we’ve come a long way from Virtual PC.—ROB GRIFFITHS

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