First Look: The XP experiment: Running Windows on a Mac

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First, Intel-built processors wind up in the Mac. What’s next—Windows XP running on an Apple-built machine? Exactly, thanks to the Windows XP on Intel Mac challenge. That contest, to get the Microsoft operating system running on an Intel-based Mac, has been won, meaning it’s now at least theoretically possible to run Windows natively on your Intel-based Mac (while still retaining a separate OS X installation). After drawing the short straw volunteering to help out, I set out to see what it would take to install the hack, get XP up and running on my Intel-powered Mac mini, and then see what kind of Windows XP machine I had on my hands.

What follows is a description of my experience, both good and bad, with the entire process from start to finish. This isn’t meant to be an installation guide, but I will talk about installing the patch, discuss what it takes to get XP working, the risks involved in a project such as this, and finally, how well the finished product works.

The Warning

If you’re thinking about trying this on your own Intel-based Mac, you should know that Really Bad Things are possible. I’m not sure if permanent damage is possible—I don’t think that it is—but you can easily get in a position where you might need to boot into single-user mode to recover. It’s also possible to wind up in a situation where you have an unusable OSX, an unusable Windows XP, and the OS X installer refuses to see your drive as an available destination—in fact, this happened to me twice. Thankfully, recovery is relatively straightforward, though you will lose all data on the machine. Finally, something as simple as installing a new driver in Windows XP may render XP unbootable, and recovering from that may require starting over again—including formatting the drive and installing both OS X and Windows XP.

In short, this is very new technology, and things can still go very wrong with the process. If you have but one Mac, and you rely on it to make a living, I would not recommend installing Windows XP on it just yet. Over time, the process should get easier and safer, but as of today, it’s still highly experimental.

Part One: Installing the hack

All of the information and code needed to install Windows XP on an Intel-powered Mac is available on the Windows XP on Intel Macs download page. To some degree, though, that’s a bit like saying, “Here, take Jeff Gordon’s NASCAR race car, and you too can win the Daytona 500.” While it’s probably technically true, there are a lot of little details to be filled in.

Before you begin: If you’re considering trying this patch, here’s my own list of prerequisites that you should have, above and beyond the downloaded files:

  • An original Windows XP Pro SP2 CD-ROM. If you haven’t priced it lately and you don’t own it, that’ll set you back $299 (the cost of roughly 2.3 copies of Tiger).
  • A PC with a CD burner (about $40) and Nero, CD-R burning software for Windows. The good news is that Nero has a fully-functional 30 day demo available. Without that, set aside another $80.
  • Internet access from another machine, either the PC with the burner or a Mac.
  • Time. A whole lot of time. Really. Set aside some time, then set aside a bit more, and add perhaps a bit more on top of that, and then you might have enough to finish the job. In my case, I set aside a few hours on Saturday morning to do the job. When all was said and done (and re-done), the whole task took me about 12 hours the first time, though that time has fallen dramatically now to just about an hour. Experience is a harsh, but good, teacher.
  • Patience. This is nearly as important as the time aspect, as you’ll be waiting for things to happen fairly often, and you’ll also often feel like it’d be more fun to visit the dentist for a root canal than to try to get your XP mini working. Keep in mind that the version number on the patch is “0.1,” and it definitely feels like it at Times-Mirrors.

I should mention at this point that, if you’ve had to purchase Windows XP Pro, a burner, and Nero, you’re up to $419…which, and I’m not making this up, happens to be exactly today’s price for an entire Dell Dimension B110 with 1GB of RAM, a CD/DVD burner, and an 80GB hard drive. But more than likely if you’re trying this, you’ve already got a PC lying around your home, and you’re just hoping to replace it with the small, silent, and elegant-looking mini.

Once I’d gathered all the prerequisites—except for time, I clearly didn’t gather enough of that—it was almost time to dive into the modification. The last thing I did prior to starting was to attach a FireWire drive and make a clone of my perfectly-functional mini setup using SuperDuper. That way, if everything went horrendously, terribly wrong, recovery would be a simple process. I strongly recommend a similar plan if you attempt this project. Keep in mind that the very first thing you’re going to do is to erase the mini’s hard drive, so you’ll have to have a backup of some sort. Might as well make it a full clone, and then—and this is very important—verify that the clone is working before you start.

The actual installation

Here’s a short summary of the steps required to install Windows XP on an Intel-based Mac. This document isn’t meant to be an installation walk-through, but rather a very summarized version of the step-by-step process:

  1. Create the modified Windows XP installation CD (using Nero on a PC).
  2. Prepare the hard drive in the mini (bye-bye, data!). You’ll be making two partitions, one for OS X, one for XP.
  3. Install OS X on the mini.
  4. Install the dual-boot code on the mini.
  5. Install Windows XP. Hint: make the partition FAT32, and you can read/write to it in OS X. This may make it possible to recover from no-boot situations.
  6. Make XP functional. This step is so complex, it’s got its own section in this write-up.
  7. Use Mac OS X and Windows XP on the same machine, though not at the same time.

In each and every one of these steps, things can happen that deplete the “time” and “patience” you brought to the project. Here are just a few examples of such things:

  • My original Nero-burned CD-R, the one containing the modified Windows XP installer, was bad. The program looked like it worked, the CD would mount, and I could read the files on it, but it would not work to install XP. Of course, there were no error messages, just a machine stuck on a black screen doing nothing.
  • During my first install attempt with a good CD-R, the installer hung up and crashed. I had to go back to the reformatting step.
  • Read each and every step in the instructions very carefully, especially if you’re not used to burning CDs on PCs or working in Terminal. I didn’t have any Terminal mess-ups, but I did spend a lot of time making sure I followed the directions correctly for the PC burn steps.
  • Use a wired USB keyboard and mouse at all times. You may have Bluetooth and/or wireless USB devices now, but set them aside before you start this project.
  • Disconnect everything but power, monitor, keyboard, and mouse.
  • Set the OS X resolution to the native monitor resolution before installing XP. At one point, I couldn’t make the installer work at all, and I think I traced it down to having left my (newly installed) OS X resolution at 1024x768, not the LCD’s native 1280x1024.

With that out of the way, how is the actual installation of Windows XP? It’s not overly difficult, but it is quite detailed and time consuming. The first step, after installing a fresh copy of OS X, is to install the boot loader on your mini. Since you just formatted the mini’s hard drive, you’ll have to copy the boot loader onto it from elsewhere—the original patch file on the Internet, or like me, off another machine on your network. After copying the boot loader (it’s just one file) to the mini, you use two Terminal commands to move it into the proper folder, and then bless that folder so that OS X sees it as bootable. The boot loader is a tiny program that lets you choose whether to boot Windows or OS X at startup, simply by tapping on the arrow key.

Press Return when the appropriate logo is showing, and that’s what OS you’ll boot into. Choose the Windows logo with your customized XP installer CD in the drive, and the install process starts. Well, it eventually starts. The instructions warn you that fully three minutes will pass before anything at all happens. Eventually, though, you’re presented with the Windows XP installer. After choosing the partition to use (it’s partition No. 2, not No. 1 or No. 3!), the Windows XP installer starts. At some point, the installer will reboot the machine,, and you then have to press F2 (repeatedly, to be sure) to make Windows boot from the hard drive, not the CD. The second part of the install then runs, and seems to run fine. When it’s done, though, your machine will crash. Really. This is normal. Just turn it off manually.

When it boots again, assuming you select Windows, you’ll be in Windows XP. When my machine finally reached this point, many many hours after starting (details on why it took so long follow), I was simply amazed—this is Windows on an Apple system. No VirtualPC, no OpenOSX WinTel, nothing except pure Windows XP. “Excellent,” you think, “I’m done! XP’s up and running, OS X boots, I’m set!” Oh if it were only that simple.

Part Two: Make XP usable

The big difference between what you’ve just installed and what you’d get on any retail Windows machine is this: drivers. The version of XP you just installed knows about your CD-ROM drive, your monitor, and your USB ports, but that’s about it. (It may also know about the FireWire port, but I didn’t test that prior to completing my setup.) Bluetooth, Ethernet, AirPort, and audio are all missing in action after the initial installation.

So what you have on that first boot of Windows XP on your Intel Mac is a very functional, but not very useful, operating system. The next step of the process involves visiting the Drivers page at the Windows XP on Intel Mac site. Here you’ll find links to drivers and/or instructions for all the interesting parts of your Mac, the parts that actually make it a usable system—things like Bluetooth, AirPort, and Ethernet. Depending on which Mac you’re installing XP on, which drivers may be available will vary—such are the risks of using a very early release of a very bleeding edge technology.

The most important driver to get working, of course, is Ethernet. Without it, getting anything into the mini means using USB or some other storage medium you can transfer between machines. I downloaded the Ethernet drivers on my G5, and then burned a CD-RW, which I then used to install the drivers on XP. They worked great on the first try, once I recalled the convoluted steps I had to follow to enter my IP address information. Once that was running, I was able to then download and install the remaining drivers. While that sounds routine, it really wasn’t—there are caveats, exceptions, and “maybes” with many of the drivers.

The Bluetooth drivers, for instance, have notes that indicate you have to re-run a small program on every reboot, and that they still may not work with Apple keyboards or mice. In fact, to even get them working at all, you have to edit a file in the Windows directory and add two lines to specify some Apple-related info for the Bluetooth chipset. (And this info differs between the iMac and the mini!). After doing that, and running the small program, you then cross your fingers, plug in your Bluetooth stuff, and see what happens.

In my case, I got a very pleasant surprise—my Macally mouse and Apple keyboard work just fine, though I do need to re-run one executable file each restart. What really surprised me is that the Bluetooth keyboard works immediately after power-up; early enough that it can be used to choose which OS to boot. I believe we have Apple to thank for that one.

By reading all the associated notes with each driver, and installing only one at a time and then rebooting to test each one, I eventually got almost everything up and running. I had XP on the mini running with Bluetooth, USB, FireWire, AirPort, and Ethernet.

Disaster strikes

While I was doing all of this work, I was also on the IRC channel a lot, asking questions, and just listening to the chatter. Someone mentioned that there were now native video drivers for the mini available, and a page had been added to the wiki explaining how to get them working.

Native video support is currently the big hole in running XP on Intel Macs. Without it, you’ve got no accelerated video, no games, and no DirectX (though it’s not clear if that will work even with native drivers on all cards). Excited by this prospect, and having caught the news just after completing the basic XP install, I decided to give it a shot. If you read the above-linked page, you’ll see the procedure is far from clear cut; it requires drivers from two different manufacturers, a few reboots, and lots of install/point steps. I took my time, and carefully followed every step.

When it was time to reboot for the last time, nothing happened. Black screen. Nothing helped; there was no getting into safe boot mode, no way to disable the things I’d added that had broken XP. So…I had to wipe the disk and start over, including the OS X installation. Ugh.

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