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Sure, Apple’s latest computers can run Microsoft’s ubiquitous operating system natively, but a wide gulf remains between Windows and Mac OS X. Just take a gander at your inbox crammed full of Windows-created file attachments—attachments that do nothing at all when you double-click on them. To deal with these files, you need applications and utilities that can make them open.

The usual suspects: Office files

When you talk about common Windows documents, you’re talking about documents created in the Windows version of Microsoft Office. Microsoft’s Macintosh Business Unit will tell you that all you need to open Windows Office documents is a copy of the $399 Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac. And in the case of Word and Excel, this is largely true. Both the Mac and Windows versions can open files created on the other platform—but those files will look far more alike if they contain font types common to the two platforms, such as Arial, Century Gothic, Comic Sans MS, Courier, Courier New, Georgia, Tahoma, Times, Times New Roman, Trebuchet MS, Verdana, and Wingdings.

PowerPoint is trickier, because of issues with the compatibility of embedded media—unsupported graphics and movies don’t appear. If you get a PowerPoint presentation created by a Windows user, pray that the creator used typical media formats—BMP and JPEG for graphics and AVI for movies—as they work on both platforms. With common media and font types in place, you shouldn’t have to muck much with PowerPoint presentations created on a Windows PC. ( Click here for help with some of the conversion drudgery.)

Help You Might Already Have If you don’t have a copy of Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac, you can still open basic Word and Excel documents with applications you may have on your Mac. One such tool is Apple’s TextEdit (/Applications), which can open simple Microsoft Word documents and display their text, but not their embedded graphics.

If you still have a copy of Apple’s moribund AppleWorks (which used to ship with many Mac models before Apple stopped developing it), you can use it to open some Word and Excel documents—although sometimes with mixed results. For example, if a multipage Word document contains graphics, the application shows only the first page. If an Excel document contains multiple sheets, AppleWorks combines those sheets into a single spreadsheet document, denoting each sheet by a page break.

Apple’s Pages 2 (   ; part of iWork ’06, $79) can also work with Word documents. It opens simple documents, as well as documents with embedded graphics and tables. Pages doesn’t have a clue what to do with Excel documents. But the other app included in the iWork suite, Keynote 3 (   ), can open PowerPoint presentations from a Windows PC (or a Mac).

Open-Source Aid To handle a wider variety of Office files, as well as files created by Windows word processors such as Corel’s WordPerfect, turn to Patrick Luby and Edward Peterlin’s free, open-source NeoOffice. It handles Word documents well, displaying the original formatting and embedded graphics, tables, and Excel worksheets. (Like Word, it won’t display graphics embedded in the original Excel worksheet.) NeoOffice opens Excel worksheets and, unlike AppleWorks, places sheets in separate tabs. Embedded graphics appear within these worksheets, though graphics that have been resized may appear distorted.

NeoOffice’s one weakness is PowerPoint presentations. Though it can open them, their formatting often gets thrown off (for example, graphics and bullets appear in the wrong places or not at all). Complex presentations also stutter.

Beyond the big three: Access and more

That covers the Big Three Office applications, but one Microsoft program that stumps just about everyone is its database application, Access. There is no version of Access for the Mac, so a straight-across conversion is impossible. One application, .com Solutions’ $100 FmPro Migrator, can convert Microsoft Access files for FileMaker 7 and 8. But as pros will tell you, even if you use FmPro Migrator, you’ll spend a fair amount of time tweaking the database to get it right. People who do this for a living often export an Access file to Excel within Windows, bring the Excel file over to the Mac, drag and drop the Excel file into a FileMaker Pro file, and then build the database from there.

Handling the Curveballs Dominant though Office documents may be, they’re not the only game in town. What should you do if you encounter files created with other popular Windows programs, such as Microsoft Works, WordPerfect, Lotus Software’s Lotus 1-2-3, Nisus Software’s Nisus Writer, or Corel’s Quattro Pro (part of the WordPerfect Office suite)? In these cases, DataViz’s $80 MacLinkPlus Deluxe 15 can help. This utility allows you to view the contents of a variety of documents created on a Windows computer and translate many of them to common Mac formats (see “A Whole New View”).

Managing media files

Macs and Windows PCs generally agree on the major graphics formats. Both platforms support common formats such as JPEG, GIF, TIFF, PNG, and BMP—but a few odd ducks remain. If you find yourself in possession of such a duck—a PCX or WPG file, perhaps—turn to Lemke Software’s $30 GraphicConverter X (   ). This application can not only convert just about any graphics file you throw at it (it can read 190 image formats and export almost 80), but also batch-process loads of graphics simultaneously.

Movies and More Movie and audio files are trickier to handle. Windows users generally view their videos in the AVI, DivX, and WMV formats—which, for the most part, the Mac’s media player, Apple’s QuickTime Player, doesn’t support (QuickTime can play some AVIfiles but not others). MP3 audio files are just as common on the PC as they are on the Mac, but Windows users also commonly listen to WMA files, which aren’t compatible with the Mac’s default media players, QuickTime Player and iTunes.

When you receive a vexatious video or audio file, don’t despair—you have options. VideoLAN’s free VLC media player (   ) is the go-to utility when you can’t get Windows video files to play. It can decode MPEG-1 and -2, DivX (and its many flavors), MPEG-4, H.264, and WMV. It also supports the Mac’s standard audio formats (MP3 and AAC, for example), as well as MPEG Layer 1 and 2, Ogg Vorbis, FLAC, and WMA. Flip4Mac’s $29 WMV Player Pro lets you both play these files and convert them to QuickTime format.

QuickTime Helpers If you want to play Windows audio and video files within QuickTime or its browser plug-in, a couple of utilities can help. The free DivX for Mac installs the DivX Decoder component, which brings DivX compatibility to QuickTime and its plug-in. (Many AVI files are actually DivX-encoded files.) Microsoft no longer makes a Mac-compatible version of Windows Media Player; instead, use Flip4Mac’s free Windows Media Components for QuickTime ( This utility installs a component in the QuickTime folder within the Library folder at the root level of your hard drive. Once this is installed, you can play Windows Media files within QuickTime and its browser plug-in. Also check out the Perian Project’s free Perian. This QuickTime component adds support for file formats including FLV, 2ivX, DivX, MS-MPEG4, Truemotion VP6, and Xvid. With Perian installed, you don’t need the DivX components mentioned earlier to play back DivX files.

Full file access

Now that you have the tools to open Windows documents, let your Mac know. Select a typical document—a WordPerfect file, for example. Then press Command-I to bring up the Info window, choose a host application from the Open With pop-up menu, and click on Change All. From now on, files of this type will open in your chosen Mac application.

[ Senior Editor Christopher Breen is the author of The iPod and iTunes Pocket Guide, second edition (Peachpit Press, 2006). ]

A Whole New View: Are you inundated with Windows files you can’t open? DataViz’s MacLinkPlus Deluxe can open most of the stubborn ones, so you can take a look inside.
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