Windows + Mac: Boot Camp

Windows + Mac: Boot Camp

Better than before, still not ideal

Apple still provides a Boot Camp utility for its Mac computers that lets you dual boot between Windows and Mac OS X. As has always been the case, the Boot Camp drivers are not ideal, resulting in lackluster battery life and some balky hardware devices in Windows. But can you minimize these issues somewhat with third-party drivers, and turn your Mac into a reasonable facsimile of a Windows PC.

There are some weird myths that pervade the Mac world. One that concerns me explicitly is the notion that a Mac, somehow, is a better Windows PC than a "real". This is simply not true, though running Windows on a Mac—no matter how you do it—has gotten quite a bit better over the years. And as you may know, I'm examining a few ways to run Windows on a Mac. And I'm starting with Boot Camp, a utility that debuted with the first Intel-based Macs back in 2006.

The basics of Boot Camp haven't changed in years, though there have been improvements. To get started, you run the Boot Camp Assistant, a wizard-type application that is most easily found with OS X's integrated search functionality: Just press COMMAND + SPACE and type Boot Camp.

What has changed since I first used this software on the first Intel Core-based MacBook and then some subsequent Macs is that the MacBook Air comes sans optical disc and Boot Camp is of course now savvy to Windows 8.x. So the default choice is to create a Windows 7 or later install disk using a USB-based flash drive and a Windows Setup disc in ISO format.

That requirement alone will be a stumbling block for many people since Windows is typically obtained electronically—not really an option here—or on DVD disc in retail form. So you would need to make an ISO file from this retail disc yourself. (After, of course, obtaining said software.)

Stupidly, I tried to bypass this step by making my own USB-based Setup media in Windows using the Windows 7 USB/DVD Download Tool software that Microsoft provides online for free. But Boot Camp wouldn't accept it, and would only prompt me to format the USB flash drive I had selected. So I copied an ISO from my home server to the Mac and let Boot Camp do its thing.

Beyond this weird requirement, the Boot Camp Assistant will also download Apple's Windows drivers. This, too, requires some preparation, as the wizard requires that the files be saved to a USB disk, and not to the MacBook's internal storage. Fortunately, you can use the same USB disk that has the Windows Setup files on it.

Once all that is done, Boot Camp provides the familiar interface I remember from the past, allowing you to determine how much of the Mac's storage to provide to each OS. You can drag a slider to manually choose, or just click the Divide Equally button, which is what I did.

The wizard then creates the partitions and you're off to the races. Windows installs normally, as you'd expect, and the Apple drivers needed to use all of the devices in the MacBook are installed. Reboots happen. Windows Updates are installed. You get the idea.

From here, you can boot into either Mac OS X or Windows at boot time by pressing the Option key when the system "bong" sounds at startup. Or you can use the Boot Camp control panel in Windows, or the similar Boot Camp utility in OS X to choose to reboot into the other OS.

The issue with Boot Camp, as always, is that Apple's drivers are lackluster. Windows is applied to the disk in way that does not maximize performance, power management or battery life, and some system devices, most notably the trackpad—which is wonderful in OS X—are barely usable in Windows. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to improve matters.

The most important to is to install the excellent TrackPad++ software. This driver software requires a separate install of a utility called Power Plan Assistant, which appears to improve battery life dramatically. I didn't do any formal tests before installing this software, but where OS X is rated at up to 12 hours of battery life, I believe a normal Boot Camp install of Windows gets closer to 4.5 hours of life, which is hugely disappointing. With Power Plan Assistant, matters are improved, though I'll need this week using this set up on the road to be sure by how much.

(Whatever the results, the battery life estimates provided by Power Plan Assistant, which provides a tray icon that replace the normal Windows Power Options icon, are so inaccurate to be comedy. They're all over the map, and have no bearing at all on what you'll really see.)

With these two utilities installed, you can scroll inside applications much more smoothly than before. Its' not as good as the buttery-smooth scrolling you get in OS X. But it's usable. And that can't be said of the horribly hobbled Boot Camp drivers.

There's a massive and unwieldy utility for controlling the various functions of the trackpad, but I find that the defaults work well, including the ability to "reverse scroll," which is the default in OS X, and on Surface, and my own personal preference.

Boot Camp isn't all horrible. A lot of MacBook components work just fine, including the keyboard backlighting and special keys. (You can press Fn + a function key to get normal function key usage, of course, and if you prefer that to be the default, there's an option to select in the Boot Camp control panel. I'll be writing more about the Mac keyboard (and trackpad) soon.

Even better—and this is new since the last time I used Boot Camp, I think—you can now access your Mac OS X partition from within Windows using File Manager. In the past, I had to buy and use a third party utility. This is a huge convenience, and it makes going back and forth between the two environments much easier.

For the most part, using Windows from here on out is just like using Windows on any "real" PC, albeit with the lackluster battery life, lack of sophisticated power management, and the weird keyboard layout issues I'll be writing about soon.

But here's the weird bit. While Boot Camp is better than ever, running Windows under a Mac OS X-based virtualization solution like Parallels is even better. And I'll be writing about that soon as well.

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