I Install Windows XP on a MacIntel

April 8th, 2006

I had to feel strange. Here I was, prowling the aisles of the local CompUSA store in search of a copy of Windows XP Home Edition. Even stranger, I didn’t intend to install it on a typical Windows box, because the three computers installed at my home office are all Macs.

The source of my unusual behavior was that official Apple solution to installing Windows XP on a MacIntel, Boot Camp, a public preview that has sent Apple’s stock soaring after a period of erosion. The unheard of thought of a Mac running the Dark Side’s operating system natively appears to be totally unexpected Apple’s 30th anniversary surprise.

A half hour later, I placed two software boxes on a computer table to the left of a 20-inch Intel-based iMac, and downloaded a copy of Boot Camp. Two boxes? Yes, because, as Apple reminds you when you check out the basics of Boot Camp at its site, “Windows running on a Mac is like Windows running on a PC. That means it’ll be subject to the same attacks that plague the Windows world. So be sure to keep it updated with the latest Microsoft Windows security fixes.” And a robust malware protection suite. I opted for Trend Micro’s PC-cillin Internet Security 2006, which has gotten rave reviews from a variety of PC publications.

Unlike the hack that won a pair of programmers nearly $14,000, Boot Camp is as user friendly as can be. The setup process is relatively easy, with one key caution that I’ll get to in a moment. It works on a MacIntel with the 10.4.6 upgrade, but first you must visit Apple’s support page and download and install special firmware update that allows the firmware to recognize an operating system that uses the ancient BIOS system rather than the more modern EFI technique for booting.

Boot Camp’s Setup Assistant guides you through the process with clearly labeled screens, and it’s very difficult to mess up, except for that one critical factor. First you take a blank CD and insert it into your optical drive, to build a driver installation disc. This is the critical factor that will deliver proper support for an Intel-based Macs video hardware, plus key features such as networking and AirPort. There’s no support for iSight cameras, the Apple Remote, the Apple USB Modem, or the keyboard backlighting feature on the MacBook Pro. At least not yet, because this is the first beta and things might changed between now and when Boot Camp finds its eventual home as a feature of the forthcoming Mac OS 10.5 Leopard.

In addition, your Windows XP Home or Professional installer must be a single CD package, and a complete installation, rather than an upgrade. The Media Center Edition and anything predating the SP2 update isn’t supported. Here you discover the curious dichotomy about Windows retail pricing. Even though you can buy a PC with Windows XP preloaded for less than $400, the installation package by itself carries a price of nearly $200 for Home and $300 for Professional. You’ll get discounts if you shop around, and perhaps an OEM package will work, but if you’re in a hurry, these options won’t apply. Before you cry rip off, bear in mind that if you wanted to buy 100,000 copies, you’d get a discount too.

During the setup process, you’ll split your Mac’s hard drive into two partitions, one of which will contain the Windows XP installation. Boot Camp’s live partitioning scheme handles the process in five minutes flat and it’s non-destructive. This means you won’t lose your data, because you can’t make the partition too large and endanger your files. But Apple recommends a backup. Remember this is a beta and I suppose things can go wrong, but it worked perfectly for me the very first time. If you opt to restore your Mac to its previous condition, you can use Boot Camp to return to a single partition. This setup scheme won’t function if your Mac’s hard drive has already been divided into multiple partitions.

Partition size starts at 5GB, but that’s not sufficient. If you keep the size to less than 32GB, you can use the FAT file system, which allows Mac OS X to read and write to the Windows partition. The newer NTFS alternative offers more reliability and security, but you won’t be able to write files under Tiger. Since I wanted to provide ample room for PC applications, I set up a 75GB partition. Boot Camp asked me to insert the Windows XP SP2 CD, and then it restarted.

Your MacIntel will still boot with the standard startup chime, and that makes the experience all the more mysterious. In moments, you’ll see the standard Windows XP command DOS-inspired installer screen, and here you need to make another key decision, the one that can cause trouble if you make a mistake. As Apple’s directions clearly state, “The only tricky part is selecting the C: drive manually. Be sure to get this right, or you could erase your Mac files accidentally.”

Once the formatting of the C: drive is complete, Windows XP’s installation process begins. In all, it took close to an hour to complete, and that includes entering your serial number and giving your computer a name. Once XP is up and running, just insert your Macintosh Drivers CD and follow the installation prompts. A few moments later, you have to OK a restart to complete the setup process.

I’ll never get used to hearing a Mac startup chime and see a Windows desktop appear less than a minute later, but it works flawlessly. The drivers Apple provides deliver native support for your Intel-based Mac’s hardware, and, as in the case of that 20-inch iMac, screen resolution will be correctly set at the display’s native resolution.

Aside from the C: drive caution, it’s almost impossible to make a mistake if you pay attention to Boot Camp’s onscreen instructions. As I write this brief report, the iMac functions flawlessly in either Mac OS X or Windows mode. Boot Camp installs a Startup Disk Control Panel under XP, so you can set your default boot partition. Or you can simply restart, hold down Option, and choose the operating system you want.

This is Apple’s stealth fighter, the ultimate personal computer that provides native support for both the Mac OS and Windows. Businesses who formerly rejected Macs are bound to take notice.

If you care to give it a try, by the way, don’t forget the security software. It’s a jungle out there in Windows land.

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