Editor’s Note: This is part four in our five-part series looking at the best software for running Windows on Intel-based Macs.
CodeWeavers’ CrossOver Mac is unique among virtualization programs in that it doesn’t actually require a copy of Windows. That’s right: once you’ve paid CodeWeavers your $60 ($70 for a CD), you’re ready to start installing Windows programs, without paying Microsoft a dime.
How is that possible? CrossOver is a Mac implementation of Wine, which provides versions of Windows-native libraries, so it appears to Windows apps that they’re in a real Windows operat-ing system.
Installing CrossOver couldn’t be much simpler: you just drag its application icon into your Applications folder. You don’t need to run an OS X installer, install Windows, or even reboot before you start using the program. To install a Windows application in CrossOver, you can either insert the program’s installation CD or run CrossOver’s Install Software assistant.
CrossOver uses bottles to organize your installed applications. A bottle is a virtual Windows environment, each with its own C: drive, fonts, and registry. You can install multiple applications in one bottle, or you can create a new bottle for each program you install.
If you’re installing a program that CrossOver knows how to handle, it’ll create a bottle automatically. If you’re installing an unsupported program, you’ll need to specify which Windows it requires. (Your choices are Windows 98, Windows 2000, or Windows XP.)
For most applications, that’s all the configuring you’ll need to do. If you do need to make some tweaks, you use CrossOver’s Bottle Manager, which lets you adjust all sorts of settings (see “Configuring Bottles”). From then on, you can launch the program from within CrossOver or by just double-clicking on the application in the Finder, as you would do for any other OS X application.
Once it’s installed, how well does CrossOver actually work? The answer ranges from “incredibly well” to “not at all.” The company has classified more than 2,500 Windows applications for compatibility. Ratings run from gold (perfect compatibility) and silver (runs with some bugs) down through the self-explanatory “Known Not to Work.” Of those 2,500-plus programs, only 55 get a gold or silver rating; the vast majority are labeled Untested.
In my testing, those ratings proved accurate. Older versions of Microsoft Office (97 and 2000, both of which have a gold rating) worked quite well. Office XP (with a silver rating) worked OK, with an occasional graphical glitch and a crash or two. Newer programs can be problematic: you can run Internet Explorer 5, but you can’t use versions 6 or 7.
Gaming is where CrossOver offers a pleasant surprise. Unlike Parallels, it supports accelerated 3-D graphics. That means you can run some Windows games directly within OS X.
CrossOver can see any external hard drives (USB and FireWire) and memory sticks that OS X can see, and you’ll have access to them from the Open and Save dialog boxes in Windows. Other hardware is trickier. If your device requires a Windows-specific driver, odds are it probably won’t work in CrossOver.
Who it’s good for
If your Windows needs are limited—for example, if you just want to open and edit old Office documents and don’t want to pay for a Windows license, CrossOver is a fine alternative. It’s also a viable choice for PC gamers looking to play the occasional Windows game without logging out of OS X. But if you need a fuller Windows experience, one of the other programs will be a better fit.
CrossOver Mac 6.0
No need to purchase Windows; supports accelerated 3-D graphics; easy to install.
Cons: Limited application compatibility; no access to the full Windows OS if you need it; USB devices may not work with games.
[ Senior Editor Rob Griffiths runs the MacOSXHints.com Web site. ]Configuring Bottles: CrossOver runs Windows apps inside self-contained mini-Windows environments called bottles.