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Location: Lake Mary, Florida
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Running Windows on a Mac: A Switcher's Guide

Here at Mac-Forums, we get a lot of questions in regard to how best to run Windows software on your Mac. As there are a growing number of solutions to this particular problem, I thought it would be helpful to put together a summary of the options available to Mac users, as well as the pros and cons of each solution.

Note that all of the following solutions work only with Intel-based Macs, these include any Mac Pro, MacBook or MacBook Pro model. They also include newer Mac Mini and iMac models, but they must be powered by an Intel CPU. If you are unsure as to whether you have an Intel or PPC Mac, click on the Apple menu, choose “About this Mac” and look under Processor. If you have a PPC Mac and wish to run Windows on it, your best bet is to look into either iEmulator or Microsoft Virtual PC (no longer actively developed).

Now, if indeed you have an Intel Mac, you have a number of different choices in running Windows applications...

CrossOver for Mac & DarWINE

Perhaps the least expensive and fastest way to run a Windows application is through “WINE”. In plain English, WINE acts as a translator to allow some Windows software to run in UNIX-like environments (like Mac OS X and Linux). With WINE, there is no need to install Windows, your Windows applications will simply install within a set of directories in your home folder. Two variations of WINE exist on the Mac; DarWine is an open source port to Mac OS X and Crossover for Mac, which is a commercial product that is developed by CodeWeavers. In either case, be aware that applications support is fairly limited as there is simply no way to tune WINE to work with every piece of Windows software out there - but in general, many popular applications like MS Office will run on it.

Boot Camp

Another option for running Windows on your Mac is Boot Camp. Boot Camp was initially released as a public beta for OS X 10.4 (Tiger) and has since matured into the full version available in OS X 10.5 (Leopard). If you still use Tiger, you’ll need to upgrade to Leopard to get this functionality.

It’s important to understand that Boot Camp is not actually a program that runs Windows, in fact, it’s a set of utilities to ease the process of installing Windows directly on your Mac on a separate partition. Boot Camp splits your hard disk into two volumes, one for your existing installation of OS X and one for Windows. After you’ve installed Boot Camp and Windows, you’ll be able to choose which Operating system you prefer to start your Mac in.

The primary advantage to Boot Camp over other solutions is that when you run Windows under it, Windows has full access to the resources of your system. So, Boot Camp is the ideal solution to playing games or running 3D intensive software like CAD, where your hardware will be taxed.

The primary disadvantage to Boot Camp is that you can only run Windows software when you start your computer in Windows. With other solutions, you can actually run Windows software simultaneously within Mac OS X. Another potential pitfall is that within Windows, you can not access your Mac OS X partition without a 3rd party program like MacDrive. Additionally, if you choose to format your Windows partition in NTFS (the default for Windows XP and Vista), your Windows partition will be read only under Mac OS X. Again, you can get around this limitation by either choosing to use FAT32 as the filesystem for your Windows partition or by using a program like Paragon NTFS for Mac or MacFUSE & NTFS 3G(which can be cumbersome to configure).

Important note: Boot Camp is only compatible with specific editions of Windows. Those include:

* Windows XP Home or Professional with SP2/3 integrated.
* Windows Vista (any non-upgrade version).
* Windows discs that came with another computer may not be used with Boot Camp for both technical and legal reasons, although you may use a non-branded OEM disc (also known as "OEM for System Builders").

Virtualization products (Parallels Desktop, VMWare Fusion and VirtualBox)

The most flexible solution for running Windows on a Mac is probably a Virtualization product. Virtualization tools work by creating what is known as a “Virtual Machine” (or VM for short). In the past, virtualization techniques were used to emulate other types of hardware on the Mac, but since Apple switched over to Intel processors, this CPU emulation is no longer necessary. Virtualization products now run Windows and other OSes as quickly as they would run in the real world.

While all three of these products bring their own unique features to the table, each of them use the same underlying technology to run Windows. While this FAQ won’t focus on the relative merits of any one of the three products, it will attempt to explain the fundamental differences between the VM approach and the others.

As mentioned previously, running Windows is a VM allows for quite a bit of flexibility. Not only will you be able to run Windows within a window on your Mac desktop, but you can also have it run in “full screen” mode. In addition, most of the VM products have support for the following features:

* “Coherence” or “Unity” modes - Windows applications appear to run on your Mac desktop, and you have the ability to pick and choose whether to use Windows or Mac applications to open your data files.
* Seamless file transfers between your VM and your Mac desktops. Drag and drop files between the two environments.
* Shared Internet/network access. Access your VM as though it were a physical machine on your network.
* Dynamic virtual hard disk - your hard drive in Windows is really just a file sitting on your Mac’s hard drive. As such, it can be dynamically resized to suite your needs.
* Access your Boot Camp partition in a VM. If you already have Windows installed via Boot Camp, you can make use of that partition within a VM.
* Linux and alternative OS support - easily put most of the popular Linux distros in a VM. Also, older versions of Windows (prior to XP) will run just fine in a VM, whereas they are unsupported on Boot Camp.

The primary disadvantage to VMs is that they don’t allow Windows to access your hardware directly, meaning that although Fusion and Parallels have some limited 3D support, you’ll find that most intensive games either won’t run, or run too slowly to be playable. With that said, most any application that doesn’t require a heavy duty video card will run just fine.

Liquid and computers don't mix. It might seem simple, but we see an incredible amount of people post here about spills. Keep drinks and other liquids away from your expensive electronics!

Last edited by cwa107; 02-28-2009 at 10:55 AM.
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