Expert guide: Running Windows on a Mac

Click here to read “32 reasons why PCs are better than Macs”.

Expert guide: Running Windows on a Mac

Click here to read “10 reasons why Macs are better than PCs”.

When you buy a computer, you usually have to make a decision based on the capabilities of the hardware; the decision of what operating system it runs is usually made for you. PCs (almost exclusively) come with Windows and Macs come with Mac OS X.

But following Apple’s decision to switch its entire hardware line-up from PowerPC to Intel chips, all current Macs have the unique ability to run all three major operating systems – Windows, Mac OS and Linux – natively.

Hard-core fanboys aside, traditional Mac users should welcome this development with open arms. It brings to the Mac the ability to run applications that are developed only for Windows, helping everyone from web developers who want to check their site’s performance in Windows-only browsers such as Internet Explorer, to educators and others working in specialist fields.

IT professionals should take note too, not just because it means Macs can now access hitherto denied corporate applications such as Access and Visio, but also because it means the decision over whether to buy Mac or PC hardware is much simplified. This is particularly true when buying hardware for hot-desking or other sharing techniques.

And PC users? Well, we get access to Apple’s beautiful hardware. It isn’t just about aesthetics with Macs; it’s about the care and an attention to detail, plus a certain panache; criteria we don’t always find in the wider PC market.

We’ll explain the different ways in which you can install and run Windows on a Mac, highlight each approach’s strengths and weaknesses, and walk you through the process of installing Vista using one of the products we’ll discuss.

One important thing to remember before we begin, however, is that you should ensure you’re properly licensed. Installing Windows on a Mac is no different to installing it on a PC: it will have to be activated as usual. Note, too, that you’ll need full versions of the OS – upgrade discs won’t work – and while OEM install discs are likely to work in practice, using them would contravene your EULA.

Choosing the right software

When it comes to installing Windows onto a Mac, you essentially have two options. One is Apple’s Boot Camp utility. More on this later, but for now you just have to be aware that this works by partitioning off a chunk of your Mac’s hard disk for a fresh Windows XP install. If you want to run Windows, you have to shut down Mac OS X and boot the Mac from this partition, and Windows completely takes over the computer.

At the time of writing, Boot Camp is available free as a beta, but it will shortly be rolled into the next major release of Mac OS X – version 10.5, also known as Leopard – and may cease to be available as a standalone tool to anyone running 10.4. Also, to install Windows Vista using Boot Camp currently requires low-level tinkering best left to alpha geeks (see next month’s £799 PCs Labs for more on this), something that should be rectified in Leopard.

The alternative is virtualisation. Here, the Mac is booted into OS X, but you can run Windows and its applications within the host operating system. The advantage here is that you can move seamlessly from one operating system to the other, without having to reboot. If you’re a web developer working in Dreamweaver on the Mac, for example, you can check how your site looks in IE7 simply by pasting a URL into the Windows browser.

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