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Running Windows on a Mac: Let Me Count the Ways

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.