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I can’t believe I’m writing this, but…now is the time to buy Windows! Windows XP, that is, and no, I’m not abandoning OS X for a Microsoft operating system. However, there’s a rapidly-approaching deadline that will affect anyone who has a need to run Windows on their Mac, so I thought I’d do my part to spread the word. If you weren’t aware, Microsoft will no longer sell Windows XP after June 30, 2008. With less than a week to go, if you’ve been thinking about buying Windows XP to use with Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion, now is the time to act.

Don’t be concerned that you’ll be buying a soon-to-be-abandoned operating system. Even though Microsoft won’t sell XP any longer, it will still be a supported operating system for many years to come. Microsoft has committed to providing “business as usual” updates (mainstream support) through April 14, 2009, followed by “extended support” through 2014. Mainstream support means there may be updates to Windows XP that provide new features between now and next April, and that warranty claims and no-charge-incidents will be handled. In the extended support mode, there won’t be any new features, and warranty coverage and no-charge-incident support won’t be avaiable. (If you’re bored, the Microsoft Support Lifecycle Policy FAQ explains all of this in great detail.)

So why would you want to purchase XP for use with Fusion or Parallels, instead of Vista, Microsoft’s current desktop OS? There are three main reasons as why this might make sense. First, XP runs faster than Vista in both Fusion and Parallels. Because Windows XP is a relatively “light” operating system, it doesn’t place as much demand on the CPU as does Vista—nor does it need as much RAM. As a result, you’ll find that virtual machines running XP feel snappier than their Vista counterparts on the same hardware, as more of the machine’s CPU and memory are available for programs running within the OS (and for other OS X programs, obviously). Having used both XP and Vista extensively within Parallels and Fusion, there’s an obvious (if difficult to quantify) speed difference between the two.

Second, XP offers the widest support for third-party hardware and software—there are still quite a few programs and/or pieces of hardware that either don’t work quite right, or don’t work at all, with Vista. Windows XP has no such problems—with its long history, it supports the widest variety of hardware and software. This will be more of an issue if you’re wanting to run an older Windows program, or use an older peripheral, with your Windows installation—new programs and hardware should work fine in either version of Windows.

Third, XP is a solid, stable OS that’s had any major issues addressed via service pack releases over the years. By comparison, Vista is still in its infancy, and there are things about it (user access control, argh!) that will hopefully be addressed in future updates. Sure, I still prefer OS X (by a wide margin, in fact), but Windows XP is the version of Windows I prefer to run when using Fusion or Parallels. I’ve not had any sort of major crash while running Windows XP, and its performance is fine even on my now-aging first-generation Intel-powered Mac mini. I can make Vista perform reasonably well on that same box, but it takes more tweaking of the user interface and system settings.

If you’ve been sitting on the fence about which version of Windows to buy for your virtualization solution, my advice would be to purchase a copy of Windows XP before the deadline passes. Windows XP comes in two flavors—Professional and Home. The Home version is much cheaper, but gives up some features—most notably the ability to share files and folders—over the Professional version. This page at Microsoft covers the differences in detail. But whichever version you’re considering, make your decision quickly and act before June 30th (although many vendors will probably still have copies in the channel after that date).

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