Windows on a Mac: the battle of two betas

For years people have wanted to run Windows on their Macs, and they have in various ways with varying degrees of success and usability. The most popular methods used Apple’s DOS Compatibility Card and Microsoft’s VirtualPC.

Once Apple announced in 2005 that it was switching to Intel processors there was much speculation on how soon one would be able to install Windows. There was even an online contest in which someone found a method that worked. However, it was quite a complicated process only to be attempted by the technically adept.

Then came the announcement that Parallels Inc. was going to release virtualization software, but it wasn’t clear when. Days later, Apple made an announcement that captured everyone’s attention: Boot Camp! Now you can run Windows XP on your Mac with Steve Job’s blessing.

As an IT professional in a mixed Mac/Windows environment, this really piqued my interest. I had many questions about both options: How would they perform? How functional were they, really? How easy would it be to set up? I read about people’s experiences and a few articles on the technical capabilities of each program. As with any other new bit of software, some noted disastrous problems, while some praised the interface.

Last week I got my chance when an Intel-based Mac Mini with a Duo Core CPU and 1Gb of memory arrived at my office. The first thing I did was install all the latest updates for the Mini and OS X. Then I downloaded the Apple and Parallels programs and all the pieces needed.

Now, I prefer to see how intuitive developers make a program, so I usually install without reading the installation instructions except for the ‘what you will need’ section to make sure the computer meets the requirements and that I have all the suggested components.

I started with Parallels Workstation Beta 2, as I figured that would be less likely to corrupt the computer. This particular program works by creating a disk image in which it installs the OS you choose. Windows XP SP2 installed easily and in a reasonable amount of time. From start to finish, the process took about 45 minutes. Once XP booted, I used the Microsoft site to get all the latest patches for it. Office 2003 Pro installed just as easily.

Performance was very good overall. I did notice in the Device Manager that many of the components appeared to be Parallels own virtual drivers. With the exception of sound, everything appeared to be working. Parallels includes an installation of enhancements for Windows, and it makes the software perform just a bit better and improves the user experience. Parallels runs in a window in OS X, so moving back and forth is as easy as moving the mouse. With XP, Parallels links the clipboard between the two OS’s for transferring small amounts of data. It also allows you to install many versions of Windows or some distributions of Linux. As long as you have RAM and hard drive space to spare, you can run as many different OS’s as you like.

After that, I decided to tackle Boot Camp. The first thing it does is automatically create a drivers CD. Next, you choose how much of your hard drive to allocate to Windows. Having the installer dynamically repartition the hard drive made me a bit nervous and I think this feature explains why many people have had problems with the Mac OS X partition corrupting. Then you choose to format the new partition with NTFS or FAT32, which can affect whether you can exchange data with the OS X side.

Windows installed in about the same time it did under Parallels. Installing all the specific drivers from the Apple-created CD helped everything work much better. Performance seemed to be slightly better than in Parallels. Getting back to the OS X side required using the Startup Disk control panel in Windows and rebooting, or holding down Alt/Option key during reboot.

Both programs are still beta, and I’m sure both companies will fix the majority of the issues users currently are experiencing in the final release version. As for which is better, it really depends on how you plan to use Windows. If you need something other than Windows XP SP2, then Parallels is the only option. If you just need to access the occasional program, then Parallels is probably more convenient. If your primary use is Windows applications and you just need to use OS X applications every once in awhile, then Boot Camp is likely best for you.

David Johnson is a systems analyst in the IT department of Transcontinental Media, which publishes CDN and CDN This Week.

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