SolutionBase: Discover multiple options for running Windows on a Mac

Most major software programs are now available in Macintosh-specific versions; occasionally, however, some third-party programs require Windows. Fortunately, Windows administrators responsible for also supporting Apple systems benefit from several powerful applications, making it easier than ever to dual-boot or otherwise run Windows XP or Vista on a Mac. Erik Eckel examines these options.

The popularity of the Mac OS X operating system is resulting in greater numbers of Apple computers appearing within business and enterprise environments. The rising use of Web-based tools -- including applications that often provide complete functionality whether a client is connecting using a Windows, Apple, UNIX or Linux system -- is helping push Mac adoption within many organizations.

Mac incompatibilities of the past -- such as an inability to easily share files and printers between Apple and Windows systems, a lack of software for the Mac platform and different network protocols (TCP/IP versus AppleTalk) -- are mostly history. Most major office and productivity software programs -- including Microsoft Office suites, Intuit's QuickBooks and Quicken titles, Norton antivirus products and numerous other applications -- are now available in Macintosh-specific versions; even Mac-based VPN and remote connectivity tools are plentiful.

Occasionally, however, third-party or proprietary programs require Windows. Fortunately, Windows administrators responsible for also supporting Apple systems benefit from several powerful applications, making it easier than ever to dual-boot or otherwise run Windows XP or Vista on a Mac.

What are my options for running Windows on a Mac?

Apple offers Boot Camp as a free public beta to Mac OS X Tiger users. When Apple ships the Tiger replacement (known as Leopard) in late 2007, Boot Camp will be included within the new Leopard release by default.

Users wishing to not have to restart their computers to switch between the Mac and Windows operating systems (as is required using Apple's Boot Camp program) can opt to use Parallels Desktop for Mac. The $79.99 application runs within the Mac OS X environment and performs well, loading a fully-active Windows session within OS X. Thus, users need not reboot to load Windows. Instead, Intel-powered Mac users need only open the Parallels application and select the Windows installation they wish to boot. The Windows OS then loads within a Parallels window, while Mac OS X continues running.

Parallels Desktop for Mac -- like Boot Camp -- only works on Intel-powered Macs. Thus, an organization most likely must have purchased its Mac computers since mid-2006 to have any hope of leveraging either Apple's free dual-boot application or the third-party Parallels program.

Owners of PowerPC-based Mac systems -- PowerBooks, iBooks, iMacs, and Power Macintosh G5s -- aren't out of luck, though. Microsoft provides a ready-made solution for PowerPC Mac users.

Microsoft's Virtual PC for Mac enables PowerPC Mac systems to load Windows XP Professional within Mac OS X. Using Virtual PC, Mac users can open the application to start up a Windows XP Professional environment, and then operate a Windows XP Professional session within Mac OS X.

There are a few drawbacks to running Windows on the older PowerPC Mac platforms. Two immediate concerns are performance and potential confusion. Parallels Desktop for Mac vastly outperforms Virtual PC for Mac. Secondly, Parallels works only on Intel-powered Macs, while Virtual PC works only on PowerPC-based Macs.

Another issue is cost. Regardless of which option is chosen, all three programs require that the Mac user purchase a fully licensed copy of Windows XP Professional or Windows Vista.

To better assist in selecting the best tool to ensure Windows compatibility when deploying Apple Macs within your office or enterprise, here is more information on each of the three leading platforms.

Apple Boot Camp

To run Boot Camp, Mac users require the following:

  • An Intel-powered Apple computer
  • Mac OS X Tiger (version 10.4.6 or later)
  • The latest firmware updates (firmware updates should appear within Software Update; if they don't, users can manually download firmware updates directly from Apple's support Web site.
  • 10GB of free disk space (20GB is better if many Windows applications will be installed)
  • 2GB of RAM (when running Windows Vista)
  • A blank recordable CD or DVD
  • A printer is recommended for printing instructions before beginning.
  • A full copy of Windows XP Home with Service Pack 2, Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2, Windows Vista Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, or Ultimate; note that no upgrade versions will work.

Loading Boot Camp requires completing several steps:

  1. The latest Software Updates and firmware updates should be downloaded and installed on the Intel-powered Mac system that Boot Camp is being loaded on.
  2. The 28-page Boot Camp Installation & Setup Guide should be printed for reference.
  3. Users must next burn a Mac Windows Drivers disc using the Boot Camp Assistant application (found within /Applications/Utilities/ once all Software Updates and firmware updates have been downloaded and applied).
  4. Users must then create (or select) a hard disk partition to accommodate Windows. The Boot Camp Assistant provides a menu for specifying the partition location and size.
  5. The next step calls for users to insert the Windows full version 32-bit operating system CD/DVD and installing Windows. The Windows setup program begins and users/administrators must install Windows as if installing the OS on a new PC. In addition to selecting the install partition, users must specify how the partition should be formatted (such as with NTFS, although FAT provides better compatibility with Mac OS X reads/writes to that partition). Figure A shows a Windows XP installation running on a Mac.

Figure A

Installing Windows on an Intel-powered Macintosh essentially requires completing the same steps one would complete when installing Windows on most any other Intel-based computer.

  1. After Windows is installed, the Mac Windows Drivers disc that was created earlier should be installed to provide drivers for the Apple's graphics, networking, audio, AirPort wireless networking, Bluetooth, iSight camera, Apple keyboards, Apple Remote, and built-in brightness controls for built-in display hardware.
  2. Once drivers are loaded, users are ready to boot into Windows (or Mac OS X), as shown in Figure B. Whenever the Macintosh is started, users can elect to change the default OS by pressing [Option]. The default OS, meanwhile, is configured within Mac OS X. From System Preferences, users can access the Startup Disk page, from which the default OS is specified.

Figure B

The OS selection menu, reached by pressing [Option] during Mac startup, is very simple: users can choose to boot either Windows or the Macintosh.

Parallels Desktop for Mac

Parallels Desktop for Mac is an elegant, well-performing solution for running Windows (or even Linux) on an Intel-powered Mac system. In addition, when using Parallels Desktop for Mac, users can run both Windows and Mac OS X simultaneously, share files and folders between the two platforms, play advanced Windows games requiring 3D graphics on the Mac, and browse Windows folders and files, all without launching Windows. This is shown in Figure C.

Figure C

Parallels makes easy work of running Windows XP or Vista on an Intel-powered Macintosh.

The following are required to run Parallels Desktop for Mac:

  • A 32-bit and 64-bit Intel-powered Apple computer
  • Mac OS X Tiger (version 10.4.6 or later)
  • 768MB RAM (1GB or more works much better)
  • 200MB of free disk space (realistically, 15GB should be available)

Unlike Boot Camp, however, Parallels supports running numerous other operating systems on the Macintosh. In addition to running Windows XP and Vista, the program also enables using older versions of Windows all the way back to 3.1, SUSE, Red Hat, Fedora Core, Mandriva and other popular Linux distributions, and even FreeBSD, Solaris, and other OSs.

Loading and configuring Parallels Desktop for Mac is fairly straightforward:

  1. Mac users should begin by downloading a copy of the 270-page Parallels Desktop for Mac User Guide.
  2. Mac users must purchase and acquire a copy of the Parallels Desktop for Mac application. The software can either be purchased in a retail box or downloaded directly from Parallels' Web site.
  3. Once the software is purchased, a download package is received as part of the purchase process. Users select the Install Parallels Desktop file to begin installation. For those using retail box editions, the CD contains a file called Parallels Desktop.pkg that's used to trigger installation.
  4. The Parallels Desktop Installer walks users through installing the Parallels software. Once the user specifies the hard disk location where Parallels should be installed and completes the installer's other prompts, a confirmation message is received that the application is installed.
  5. Users then open Parallels Desktop for Mac by double-clicking the Parallels Desktop icon (found within Applications | Parallels). The first time users open Parallels, they're prompted to activate the software. Activation is completed by entering the activation key received with the software's purchase.
  6. To install Windows, users open Parallels Desktop and select New. Pressing the New button calls the OS Installation Assistant, which walks users through installing a new OS as a virtual machine. Using Parallels Desktop, users can install multiple virtual machines.
  7. Once a virtual machine is installed (and a Guest OS is configured), users can boot the other platform by opening Parallels Desktop, selecting that OS, and pressing a provided Start Virtual Machine green arrow icon.

Microsoft Virtual PC for Mac

Microsoft's Virtual PC for Mac applications serves as the Windows-compatibility option for PowerPC-based Macs. To run Virtual PC for Mac Version 7, the following are required:

  • A 700MHz G3 PowerPC (or higher) processor
  • Mac OS X Version 10.2.8 or higher (Mac OS X Version 10.3 or higher is required for the Power Mac G5)
  • 512MB of RAM (although 1GB or more is required for tolerable performance in most environments)
  • 3GB of free disk space (although 15B or more should be available if many Windows applications are to be installed)

Virtual PC installation and configuration is straightforward:

  1. Users insert the first Microsoft CD in their Mac computer.
  2. Users then install Virtual PC for Mac, after which a system restart is required.
  3. Next, users open Virtual PC for Mac (the application is placed in Applications | Virtual PC) and create a Virtual PC. To create a Virtual PC, the user must supply a full version of a Windows OS (Windows XP and Vista will work, although a large amount of memory is required to run Vista with any reasonable performance expectations). Notably, Microsoft includes a copy of Windows XP Professional Service Pack 2 with Virtual PC for Mac 7. The required product key is included with the purchase.
  4. Once the virtual machine is created, Mac users can boot that OS by selecting it from the Virtual Machine's Virtual PC List dialog box and pressing the Start Up button, as shown in Figure D.

Figure D

The Virtual PC List is easily accessed on PowerPC-based Macs; users need only double-click the Virtual PC icon found within the Applications folder.

  1. Numerous configuration options, including adjusting settings for networking, USB support, memory configuration, and more, can be set using Virtual PC. The options are accessed by selecting the respective OS from the Virtual PC List and pressing the Settings button. You'll see a screen like the one shown in Figure E.

Figure E

Memory configuration and USB support are among the options that can be customized for each virtual machine created using Virtual PC for Mac.


As Macs have grown in popularity, their presence within small businesses, mid-size organizations, and even enterprise environments has grown. Despite significant advancements in available software and Web-based tools that naturally encourage compatibility, occasionally the need arises to execute scripts or run specific programs within Windows. When those occasions arrive, Boot Camp, Parallels Desktop for Mac, and Virtual PC for Mac are three leading options administrators and users alike can leverage to provide compatibility and eliminate trouble.