Hands on with the Mac Pro: Putting it to work

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Windows on the Mac

This is a new section, one that doesn’t have a counterpart in the Intel Mac mini report. Back in March, running XP on an Intel Mac was still in its early stages, and I didn’t focus on it back then. Now, however, between Boot Camp and Parallels Desktop, running Windows on your Mac is easier and more compatible than ever before. As such, I decided to spend a bit of time discussing the Mac Pro’s performance both as a native Windows machine (Boot Camp) and when running Windows in a virtual machine (Parallels Desktop ). I’ll look at Parallels first.

Parallels Desktop

This is the easy way to run Windows (and many other operating systems) on your Intel-powered Mac. Download and install Parallels, launch it, tell it you want to create an XP installation, insert your XP disk, and install Windows XP. It’s about as simple as things get. Once installed, you can do most of the things you could do on a “real” Windows machine, with a couple caveats:

  • Not all peripherals work. You may have devices attached which don’t work at all, or don’t work as fast or as well as they do on a real PC. Peripheral support is getting better with each Parallels Desktop update, but there are still some devices that give it trouble.
  • You can’t use 3-D accelerated graphics in Parallels Desktop. This means that Parallels is out as a solution for those looking to play the latest 3-D Windows games within Mac OS X.
  • Outside of those two caveats—and with a nod to Parallels’ claims that both USB 2 and accelerated graphics support will be present in the next version—the software is amazingly good at what it does (as we noted in our review of the virtualization software ). Office productivity applications run fine and at speeds near what you’d get running them natively. Web browsers work as expected. You can set up shared folders with your Mac. In short, Parallels is probably the best solution for 95 percent of those who need to access Windows applications.

    Given how well Parallels works on both my mini and MacBook, I wasn’t expecting any issues with the Mac Pro—and I didn’t experience any. One of the nice things about Parallels is that each operating system you install exists as a single large file on your hard drive. Want to migrate Parallels to a new machine? Just copy those files to the new machine and you’re done.

    On the Mac Pro, Parallels originally had some issues—especially for users with more than 4GB of RAM. However, the latest updates have taken care of those problems, and the product is now trouble free on the Mac Pros. One other change in recent builds is an “express install” option for Windows. Using an assistant, you input your Windows activation key and personal info, and the assistant does the rest—no more working through 200 dialogs. Just click the button, and Parallels Desktop installs and configures your Windows system. It’s significantly easier than installing Windows yourself on a real PC.

    In my testing, Parallels worked as it did in my original review, only faster. With more RAM, I could probably run seven or eight virtual machines at once at full speed. As it was with only 2GB of RAM, four virtual machines (Windows XP, Windows 2000, Fedora Core Linux, and Debian Linux) all ran fine (click the image for a (156KB JPEG) 1,440-by-900 version):

    That’s an Exposé-ed shot of all four VMs running at once. At the top left is Windows 2000, running Firefox and display the Mac OS X Hints page. At top right is Windows XP, showing Macworld.com on Internet Explorer 7. The bottom left is Fedora Core Linux, which is shown editing (in OpenOffice) a document I wrote a few years ago in Word on my Mac. Finally, the bottom right window is Debian Linux, running a movie player and playing some free sample clip I downloaded from the Web.

    What you can’t see in the shot is how well things are running. Even though I was using all of the machine’s physical RAM, each VM was running fine (though switching between them was somewhat slow). If you’re the type who likes to look at other operating systems, or needs to use Windows for the occasional project, Parallels Desktop is great tool for the job.

    Boot Camp

    If you want the full Windows experience on your Mac, then Boot Camp is the solution. Currently in an extended public beta, which will end with the release of OS X 10.5 next spring, Boot Camp actually turns your Mac into a Windows machine, with full hardware support.

    Installation is somewhat more complex than it is with Parallels. After downloading and installing Boot Camp, you run the Boot Camp Assistant. Using the Assistant, you first must partition the boot disk of your Mac to provide space for the Windows installation. This is a non-destructive action, so none of your OS X data is harmed in the process. (Still, it’s always good to have a fresh backup).

    After partitioning, you then burn a CD containing the Windows driver for the Apple-provided hardware in the Mac Pro. You’ll install these drivers in Windows, once you get it up and running. Which is, obviously, the next step in the process. You insert your Windows XP Pro or Home (with Service Pack 2) CD, and the Mac then reboots into the Windows installer. If you’ve never seen this before, you’re in for a visual shock—it’s a non-graphical installer. Some 30-odd minutes later, if all goes well, you’ll be booted into Windows, and all signs of OS X will be gone. (Windows can’t see or write to your OS X partition, so you don’t need to worry about transferring viruses or losing data in OS X while booted into Windows.)

    The final step is to run the driver installation CD—this will add support for the graphics card, sound chip, ethernet adapters, wireless network, keyboard, mouse, and probably a few other things to the Windows OS. I was fairly impressed with the drivers, as things such as the keyboard volume keys work, and I can even eject both CD trays from the keyboard (using Eject and Option Eject). One minor complaint is that even after plugging a set of speakers into the speaker output on the back of the Mac Pro, audio continues to come from the Mac’s internal speaker (in addition to the connected speakers). The only solution for this seems to be to plug something into the headphone jack on the front of the Mac Pro—I used a headphone splitter cable, without any headphones connected. It’s not the prettiest of solutions, but it works.

    After the Mac drivers are installed, you’re done—you’ve now got a dual-boot computer which will run both Windows and Mac OS X natively. Just hold down the Option key during startup to choose which system to boot. After reboot, you’re greeted with Windows (click the image for the full-size 1,440-by-900 version):

    So how good of a Windows machine is a Mac Pro? Very good, especially one when paired with the ATI X1900XT video card. In preparation for the Mac Pro I thought I’d be buying next year, I had recently sold my standalone PC, intending to use Boot Camp for my occasional forays into the world of Windows (at the hardware, not Parallels, level). My brief time with the Mac Pro as a Windows machine has shown me that my thinking was correct—the Mac Pro makes a wonderfully speedy Windows machine.

    The system feels very responsive in all aspects. Apps open very quickly, and the games I tested all had excellent frame rates and beautiful graphics. As but one example, here’s a series of four shots (click each for a larger version) taken from Microsoft's new Flight Simulator X:


    The game ran fluidly at 1,440-by-900 with anti-aliasing enabled and most graphics effects set to medium or high. Other games would have similar performance—the Mac Pro seems to be a solid PC gaming platform (albeit an expensive one compared to no-name homebuilts).

    Three takeaway points

  • Using either Parallels Desktop or Boot Camp, the Mac Pro makes for a powerful Windows machine.
  • If you want to experiment with multiple operating systems, Parallels Desktop is a painless and basically risk-free method of doing so.
  • When booted directly into Windows via Boot Camp, PC games play just fine. And with the ATI video card, frame rates are high even with detailed graphics.
  • In the final part of this report, I’ll be looking at gaming on the OS X side of the Mac Pro, running a few different benchmark tests, and wrapping it all up with my conclusions on the Mac Pro.

    [ Rob Griffiths is a senior editor at Macworld .]

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