Windows on Mac: What you need to know

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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.

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