Walt Mossberg

Boot Camp Turns Your Mac Into a Reliable Windows PC

For mainstream computer users doing typical tasks, Apple Computer‘s Macintosh models have huge advantages over the prevalent Windows computers from companies such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard. The Macs have sleeker hardware designs, a superior operating system, much better built-in software, and virtually no exposure to viruses and spyware. Apple’s flagship model, the iMac, is the best consumer desktop on the market.

But, there’s a big barrier for Windows users tempted to switch to the Mac: software. While there are thousands of programs for the Mac’s operating system, called OS X, potential Mac buyers often find they have one or two Windows programs they must use that have no Mac equivalent. These range from custom software required by their employers, to niche programs for specific industries or hobbies, to games.

Yesterday, Apple took a historic, and potentially huge, step to remove that obstacle to switching. It introduced free software that makes it easy to install and run Windows on the latest Mac models as a complement to the Mac operating system. With this new software, called Boot Camp, you can turn your Mac into a fast, full-fledged Windows computer for those occasions when you must run a Windows program. That makes the iMac, the Mac Mini and the MacBook Pro laptop the only computers in the world that allow mainstream users to run both operating systems at full speed.

I’ve been testing Windows on a new iMac for several days and except for a couple of trifling annoyances, it runs perfectly, just like a stand-alone Windows PC. I was able to install Boot Camp and Windows XP Pro on the Mac in under an hour. After that, I installed 15 Windows programs, most unavailable in Mac versions, and all ran properly.

In Windows mode, the iMac was blazingly fast — far faster than my two-year-old H-P Windows computer. And every function of Windows I tested, including Web browsing, email and music playback, ran flawlessly.

Each system rests in its own part of the Mac's hard disk, and the two don't interfere with one another or share viruses.
Each system rests in its own part of the Mac’s hard disk, and the two don’t interfere with one another or share viruses.

In fact, I wrote this column in Windows on the iMac, using the Windows version of Microsoft Word. And I emailed it to my editors using Outlook Express, the built-in email program in Windows. When I was done using Windows, I just restarted the Mac and the machine turned back into a regular Macintosh, running the Mac operating system and Mac software.

Boot Camp (downloadable at www.apple.com/macosx/bootcamp) allows you to “boot up,” or start up, the Mac in either operating system. You can designate which one gets loaded when the machine boots up. Or, by simply holding down the Option (or Alt) key while starting or restarting the computer, you get a screen showing icons for the two operating systems. Click on the Mac icon and the machine runs the Mac OS. Click on the Windows icon and it runs Windows.

Each operating system gets its own dedicated portion, or “partition,” of the Mac’s hard disk, so they don’t interfere with one another. Programs you install in each operating system, and files you create with them, are stored in the part of the hard disk devoted to that operating system.

All of this is possible because the latest Macs use the same Intel chips as Windows machines. Boot Camp runs only on these new Intel-based Macs, which have been available since January. Older Macs can also run Windows, in a fashion, but only via a clumsy Microsoft program that creates a painfully slow “virtual” Windows computer that can’t handle some demanding programs, like games. By contrast, with Boot Camp, the new Intel-based Macs can become true, fast, full-fledged Windows computers that are essentially identical to standard Windows computers, yet still retain the ability to operate as normal Macs.

It’s important to note that Apple isn’t abandoning its OS X operating system, or adopting Windows. The company says it won’t sell, preinstall, or support Windows. In fact, while Boot Camp is free Apple software, anyone using it must supply his own copy of Windows to install. Boot Camp is technically beta, or test, software. But in my tests, it operated exactly as advertised. It will be built into the next version of the Mac operating system, called Leopard, due early next year.

You can’t run both operating systems at the same time. Switching between the two requires you to restart the Mac; the operating system you’re not using is shut down. That makes switching a little slow, but it also means that each operating system runs like a separate computer, with full control of the hardware. This allows Windows to run at full speed and protects your Mac files from the effects of Windows viruses.

With Boot Camp, you could choose to run a Mac solely as a Windows machine, with good results. But Apple doesn’t expect many people to do this. Instead, it assumes Boot Camp users will still use the Mac operating system and Mac software 90% of the time, switching into Windows mode only to run a few Windows programs. Some customers may never use Windows on their Macs, and just see Boot Camp as a sort of insurance policy that allows them to switch to the Mac without fear that they’d lose future access to Windows programs.

Apple’s move is only the first in what will likely be a series of new programs that allow the Intel Macs to run Windows. Today, a small Virginia company called Parallels plans to release a beta version of its own software to run Windows on an Intel Mac. It’s called Parallels Workstation for OS X and will cost $49, plus the cost of Windows itself. Unlike Boot Camp, Parallels creates a “virtual machine” that simulates a Windows computer inside the Mac OS. I haven’t had a chance to test this product, but may do so in coming months.

Last month, two hackers caused a stir by posting online their own method for running Windows on the Intel Macs. But, unlike Boot Camp, it requires technical skills far beyond those of the average user, and it doesn’t enable all of the Mac’s key hardware in Windows.

Until now, subtle hardware differences between Mac and Windows made it impossible to simply buy a copy of Windows and install it in a Mac, even the new models using Intel chips. Apple’s Boot Camp allows Windows to overcome these hardware differences, and also includes “drivers” — hardware-enabling programs — so that Windows can work smoothly with Apple keyboards, video systems and networking hardware.

Because the Mac becomes a true Windows computer when in Windows mode, it is susceptible to all of the viruses and spyware that plague regular Windows machines, but not Macs running the Mac operating system. While these viruses can’t infect the Mac side of the machine, you do have to install antivirus and antispyware programs on the Windows side.

To install Windows on a Mac with Boot Camp, you first must upgrade to the latest version of Mac OS X and perform what’s called a “firmware update.” Both are easy.

Next, you download the Boot Camp program, and install it. Boot Camp first guides you through the process of burning a CD with driver software you will later install in Windows. Then, it lets you divide the hard disk into separate Mac and Windows partitions. Finally, it starts up your Windows installation disk.

Side by Side

After that, Windows installs itself as it would on any regular Windows PC. Once Windows is up and running, you insert the driver disk created with Boot Camp, and this disk automatically installs the drivers that allow Windows to control the hardware features of the Mac. For instance, on Macs, you eject CDs and DVDs using a keyboard key that Windows computers lack. Boot Camp tweaks Windows so this key works.

In my tests, this whole process took 57 minutes, of which 40 minutes was claimed by the Windows installation.

After I had Windows running, I browsed the Web and received and sent email, using both a wired and wireless connection. I installed and used an H-P DeskJet printer. I played a DVD. I used a USB thumb drive to transfer files to Windows. All worked well.

Next, I installed 11 Windows programs that aren’t available for the Mac. These included Microsoft Access, Outlook and Publisher; ACT!; Adobe Photoshop Album; Microsoft Money; Family Tree Maker; Microsoft Flight Simulator; Microsoft Age of Empires; AVG anti-virus; and Spyware Doctor.

I also installed the Windows versions of Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint. And I installed the Windows version of Quicken. These four programs are available in Mac versions, but in the case of Quicken, the Windows version is much better. I used these 15 programs for anywhere from five minutes to a few hours, and all worked perfectly.

So what are the annoyances and caveats about running Windows on a Mac with Boot Camp?

You have to reset the clock every time you start Windows. Windows also kept asking me to install my printer every time it started, even though it was already installed. Apple says it is working on these issues.

Also, you must buy your own copy of Windows to install — a full version, not an upgrade, of Windows XP, Home or Pro, with “SP2” included. The Home version costs around $199, the Pro version $299.

In addition, you must use a wired keyboard and mouse during installation. And the Windows side doesn’t work with Apple’s iSight cameras and some other peripherals. You also have to adjust to some differences in keyboard layout.

Finally, there’s one dangerous step in installing Windows. In one of the screens of the installation disk, where you are asked which hard-drive partition will be used for Windows, you must select “C.” If you choose wrong, you could obliterate your Mac operating system. I recommend downloading and printing out Apple’s Boot Camp Installation Guide, which has a picture of this screen.

But these are minor issues. All in all, Boot Camp works really well. Whether you want to run Mac or Windows programs, an Apple computer may be the only computer you’ll need.

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