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The Dark Side of Boot Camp

I’ve noticed that some Mac dealers are now selling MacIntels with Windows bundles. Get the full experience of Boot Camp without having to set it up for yourself. I suppose that sounds convenient, but the same people who put packages together, such as MacMall, don’t forget to include the Boot Camp public beta terms and conditions in their catalogs and online sales pages.

In short, it’s a work in progress and don’t use it on a production computer. While most of you will find Boot Camp extremely reliable, take Apple at their word, especially after things go badly.

The other day, I was visiting a client who asked me to configure Boot Camp on his MacBook Pro back in April to allow him to run some specialty software that had no Mac equivalent. This was before Parallels Desktop had a stable beta, so I took what I regarded as the lesser of the two evils. In retrospect, maybe that wasn’t the best alternative.

Things worked fine for his modest needs until it stopped recognizing his shared printer a few days ago. I had configured Bonjour for Windows to simplify matters, and it suddenly began to report a permissions error of some sort when I tried to select one of his working printers. Nothing malfunction under 10.4.7, of course. Since Apple had released an updated version of Boot Camp, with unknown, unlisted fixes, I decided to generate a new Macintosh driver CD for him.

His fairly simple Windows XP Home configuration refused to recognize the CD, other than listing its title in the My Computer drive list. A second attempt at building a driver CD achieved the same unsatisfactory result. At the same time, I used the Windows Add/Remove feature to drive Bonjour out, and then downloaded and installed the latest version from Apple.

Welcome to the land of Windows voodoo, where things stop working as they should without rhyme nor reason. Under normal circumstances, it might have made sense to try a little troubleshooting, but since his environment was easily recreated, I opted to wipe the Windows partition with the Boot Camp Assistant, and then started the process all over again. To save time, I took the computer to my office, so it could do its thing in the background and I could concentrate on more productive activities.

The first Windows installation seemed to run all right, and the Mac driver setup seemed to proceed without a hitch, until I was asked to restart the computer. The restart failed, and I was left with one of those insidious Windows-based command line screens that gave me several restart options, including Safe Mode, and Safe Mode with various combinations of extra services, such as networking.

I tried each option, in turn, with no success, even the one that referred to the last known working configuration. Finally, I restarted with the Windows XP installation CD, the same one used for the original setup, and engaged in some command line legerdemain to repair the system. The steps included checking the drive, and a entering a few arcane commands that were designed to set things right again.

Gentle reader, please understand that I make no claims of being a Windows wizard. I can do just enough to be dangerous, and I’m sure many of you are able to offer solutions that I could have tried, didn’t know how to try and so on and so forth. But since I could be fully destructive here and not waste a great deal of time, I decided to make a second attempt to rebuild the Boot Camp partition.

First I went through a couple of steps to clean up the MacBook Pro with some Mac OS X maintenance utilities, and I even reset the power management unit. Apple officially states that “Over time, the settings in the Power Manager may become unusable, which can result in operational anomalies with the computer. Examples include not turning on, not waking from sleep, not charging the battery, or not recognizing the AC Adapter, among others.”

The lone symptom I noticed was the inability of the MacBook Pro to generate a proper startup chime. In any case, I did it anyway, and proceeded to reconfigure Boot Camp again. Again, I was looking less to save time than to reduce my direct intervention as much as possible. The second time was a charm. The installation went flawlessly, the Macintosh drivers loaded and subsequent restarts were uneventful. It didn’t take long to restore the client’s applications and settings, and it was able to access his shared printers and handle the other chores he required.

So what went wrong? Well, I won’t have an opportunity for a proper autopsy, except to say that Windows itself can be unpredictable, and malfunction for reasons that are not always understood. The client had robust malware protection in place, and it was configured to update on a daily basis. He had all the proper Microsoft security patches installed, so it probably wasn’t a virus and, besides, when I ran the Boot Camp Assistant during the troubleshooting session, I wiped the Windows partition clean; as it turned out, twice.

I suppose I could have induced the client to buy Parallels Desktop, which would perfectly suit his needs. But then I’d have to fight Microsoft’s lame customer support to reactivate Windows, since it would regard the virtual machine installation as an attempt to install Windows on a second PC. The last time I tried that, I wasted over an hour coping with disconnects and barely literate support people.

So was it Boot Camp and the perils of its beta status all along? That’s a mystery that I might ponder for the next five minutes, and then return to more productive matters.