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MacBook Air + Windows 7, Part Two: An Imperfect Storm

The reactions to my recent MacBook Air purchase have been interesting, both via email and on Twitter. And I feel the need to clarify a few things. More specifically, I'm not necessarily recommending this solution as some sort of best-of-breed combination of the Air's good looks and Windows 7's superior usability and productivity. No, this combination is very much a compromise, as I noted repeatedly in Part One. And it's likely that most people reading this would not be well served by going this route.

That said, there are of course situations where running Windows on a Mac make sense. There are also, not coincidentally, many ways to go about this. So in this concluding part of my MacBook Air + Windows 7 experiment, I'll describe the various ways in which you can do so do, explain some of the pitfalls and gotchas to look out for, and explain why it's quite likely that my latest Frankenstein-style creation is not necessarily the optimal Windows machine.

Windows 7 + Mac: A cornucopia of options

Thanks to the ubiquitous nature of Windows and Windows-compatible applications, Apple and its partners have had to rise to the challenge of providing Mac users with the ability to run these foreign software entities on the Mac. And risen they have: There are numerous ways to run Windows, and Windows applications, on the Mac.

These include:


Solutions like VMWare Fusion and Parallels Desktop allow you to install and run Windows in a virtual environment similar (but in many ways superior to) VMWare Workstation, VirtualBox, and Virtual PC on Windows PCs. These solutions feature interesting (and somewhat whacky) integration features where you can meld the Mac and Windows desktops and do more commonly needed things like simply run a Windows application side-by-side with native Mac applications.

There's a weird tendency in enthusiast circles of spending a lot of time and effort playing with this stuff, but honestly virtualization makes sense if you want a Mac but need to run one or a handful of Windows applications regularly too. For me, of course, virtualization is not an option, and while the performance is decent--especially compared to Windows-based virtualization solutions--I'm not personally interested in this sort of thing beyond its quirky entertainment value.

The barrier to entry is a bit high as well. As with any other Windows-on-Mac solution, you need to legally obtain Windows ~$200 at retail) and any Windows applications you need (like Office, which can also be expensive). And then the virtualization environments themselves are retail apps too: Both cost about $80. So at a starting price of about $300 plus whatever luxury price your Mac costs, you're spending a lot of money to run a Windows app poorly inside a RAM-hungry virtualized environment.

Boot Camp

Apple provides a handy utility in Mac OS X called Boot Camp that will non-destructively repartition the Mac's hard drive and jumpstart the Windows Setup process, allowing you to create a dual-boot system in which your Mac can alternatively boot into Mac OS X or Windows 7. As with any other dual-boot PC, you can only run one OS at a time, of course, but both are also native, in that when running they control the hardware normally and provide the full power and functionality of the system. (Apple provides all the Windows drivers you need to fully utilize the Mac hardware and devices it contains.)

Boot Camp works well, but there are a few issues with this approach, one of which is specific to the MacBook Air I purchased. First, dual booting is by nature inefficient, though the Air's speedy reboot times at least makes this less so. I tell people who are considering Macs but still want to retain a foothold in the Windows world that dual booting, like virtualization, is fun to play around with for a while, but most people will ultimately choose one or the other environment and stick with that. There are exceptions of course. I could see dual-booting into Windows on a Mac just to play certain games, for example.

On the MacBook Air, Boot Camp is a bit less sophisticated in that the Mac doesn't natively recognize USB storage devices as bootable and Boot Camp itself will only install Windows from a DVD. Which is a problem, because the MacBook Air doesn't have a DVD drive. So you'll have to devise some workaround. I used these instructions to install a third party Mac boot loader called Refit which does a couple of things; most important, it recognizes a USB-based Windows 7 Setup disk as bootable and lets you install Windows that way. (You can uninstall Refit afterwards, which I did do.)

Boot Camp will only recognize a Windows & Setup DVD, not a USB drive, so a workaround is required.

Once Windows 7 is installed on the Mac hard drive, you can reboot the computer, hold down the Option key and then choose between either OS X or Windows. Or, you can choose a default OS and if you don't interrupt it, the system will boot into that OS.

I tested this configuration a number of times, first using the Refit method with a USB-based Windows 7 Setup disk. I also used Apple's USB-based SuperDrive for the Air to install Windows 7 the "normal" way, and can verify that this drive (and other Apple hardware accessories, like the USB-based Ethernet adapter) work just fine in Windows too. (On the Air, at least.) You could also theoretically use a third party optical drive (again, USB-based), though I'm told this is hit or miss: Some work, some don't.

Boot Camp is likely the best option for most people. It gives you a fairly seamless way to move between both environments, and in doing so you get the full, native experience.

But there is another way.

Wipe out Mac OS X, install just Windows

I'm a Windows guy, and while I do like to keep at least one Mac OS X install around for testing and comparative purposes--something I've done straight through since early 2001, by the way--I already have a desktop Mac (a 2010 Mac mini) that I use for that purpose. And let's face it, the Air's relatively paltry 128 GB of solid state storage is OK for a single OS, but once you start talking about slicing that up for two different OSes, things get pretty tight.

My aim with this machine was to get something thin and light with decent battery life, something I could throw in a bag and, hopefully, not feel digging a new and deeper gap into my shoulder as I lugged it around trade shows and other trips. But more to the point, it was to get a Windows PC, not a Mac. Yes, I happen to like the hardware, and the design. But I want to run Windows 7 on this thing. Would it be possible to simply blow away Mac OS X and dedicate the whole disk to Windows?

Of course.

Doing so pretty much requires an external (USB) optical drive, like Apple's SuperDrive. And that's because you need to boot the Mac from a cold stop from the Windows 7 Setup disk. (You could use that Refit utility to do this from USB storage, I guess. I did not test this.) And sure enough, it works. Just be sure to download Apple's driver set for Windows before killing OS X, and save it to a USB stick or whatever. But as far as Windows Setup goes, it works just like any other PC, pretty much. Reboot the machine, and hold down the C key at the "bong" startup sound so that it boots from the optical disk. Install Windows, rebooting twice. Insert the USB key and install the Mac drivers, reboot. You're good to go.

This is what I did. And while I'm happy with the results--there's no trace of OS X on this thing anywhere--I'm pretty sure it's not what most people would do, or want. And that's fine. I'm just throwing this out there so you know it's possible.

As for why you probably don't want to do this, read on. Because as I noted in part one of this article, MacBook Air + Windows 7 is a compromise. And the price you pay for this compromise will likely be too high for most people.

Windows on Mac: An imperfect experience

Apple doesn't design its Mac hardware in isolation. These machines are meant to be used in tandem with its tightly integrated software, both the Mac OS X operating system and its key applications software, like iLife. What you get on the other side is an end to end experience that most PCs can't match, since your typical PC is a mishmash of software components from a variety of places, and of varying quality.

And that's neat if you want a Mac. If you don't, you need to deal with some compromises. Here's what I've seen so far on the MacBook Air.

Power management

The Air was designed for iPad-like startup, sleep, and resume, and with OS X installed, it delivers just that. With Windows, however, things are more leisurely. Fast, yes. But not instant as with OS X. So you raise the lid on the device and wait ... 1... 2... 3... seconds before the logon screen appears. Reboots take 25 seconds, not less than half that time as with OS X. Not horrible, but not as good. (Oddly, about 5 seconds of that are wasted during the light gray Mac EFI/BIOS-type screen, which just seems to sit there when booting into Windows in a way it does not when booting into OS X.)

As for battery life, Apple rates the 13-inch MacBook Air I have for up to 7 hours of endurance ... under Mac OS X. Surprisingly, under Windows 7, I appear to be getting just that, though I've only had the machine for a few days and need to test more. For example, as I write this, the battery is down to exactly 50 percent. And it says I have 3 hours and 34 minutes of life left, using the stock (and default) Balanced power scheme. I haven't changed a thing, and won't. Let's see how it does.


The layout of the Mac keyboard is non-optimal for a variety of reasons and of course the Air's keyboard in particular is a lackluster island-style keyboard with no particularly advantageous quality beyond the fact that it's full-sized. The big issue is the CTRL, ALT, and Windows keys (COMMAND on a Mac). On a PC, these keys are laid out as CTRL - Win - ALT to the left of the space bar. But on the Mac, they're laid out as CTRL - ALT - Win. So you have two choices. You can simply adapt, as I have. Or you can install a third party keyboard remapper and change the function of the Windows and ALT keys. (One such program, recommended by a reader, is InchWest MapKeyboard. I've tried it, and it works fine.)

Unlike with most PC keyboards, Apple designs the top row of function keys to do other things. So F9 is Mute, F10 is Volume Down, and F11 is Volume Up. In the Boot Camp utility that's installed with Apple's drivers (even on a Windows-only install), you can specify whether these keys will work like normal function keys by default (requiring Fn + key to activate any special features) or by special feature by default (requiring Fn + key for the normal function key actions). It ships in the latter configuration by default, so if you want to close an open Explorer window with a keyboard shortcut, you need to use Fn + ALT + F4 instead of the simpler ALT + F4. And most of the Apple special functions don't work in Windows anyway: The volume stuff works, and the screen brightness keys, and Eject and Power. That's it.


Apple ships its portable machines with enormous glass trackpads. I prefer no trackpad or small trackpads generally, because big trackpads tend to cause misfires when you're typing and your palm inadvertently taps the glass. But kudos to Apple for getting this right: So far, I've not had this happen on the Air, so in this case the size of the trackpad hasn't been problematic.

But it's not perfect. Apple's Boot Camp utility lets you configure how right-click works (its off by default, though a weird two-finger tap can enable it too) and whether the pad supports tap to click. But in OS X, the trackpad supports a wide range of gestures, including squeeze and pinch zooming. In Windows, I think, the only gesture that works is two-finger-drag for scrolling in documents and web pages. But it's too fast and I don't see a place to change that.


I'm no fan of glossy screens but surely I'm not the first to notice that the glossy screen on the Air isn't as glossy as many such screens--I have no idea why--and it is bright and beautiful to look at, so I'm OK with it. Also excellent is the resolution: While most 13- and 14-inch PC notebooks ship with a stock 1366 x 768 screen (with no option for other resolutions), the Air comes with a high resolution 1440 x 900 screen. This is key for me, as I often use applications (like Photoshop Elements or Visual Studio) that pretty much require higher-res screens.

On the other hand, my eyes are getting old, and on a 13-inch screen, text at this resolution is often very small and hard to read. You'll want to test this in a store before buying.

Windows configuration

One issue that's peculiar to the MacBook Air is that one of the Windows Updates you install post-Setup causes Windows 7 to blue screen, and the only way to get out of it is to reboot the machine into Repair mode, run System Restore, and then reboot again. Of course, doing so wipes out all the updates you just installed, and it took me a few installs before I figured out what was going on.

Turns out there's a workaround, and this is a known issue with Apple's trackpad drivers for Windows, and apparently only for the Air. So what you do is plug in a USB mouse, go into Device Manager and disable the trackpad devices (Apple Multitouch and Apple Multitouch Mouse under Human Interface Devices), install the updates, reboot the PC, and then reenable those devices. (And ditch the USB mouse.) And you're good to go.

It's dumb, but it works. And until Apple patches its drivers to fix this issue, it's a workaround you're going to want to know about if you ever attempt this install, either in Boot Camp or as a standalone Windows install.


No conversation about any Mac is complete without mentioning how expensive these machines are, and I'd point out that this additional expense becomes all the more problematic when you factor in all the additional software costs (Windows, Office, and so on) as well as the compromises noted above. In what world is it OK to pay more to get less?

This machine cost almost exactly $1500 after taxes are included, and that's about three times the average selling price of a Windows-based notebook PC today. One question I've gotten from readers repeatedly is, why didn't I buy machine-name instead? I think I explained this in the previous article, but I'll at least mention a couple of other machines that may be worthier alternatives to the Air, assuming of course your goal is to run Windows.

The first and most obvious alternative is the Samsung 9-series. This machine, paradoxically, actually costs more than the MacBook Air ($1599 before taxes and shipping), but is very similar from a size/weight/battery life perspective and comes with a superior Core i5 processor. On the other hand, the styling is less than attractive (YMMV) and the screen is that low-res 1366 x 768 that PC makes can't seem to shake. Laptop Magazine has an interesting comparison of the MacBook Air and the Samsung if you want to know more.

Given my predilection for ThinkPads, there is any number of these machines to consider. Two I'd point out are the ThinkPad X220 and the ThinkPad Edge E420s. The X220 is Lenovo's latest small and light machine, with a Core i5 processor, 12.5-inch widescreen display (though, again, at 1366 x 768), and that wonderful, full ThinkPad keyboard experience. Plus it gets killer battery life, from 15 to 23 hours, depending on the battery configuration (!). I like it a lot, but I can't use this machine personally because the wrist rest isn't deep enough, and typing on it hurts my huge hands. (Check out the Air wrist rest some time; its humongous.)

The Edge is a different animal. It features Lenovo's newish "Edge" styling, which I'm mixed on. (Metal trim? What is this, a 1950's Buick?) The screen, again, 1366 x 768. Decent but not great battery life. But reasonably priced, if a bit heavy (compared to the Air) at over 4 pounds.

Any of these would be fine for most people, and at least two of them would work for me as well. And who knows? As the year progresses, maybe I move on. The point is, this is an experiment. I know what I'm getting into here, and I realize it won't be perfect. No portable computer is.

Final thoughts

Put simply, I can't really recommend buying a MacBook Air to run Windows. But if you want an Air (or some other Mac) regardless and are thinking of experimenting on the other side of the fence, so to speak, you could do a lot worse than this device. It's beautiful to look at, highly portable, light and thin, and gets good battery life, both with OS X and Windows. As a Windows PC, there are probably too many compromises for most, and its very expensive. But it does work, and I'll see how this thing fares on the road: My next trip, in three weeks, is to Atlanta for TechEd 2011, and I'll be bringing the Air. But for now, at least, this has been an interesting experiment in using the hardware I prefer with the OS and software I prefer. Whether this combination stands the test of time remains to be seen.

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