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Windows on Mac: Worth the Effort?

Windows on Mac: Worth the Effort?

If there are three solid-performing solutions available, the primary decision to install a Windows solution is cost over need. If you think you need Windows, are you willing to pay the price? Apple's Boot Camp is free, but it's not as feature rich as the Parallels or VMware solutions, which each retail for about $79.99.

With Apple's move to Intel-based processors, the speed and ease of running Windows operating systems on your Mac has never been easier and more effective. In fact, there are several options available for running Windows software on Macs that fall into the basic, you-can't-go-wrong space: Apple's Boot Camp, Parallels Desktop for Mac and VMware's Fusion. All three let you install a real live version of a Windows operating system on your hard drive.

If you've heard about older virtualization software -- most notably Microsoft's Virtual PC for Mac -- you were probably put off by reports of generally disappointing performance. While Microsoft's solution worked, it was never a speed demon and never really gave PC-based games a fighting chance. Of course, Virtual PC for Mac only runs on Macs using PowerPC-based processors -- the G3, G4, and G5 models. Microsoft isn't planning on releasing an Intel-based version, so its most current offering, Virtual PC for Mac Version 7, is on its way out.

Why Windows?

For the vast majority of Mac users, there's very little need to run any Windows operating system or Windows application on a Mac. Many of the world's most important applications have their equivalent Mac applications, which function just fine. For example, the Firefox browser for Windows and the Firefox browser for OS X are very similar, as is Microsoft Office for Windows and Microsoft Office for Mac. In fact, in some cases I've seen the Mac version of Office be more compatible with other Office products than some Office versions made for Windows.

While there might not always be a Windows and Mac version available of every single product on the market, most every important type of application has a Mac counterpart. For example, iWork '08 contains a robust word processor (Pages), presentation application (Keynote) and spreadsheet (Numbers). All three are compatible with key industry standards as well as Microsoft Office documents. Opening up a Microsoft Word file or Excel spreadsheet? Not such a big deal anymore on a Mac.

It's a PC World

Occasionally a basic Mac-using consumer is going to run into irritating little issues. Most games are written for PCs, not Macs, so if you want to play the latest cool PC game, you're out of luck on a Mac -- unless you're running Windows, of course, on an Intel-based Mac. In that case you'll generally get pretty good results. We're not talking Alienware results, but performance is good. More on that in a bit.

The Web is another irritating area. Yahoo, for example, sometimes has video advertisements that are Mac-friendly but has content videos that are not. Compatibility can be spotty even today, though Yahoo is getting better.

Wal-Mart, when it launched its DRM-free music tracks did it through its online music store, which isn't Mac-compatible. It's irritating, sure, but most Mac users aren't going to bother giving up iTunes for a Wal-Mart experience. The most likely stems from legacy DRM issues with songs sold in the original store. However, it's likely only a matter of time before all the major record labels start offering DRM-free tunes, so there's no need to run Windows on your Mac just to save a few cents on songs.

Just in case you were wondering, you can buy almost everything else on Wal-Mart's Web site with Mac-based browser.

Netflix is a another consumer culprit for Mac owners. While all the basic features of Netflix work fine, Netflix's on-demand movie viewing feature only works on Windows. Depending on your account, you get hours of free streaming movies, but not on Mac OS X.

Some devices only work with Windows. If you have a GPS unit that only works with Windows, you need to get a new GPS unit or find a Windows-based machine. This happens with some peripherals, but the decision-making factor is usually that you already have the peripheral or device -- not that you couldn't find a Mac-friendly option.

If you're a business user, either an employee or consultant, you're more likely to have a few PC-only applications that you must work with. However, businesses are also much more likely to simply consolidate on a Windows platform and require all uses to live in a Windows world. That's slowly changing, but still true. You're more likely to need a PC on your Mac if you're a consultant or work with clients who have PCs.

Decisions, Decisions

If there are three solid-performing solutions available, the primary decision to install a Windows solution is cost over need. If you think you need Windows, are you willing to pay the price? Apple's Boot Camp is free, but it's not as feature rich as the Parallels or VMware solutions, which each retail for about US$79.99.

The next cost is the Windows operating system. If you have a spare license of Windows XP lying around, for example, you can easily use that. If you don't, you'll have to pay retail for your Windows operating system.

Microsoft kicks Mac users with its Vista end user license agreement, which states that you can't use Microsoft's Vista Home Basic or Vista Home Premium with virtualization technologies -- you've got to buy the more expensive Business, Ultimate, or Enterprise (corporate customers) editions. These editions will set you back $270 or more.

Plus, to get the full benefit, you're going to need more memory. If you use a lot of multiple applications and you like your Mac to perform quickly, you'll probably want 2 GB of RAM (random access memory). Prices have dropped lately, but there's a decent chance you might have to pay at least another $75 to $100.

When you can pick up a cheap back-to-school laptop running Vista Home Basic at Wal-Mart for $499, suddenly installing Vista on a Mac seems like quite an expensive proposition.

There's more: If you want to use a Windows version of Microsoft Office, for example, that'll also set you back a little over a $100 for the Home and Student edition. That jumps up to $400 for the Professional version. If you don't already have the Windows-based applications you want to use, you may have to buy those to run in your virtualized environment.

If you like the idea of being able to access most any content or application, and you've got the cash to do it, installing Windows on a Mac is relatively easy. Perhaps the biggest thrill is showing off to your friends -- "Yeah, I've got Windows here, too. Wanna see it?"

Boot Camp vs. Others

Your real decision is whether to use Apple's Boot Camp or buy from Parallels or VMWare. Here's why: With Boot Camp, you have to split your hard drive into separate partitions, only one of which can be booted at any given time. To switch to Windows running on Boot Camp, you have to shut down Mac OS X and restart your Mac so that it launches Windows. When you want to go back to OS X, you've got to shut down Windows and reboot into OS X.

It's not as friendly, but it is functional. The key benefit is that your Windows environment is totally separate from your Mac environment -- there's zero resource sharing of the processor or memory, for example.

In addition, there's a cool benefit to Boot Camp -- you can run Windows Vista Home Basic in Boot Camp because it doesn't technically use virtualization technologies. Vista will boot from your hard drive and use all your Mac's components as if it were running on any other PC box.

CodeWeavers has a product called CrossOver Mac that lets Mac users run Windows applications on OS X, which means they don't have to own a version of a Windows operating system. It doesn't seem to have gained the same kind of traction as Boot Camp, Parallels Desktop, and Fusion, but if you have an application or two that you'd like to run on your Mac, CrossOver might do the job.

The Parallels and VMware solutions are very similar; however, versions of Parallels for the Mac have been on the market longer, and it has a solid track record.

Both Parallels Desktop 3.0 for Mac and Fusion let you seamlessly run Windows applications alongside Mac applications, letting you cut and paste between them. You can share files and folders between the two operating systems, and while there are a few differences in features, they're mostly minor compared to the basic premise of running Windows on your Mac. Whether doing so at all is necessary is up to you.


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