Best of Both Worlds: Windows 7 on the Mac

Note: This article is adapted from Windows 7 Secrets Chapter 2: Installing and Upgrading to Windows 7 --Paul When Apple switched its desirable Macintosh computers from the aging Power PC a...

Paul Thurrott

October 6, 2010

8 Min Read
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Note: This article is adapted from Windows 7 Secrets Chapter 2: Installing and Upgrading to Windows 7 --Paul

When Apple switched its desirable Macintosh computers from the aging Power PC architecture to Intel's PC-compatible x86 platform in 2006, the computing landscape was changed forever. No longer were PCs and Macs incompatible at a very low level. Indeed, Macs are now simply PCs running a different operating system. This fascinating change opened up the possibility of Mac users running Windows software natively on their machines, either in a dual-boot scenario or, perhaps, in a virtualized environment that would offer much better performance than the Power PC?based virtualized environments of the past.

These dreams quickly became reality. Apple created software called Boot Camp that now enables Mac users to dual-boot between Mac OS X (Leopard or higher) and Windows XP, Vista or 7. And enterprising tech pioneers such as VMware and Parallels have created seamless virtualization environments for Mac OS X that enable Mac users to run popular Windows applications alongside Mac-only software such as iLife.

Now consumers can choose a best-of-both-worlds solution that combines Apple's highly regarded (if expensive) hardware with the compatibility and software-library depth of Windows. Indeed, I've been using an Apple Macbook notebook running Windows 7 ever since Microsoft's latest operating system shipped in early beta form.

With a virtualized environment running under Mac OS X, you have the advantage of running Mac OS X and Windows applications side by side, but with a performance penalty. In this scenario, Mac OS X is considered the host OS, and Windows is a guest OS running on top of Mac OS X. (This works much like Windows Virtual PC and XP Mode in Windows 7.) Thus, Windows applications won't run at full speed. With enough RAM, you won't notice any huge performance issues while utilizing productivity applications, but you can't run modern Windows games effectively with such a setup.

Note: Previous to the latest versions of VMWare Fusion and Parallels Desktop, the Windows 7 Aero user experience was not available in virtualized environments. So you would have to settle for Windows 7 Basic instead. But now, that's no longer the case, and if you have the latest version of either solution, you can even get the full Aero experience.

Regardless of which method you use to install Windows 7, be aware of a final limitation: You will need to purchase a legal copy of Windows 7, as no Mac ships with Microsoft's operating system. This is a not-so-fine point that Apple never seems to point out in their advertising. Buying Windows 7, of course, can be expensive. But if you previously installed a legally licensed (and paid for) copy of Windows XP or Vista on your Mac, either in Boot Camp or via a virtualized environment, you do qualify for Upgrade pricing on Windows 7. So all the advice in my Clean Install Windows 7 with Upgrade Media article applies here as well.

Dual Boot the Mac: Using Boot Camp

Boot Camp is a feature of Mac OS X Leopard and Snow Leopard and is configured via that system's Boot Camp Assistant. The Boot Camp Assistant is available from the Mac OS X Utilities folder (Applications, Utilities) and provides a wizard-based configuration experience.

The key to this wizard is the Create a Second Partition phase, where you can graphically resize the partition layout on the hard disk between Mac OS X and Windows. (Macs with multiple hard drives can be configured such that Mac OS X and Windows occupy different physical disks, if desired.)

After that, Boot Camp prompts you to insert the Windows 7 Setup DVD and proceed with setup. From a Windows user's perspective, Setup proceeds normally and Windows looks and acts as it should once installed. Be sure to keep your Mac OS X Setup DVD handy, however. It includes the necessary drivers that Windows needs to be compatible with the Mac's specific hardware.

Tip: As of this writing, Apple has yet to ship Windows 7-specific Boot Camp drivers, but the driver versions found on the Snow Leopard Setup disc, which are designed for Windows Vista, will at least work. Expect more optimized drivers by the end of 2009.

Once you have Windows 7 up and running on the Mac, there are just a few Mac-specific issues you should be aware of:

Configuring Boot Camp: When you install Windows 7 on a Mac using Boot Camp, Apple installs a Boot Camp Control Panel application, which you can access via Start Menu Search by typing boot camp. This application helps you configure important functionality such as the default system to load at boot time (Mac or Windows).

There's also a system notification tray applet that enables you to access the Boot Camp Control Panel and Boot Camp Help and choose to reboot into Mac OS X.

Switching between operating systems at boot time: While you can choose the default operating system at boot time via the Boot Camp Control Panel application, or choose to boot into Mac OS X from within Windows by using the Boot Camp tray applet, you can also choose an OS on the fly when you boot up the Mac. To do so, restart the Mac and then hold down the Option key until you see a screen with icons for both Mac OS X and Windows. Then, use the arrow keys on the keyboard to choose the system you want and press Enter to boot.

Understanding Mac keyboard and mouse differences: While Macs are really just glorified PCs now, Apple continues to use unique keyboard layouts and, frequently, one-button mice. As a result, you may have to make some adjustments when running Windows on a Mac. Apple provides a number of resources for its keyboard layouts, including a handy Mac OS X keyboard shortcuts guide and the Boot Camp Installation & Setup Guide (PDF), which includes a section on using an Apple keyboard with Windows.

Additionally, you can right-click items on a single-button Mac trackpad by holding two fingers on the trackpad and tapping the button. To scroll in a document or Web page, move two fingers on the trackpad simultaneously, either up or down.

Windows on Mac: Virtualization solutions

If you'd prefer to join the ranks of Mac switchers--you traitor, you--you can still run Windows and, more important, Windows applications, from within Mac OS X. You do so via a virtualized environment such as VMware Fusion or Parallels Desktop, both of which fool Windows into running inside of a software-based PC that itself runs as an application under Mac OS X.

In the past, virtualized environments presented a number of huge issues, especially on the Mac. First, performance was abysmal, owing mostly to the underlying architectural differences between the PowerPC and Intel x86 platforms and the difficulty in translating running code between them. Second, virtualized environments have typically presented Windows and its applications as a sort of thing-in-a-thing, whereby the entire Windows environment would run inside a closed-off window that was quite separate and distinct from the Mac environment in which it was running. Moving back and forth between the Mac and Windows environments was jarring and difficult.

Modern virtualized environments--such as VMware Fusion 3 and Parallels Desktop 5--have mostly overcome these issues, just as Windows Virtual PC has on the Windows side. Thanks to the underlying Intel x86 platform now used by the Mac, virtualization now offers better performance because there's no need to do on-the-fly code conversion. Yes, performance still suffers, but you might be surprised by how well Fusion and Parallels Desktop actually work.

More impressive, perhaps, both VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop offer unique new usage modes that blur the line between the Mac and Windows desktops. VMware Fusion offers a feature called Unity that enables you to run a Windows application directly from the Mac Dock, switch between Windows and Mac applications using the Mac's Expos? window switcher, and drag and drop files between both systems.

Parallels Desktop offers a similar feature called Coherence, which also integrates Windows applications into the Mac desktop experience. Coherence even supports copy and paste between Mac and Windows applications, and many other integration features.

VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop also offer an impressive bit of integration with Apple's Boot Camp functionality. If you've already installed Windows 7 in a dual-boot setup with Mac OS X using Boot Camp, they will detect that Windows install and automatically enable you to access it as a virtualized environment from within Mac OS X. This, truly, is the best of both worlds, as you can choose to access Windows 7 natively via Boot Camp or virtualized from within Mac OS X, all on the same machine.

And both systems now support Aero glass functionality for Windows Vista and 7 clients running as guest environments under Mac OS X. This provides for a more seamless experience, and one that looks and works like Windows really does. So when you run Windows applications like Office 2010 under Mac OS X, they look as good as possible.

About the Author(s)

Paul Thurrott

Paul Thurrott is senior technical analyst for Windows IT Pro. He writes the SuperSite for Windows, a weekly editorial for Windows IT Pro UPDATE, and a daily Windows news and information newsletter called WinInfo Daily UPDATE.

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