Apple Boot Camp Beta review

The arrival of Boot Camp has to be one of the strangest computing events in a long while. Simply put, it allows you to install and run Windows XP on a Mac. It’s no particular technical feat: the move to Intel-based Macs has meant that, in terms of hardware, they’re now almost identical to PCs. Macs, however, have specific hardware locks that have prevented users from simply booting up an XP installation CD and putting Windows on it. But no longer: Boot Camp allows you to install a copy of XP alongside OS X and choose between each at boot time.

This would be news enough if it were an unofficial third-party utility. But no; Boot Camp has been produced in-house by Apple itself.

Installation requirements are pretty basic: you need an Intel-based Mac, since XP is compiled for x86 processors and simply won’t run on anything else. Then you need to hop over to www.apple.com and download the Boot Camp installer from within Mac OS X. You also need to make sure you’ve downloaded and installed the latest firmware (aka BIOS) for your particular Mac model. Then, on a blank CD, the installer burns appropriate Windows XP drivers from within OS X, allowing you to get your hardware up and running once you’re into the XP environment. The final requirement is a full retail copy of Windows XP with Service Pack 2. Non-SP 2 or upgrade versions are no good.

The Boot Camp Assistant installer is an 80MB download. It’s a simple wizard-style affair that runs within OS X, taking you through burning the driver CD and then creating a partition for the XP installation. You can choose the size of the XP partition, the only restriction being that you need 5GB for OS X. Once that’s done, you just need to pop your XP installation disc in the drive and reboot: the system restarts, booting from CD and into the standard XP blue installation screen. From here on in, you are, to all intents and purpose, working with a standard PC.

Transferring files between the two operating systems is easy one way but difficult the other. If your XP partition is smaller than 32GB, you can format it to FAT32 – you get the option of FAT32 or NTFS within the Boot Camp installer – and then mount, read and write to the XP partition from within OS X with no problems. But Mac OS X itself lives on an HFS+ filing system that XP can’t read, meaning the easiest way of transferring a file from OS X to XP is to save it out to a USB flash drive or the network, reboot and pull it back in again.

Once booted into XP, the hardware performs just as we’d expect. Our standard real-world benchmark application suite installed and ran with no problems on a Mac mini, and the score was more or less what we’d have guessed. The mini’s hardware consists of an Intel Core Duo T2300 – this is the slowest Duo variant running at 1.66GHz – along with 512MB of RAM and standard Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics, plus a 2.5in notebook hard disk. Given that, the overall score of 0.85 was bang on the money: we’ve seen Core Duo notebooks that perform faster, but they’re usually fitted with faster T2400 and T2500 CPUs, and often 7,200rpm hard disks.

You can’t remove OS X completely, and Apple’s strategy is potentially a dangerous one: it’s clearly hoping that the ability to run XP will tempt PC users to get themselves one of those shiny – and fairly cheap – Mac minis and put up with the loss of 5GB or so of disk space to OS X. It’s then hoping that said PC users will boot up OS X and decide they don’t really want XP after all.

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