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I used the most up-to-date version of each program available at the time I was testing, but some of the details may be out of date by the time you read this.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

    The security question: Is Windows really unsafe?

    At one point during my research for this article, I ran Parallels on my Mac Pro for the first time in a while. I wanted to tweak the virtual machine’s settings, which requires shutting it down. Before I could do so, Windows XP informed me it was installing a few updates. (I have the automatic update enabled.) Eventually, the updates were applied and the virtual machine shut down. I tweaked my Parallels settings and restarted the virtual machine. When XP finished booting up, I was surprised to see Windows’ built-in malware detector pop up on screen.

    Somehow, my virtual Windows XP installation had been infected by a member of the rbot family of malicious software. Thankfully, Windows found and removed this hack all by itself.

    I hadn’t done much more than surf the Net and run some Office applications on that particular machine. It’s certainly possible that I visited a malicious Web page. Or maybe someone had sniffed out my machine from the Net and attacked it remotely.

    But I still have no clue how my Windows XP installation got infected. I’d turned Windows sharing off on my virtual machine, and my home network sits behind a router that uses network address translation to hide my machines’ IP addresses from the Net.

    From now on, I’m going to need a good security program for my virtual Windows machines. (Friends have suggested AVG Free, for starters.) I’m not too worried about Windows infections getting to my OS X installation, at least not yet. But I’m glad I’m not a full-time Windows user.—ROB GRIFFITHS

    [ Senior Editor Rob Griffiths runs the MacOSXHints.com Web site .]

    A field guide to other OS

    Knowing how to run Windows on your Mac is one thing. Knowing which Windows version to run is something else altogether.

    There are not only four different versions of Windows Vista on store shelves, but also two different versions of Windows XP still available if you know where to look.

    Vista and virtualization

    If you plan to run Windows through Parallels Desktop for Mac or VMWare Fusion, Microsoft has made your choice of Windows easy. The end user license agreements (EULAs) that come with Vista Home Basic and Vista Home Premium versions specifically forbid you to operate them under virtualization. I’ve found no technical reason why you can’t run these versions of Windows under virtualization, but it’s technically illegal to do so.

    The official reason for this restriction is security. Microsoft is happy to let you run Vista Business and Vista Ultimate editions under virtualization, because they include more-robust safety features. Because a Mac running Apple’s Boot Camp is for all intents and purposes a living and breathing Windows PC, Microsoft has no objection to your running any version of Vista on it.

    Regardless of which version of Vista you install, Microsoft demands that each installation have its own license. So if you wish to install it in both Boot Camp and a virtualization application, you’ll need two Windows licenses.

    What’s the difference?

    Roughly speaking, the various Vista editions shake out this way.

    Vista Home Basic is just that, a very basic version of Windows that doesn’t include Microsoft’s Aero visual effects and also lacks Windows Media Center, Windows Flip 3D Navigation, Scheduled and Network Backup, Windows Meeting Space, and Tablet Technology. It sells for $199 for a full installation.

    Vista Home Premium adds the Aero effect as well as the features and programs missing from Home Basic. Windows Media Center, the major selling point for this edition, enables your computer to act as a television and video recorder. The Mac’s hardware doesn’t support many of these features. Media Center also includes DVD-burning and movie-creation applications, as well as some games. The full installation of Home Premium costs $239.

    Vista Business replaces Home’s multimedia capabilities with security, networking, and sharing features not found in the Home versions. Those features include Domain Join, Group Policy support, Encrypting File System (EFS), Corporate Roaming, and Remote Desktop. Microsoft asks $299 for Vista Business.

    Finally, Vista Ultimate includes everything found in the three less-expensive versions of Vista plus a few extras—a card game, additional language packs, and more security. Vista Ultimate comes at an ultimate price—$399 for a full installation.

    Windows Vista: What You Get

    Features Home Basic Home Premium Business Ultimate
    Backup: Scheduled Backup X X X
    Backup: Windows Complete PC Backup and Restore X X
    Collaboration: Windows Meeting Space X X X
    Data Protection: Windows BitLocker Drive Encryption X
    Eye-Candy and Navigation: Aero effect, Windows Flip 3D, and Live Thumbnails X X X
    Media and entertainment: Windows Media Center, Windows DVD Maker, Windows Movie Maker, Chess Titans, Mahjong Titans, Inkball X X
    Mobile: Windows Mobility Center, Tablet PC Support X X X
    Networking: Networking Center, Remote Desktop X X
    Search and Internet: Instant Search, Windows Internet Explorer 7 X X X X
    Security: Windows Defender, Windows Firewall X X X X

    Do you need Vista?

    Vista is unquestionably the future of Microsoft’s operating system. But even PC users who like Windows have been complaining about Vista’s performance. Vista running under Parallels Desktop for Mac is no speed demon and is occasionally unpredictable. It’s better under Boot Camp but still far from perfect.

    Windows XP, on the other hand, isn’t half bad, no matter how you run it on your Mac. It’s a more mature version of Windows and therefore less buggy. It’s also less laden with eye candy, so it’s faster than Vista.

    XP is also much better than Vista when it comes to virtualization. Because virtualization wasn’t a threat when XP was released many years ago, there’s no provision in the EULA that forbids you to run it under Parallels, Fusion, or whatever else you want to use. And even under virtualization, XP Home, XP Professional, and most Windows applications (save 3-D games and other 3-D-intensive applications, which perform poorly) run at near-native speeds on a modern Intel Mac. People running Boot Camp will find that XP is blazingly fast.—CHRISTOPHER BREEN

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