Windows + Mac

Windows + Mac

A walk on the dark side

Several years ago, I spent a ton of time and effort trying to use Windows on various Macs. It was never really optimal, though things did improve when Apple switched Mac to the Intel processor platform. Today, we have some great options for running Windows—and Windows applications—on a Mac. So I'm going to begin an overdue look at those options, and see which makes the most sense.

Right up front, however, I should explain that buying a Mac to run Windows isn't ideal, despite some well-intentioned but misguided advice from others. Yes, a Mac is really just a PC under the covers. But depending on which route you choose, you'll either need to deal with Apple's underwhelming drivers, which impact performance and battery life, or choose a virtualization solution that comingles Mac and PC apps in sometimes confusing ways (and also impacts performance and battery life).

With either approach, the Mac remains an expensive option, too: While Apple has reduced prices on its desirable MacBook Air portables in particular, you will still need to purchase Windows, and Microsoft doesn't let that go for cheap: A basic version of Windows 8.1 will set you back over $100 on right now, though you're welcome to skirt the law a bit and pick up the OEM version for slightly less. (And Windows 8.1 Pro is even more expensive at about $150.)

To test the modern options for running Windows on a Mac, I purchased a mid-2014 MacBook Air 13-inch from Apple recently. I went with a built-to-order versions, bumping up the RAM to 8 GB and the onboard storage to 256 GB, but I didn't upgrade the processor, so it utilizes a mainstream dual-core Intel Core i5 running at 1.4 GHz.

I went with the Air purposefully, as I actually prefer non-Retina displays, especially for Windows. The Air still pushes a low-res 1440 x 900 resolution, which is just fine by me. I think it looks great, for both Mac and Windows apps. But others may prefer a high-res MacBook Pro model, and it seems like you can get a 13-inch version for a similar price, about $1350 after taxes and shipping. You could also save a lot of money by forgetting about the upgrades: A stock 13-inch MacBook Air can be had for $999.

So why upgrade the RAM and storage?

There are two primary ways to run Windows on a Mac: Virtualization and Boot Camp, the latter of which lets you dual-boot between Mac OS X and any modern Windows version. Virtualization requires RAM, so going from 4 GB to 8 GB made sense. But dual-boot requires storage: I didn't want 64 GB or less storage for either environment. So bumping up the storage from 128 GB to 256 GB also made sense, given my testing requirements.

Beyond this one-off experiment, I also wanted a Mac I could keep around for at least a few years. While I've had many Macs over the years, my Mac hardware purchases have trailed off as mobile platforms have gained in popularity while the Mac stayed relatively stagnant, usage-wise. In 20 years of writing about technology, I've always stayed up to date on rival platforms, and in the old days that meant Linux and Mac OS X. These days it's more about Android and iOS, and Chromebook.

But the Mac still has a place, though I find Mac OS X to be sterile and largely uninteresting. Microsoft will release a new Office version on Mac sometime this century and I need to be able to test that, and other Microsoft apps. Apple is improving the integration between Mac OS X and iOS in the latest releases, OS X Yosemite (10.10) and iOS 8, respectively, and I want to understand and be able to discuss and write about that, and base my opinions on modern hardware. So it's been awhile. But I needed a new Mac to move forward. (My previous Macs were an Intel Core 2 Duo-based Mac mini and a first generation 11-inch MacBook Air that my daughter still uses. To run Windows 7.)

As far as the MacBook Air goes, I understand from reviews that this year's update is a minor one with a tiny bump in processor speed, a small decline in storage performance (somewhat mitigated by the 256 GB storage module, which is faster than the 128 GB version) and a $100 price cut. Since I didn't have the previous model, or the one before that, none of that really matters to me.

It's a nice machine, perhaps a bit long in the tooth in the sense that this MacBook Air design debuted years ago and is in need of a meaningful update. (My daughter: "This looks exactly like my computer. But bigger.") But ... who cares? It's a solid machine, with great performance and battery life, and it feels as solid and well-made as it looks. It comes in nice, meticulously arranged Apple packaging. Exactly what the typical Apple customer wants, that high-end experience.

Since setting it up the other day, I've installed a few Microsoft apps and have started dabbling with Windows. I'll write about the latter in coming articles, but I'm using Parallels for the virtualization part of it. My initial reaction is quite positive, but more on that soon.

The Microsoft stuff on Mac is a mix of old and new. Office 2011 is horrible looking and out of date, and needs a major refresh like yesterday. But OneNote for Mac, a new app, is gorgeous and seems relatively full-featured, and is I think a template for what the next Office for Mac will look like. I've installed OneDrive for Mac as well, which works like OneDrive on Windows 7, where you have to manually tell it which folders to synchronize (or just synchronize the whole thing). That's primitive compared to what we have in Windows 8.1.

Next up, I'll take a look at Parallels, a great virtualization solution that lets you commingle Windows applications with Mac apps, running both side-by-side.

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