Running Windows on a Mac: Let Me Count the Ways

February 23rd, 2007

I can tell you that the number of prospects for running Windows or Windows applications on your Intel-based Mac can make you dizzy. Decisions, decisions! How do you choose the best option for you?

The first consideration, of course, is whether you actually need Windows. Maybe you’ve just switched to the Mac and you feel you need a security blanket, or you’re accustomed to certain software that is not yet available on the Mac, and probably will never be.

Regardless of the reason, the first choice you need to make is how much performance you expect when running Windows. While Parallels Desktop and the beta of VMWare Fusion reportedly run fine — and I have a lot more experience with the former than the latter — they are not recommended for 3D games or sophisticated rendering software. For that, you’d do better with Apple’s Boot Camp, although you have to endure the restart process when switching from one operating system to the other.

That said, Boot Camp, despite being a beta, actually works quite well, thank you. As Apple has enhanced drivers for Boot Camp in the past 10 months, it has emerged as a very stable method in which to run Windows. Sure, you may have to do some power user tricks to induce it to install Windows Vista, but the applications you want or need probably aren’t Vista-savvy anyway. So don’t worry about it.

When it comes to those Windows games that will never migrate to the Mac platform, Boot Camp is also a superb choice. In fact, games apparently run slower under Vista — sometimes a lot slower — and that may not change until graphic card drivers are optimized. And maybe not even then, so maybe it doesn’t make sense to look to Vista for that purpose either.

When it comes to Parallels Desktop, there really isn’t much support for 3D graphics, although standard applications are quite fast. Even Windows Vista runs pretty decently, although the pseudo-Mac interface effects, known as Aero, isn’t supported. However, you shouldn’t feel you are necessarily missing anything by the missing eye-candy.

Now Parallels Desktop is a serious work-in-progress. It’s hard to keep up with the changes, since they come so rapidly the mind boggles. The new version, 2.5, is in Release Candidate stage, and it offers a neat version to install your Microsoft operating system. Just use the setup assistant, enter your serial number, and it does the rest. Microsoft should be embarrassed that Parallels knocked Virtual PC out of the ballpark, and it’s clear that Parallels can teach them a thing or two about the operating system installation process.

And, by the way, Parallels is working on 3D support, and they expect to deliver this feature in a few months.

No, I don’t want Microsoft to buy Parallels. They’d probably end up killing the product, or at least sabotaging its innovation. Maybe they wouldn’t mean to, but that would be the end result.

The other neat feature of the new Parallels release is Coherence, in which a Windows application exists in its own window on the Mac desktop, very much like the Mac Classic environment.

As for VMWare Fusion, it comes from a company that’s been in the virtualization business for a number of years, and has gotten high marks for quality. The Mac software, now in pubic beta, reportedly lets you select the number of processors — or cores — it supports for a virtual machine. Currently, Parallels will allocate just one processor, but things might change before long. So I wouldn’t assume Fusion is potentially faster. It’s not now, by the way.

There is another option: CrossOver 6.0 for the Mac. This smartly-designed application mimics the Windows API. It’s based on an open source tool known as WINE (for Wine Is Not an Emulator). It opens a Windows application in a Mac window, using Apple’s X11 application.

Performance is good, and it can actually run 3D games with stellar performance. However, application support is limited. CrossOver’s publisher, Codeweavers, has to engineer support for each application, so don’t expect anything but the basics from Microsoft and other companies.

One intriguing option not widely mentioned is marketed as an online set of subscription services. Emerging from True North Technology, Northstar lets you subscribe to the Mac and Windows applications you need to run from their rich catalog.

So are software subscriptions the delivery method of the future? Well, both Microsoft and Google are hoping that it is, but time will tell. But if you have a reasonably speedy Internet connection, and you don’t want to pay the huge upfront costs of a Windows virtual machine, the Windows operating system, and the applications you need, Northstar may indeed by a worthy alternative.

Indeed, if you must continue to use Windows, your Mac may be the best solution of all.

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7 Responses to “Running Windows on a Mac: Let Me Count the Ways”

  1. Dana Sutton says:

    When I bought my Mac Pro I got a copy of Parallels Desktop thrown in free by the vendor, so I said what the heck and installed it. And now every time I get the thought that I ought to spring for a copy of Windows and install it, I immediatley have a second thought — what the heck for? I admit this may be a fault of my own. Maybe there’s a lot of terrific PC software out there that would make my work easier and my life richer. Maybe I’m just ignorant, but I need somebody to give me a good reason to plunk down for Windows. So far I can’t think of any.

  2. Enrique Mayoral says:

    Very well put. I have not needed Windows in my life for many years now. I have parallels installed on my computer and windows in it, but I have not used it yet. There is a Mac application for what many think is a windows only application. On Mac, it will have a different name ad in many ways, an easier and nicer interface to deal with. So good thinking. Don’t hurry and buy Windows because some people say “There are so many programs out there for Windows and not Mac”. What they forget to mention is Windows is so stripped of an OS (Compared to OS X) that you need all these programs to run remotely as good as a Mac with less software purchased for the Mac.

  3. Sometimes, all you need is one good reason to use a program. As a web designer, for years I struggled with simply reviewing my web design work in MicroSoft’s Explorer. Of all the browsers out there, Explorer on Windows was (is) the worst, but the one nearly everyone uses. I had no choice but to test in it…and sometimes I couldn’t. Since I design on a Mac and Explorer for the Mac ceased support at version five, I was stuck unless I invested in Virtual PC – yuck.

    Enter the intel processor switch and Parrallels. Yes, I had to purchase two software programs just to look at my client web sites in Windows Explorer, but it has changed everything for me and my business. Now, I can design all my web sites on the Mac and make certain they test out in both operating systems, on every browser – thank you technology!

  4. Ian says:

    Remember when Apple had a co-computer card for the Quadra 610 and possibly other computers? It was a 486 on a card that used the “Processor Direct Slot”. It never was much to write home about but it was what it was. A sepereate computer inside. Well Apple had a way to switch to that environment while still running the Mac side of things. Why can’t Apple do that now? Dedicate some RAM that the OS X kernel can’t touch (because of the “Dual Boot” preference) and a partition that is exclusive to each environment for write abilities. It’s not even a virtualization thing. It’d be a matter of Apple coding a keyboard command or program to switch environments.
    I mean honestly would you care if the Mac side of things halted while you were in windows? That’s what happens when you reboot completely into windows. Basically instead of having to reboot the entire machine, the environment would simply halt while you switched to the other side. And there are a number of products on the market that allow you to read and write Mac or Windows volumes for both platforms.
    My point is I think Apple can get the hardware to play nice enough to switch environments without having to reboot.
    I can dream at least.

  5. Andrew says:

    There are hundreds, if not thousands of reasons to run Windows on your Mac, and the fact that most o them are games doesn’t make them any less important. Until all games are released on both platforms, there will be a need to run Windows natively, in supported API or in fast-enough virtualization on the Mac.

    This is not new. I played Age of Empires under Virtual PC with pretty good results, and there are times when even plain, ordinary Windows solitaire is just what I want to do.

  6. Joe Kissell says:

    Interestingly, just yesterday I posted a list of Six and Three-Quarters Ways to Run Windows on a Mac. The choices are even more dizzying than it appears. Boot Camp, Parallels, Fusion, and CrossOver are of course all on the list — and then some!

  7. Interestingly, just yesterday I posted a list of Six and Three-Quarters Ways to Run Windows on a Mac. The choices are even more dizzying than it appears. Boot Camp, Parallels, Fusion, and CrossOver are of course all on the list — and then some!

    Well, this ended up being a great subject for The Tech Night Owl LIVE, so we invited Joe to talk about this and other subjects on our March 1 episode. Don’t miss it!


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