Walt Mossberg

Recent Columns by Walt Mossberg

The Mossberg Report

The Best Of Both Worlds

It used to be that if you switched from a PC running the Windows operating system to the small-selling but elegant Macintosh, you had to leave behind your Windows programs. Sure, there was one software product that allowed you to run Windows on a Mac and thus run Windows programs. But it was so slow that you wanted to shoot yourself whenever you were using it.

And then this year everything changed. Apple Computer, the maker of the Mac, switched to the same Intel-made processors for which Windows was designed. The new Intel-powered Macs, which began shipping in January, still come with Apple’s own operating system, Mac OS X, which is more modern and more secure than Windows XP. But these Macs can now easily run Windows too, and they run it as fast as standard Windows-equipped PCs.

Why does this matter? It means that you can switch from Windows to the Mac and still use the one or two Windows programs you require that have no Mac equivalent.

Among the Mac models that can perform this feat are the iMac and Mac Mini desktop computers and the MacBook and MacBook Pro laptops. Apple’s most powerful model, the PowerMac tower, is likely to be converted to the Intel chips by the end of the year, after which it, too, will be Windows-capable.

There are two options for running Windows on the Mac. They take different approaches, but in my tests, both have proved to be fast, stable and widely compatible with Windows software. One, from Apple itself, is free. The second, from a small Virginia company called Parallels, costs $79. But each carries an additional cost: You have to supply and install your own copy of Windows, which can run $200 or $300, depending on which version you choose.

The Apple system, Boot Camp, uses a technique called Dual-Boot. It splits your Mac’s hard disk into two sections, or partitions — one for the Mac operating system and all its programs and files, and one for Windows XP and all its programs and files. You can start, or “boot up,” the Mac in either operating system, but you can’t run both simultaneously. To switch between a Mac program and a Windows program, you have to reboot the computer.

The Parallels system, called Parallels Desktop for Mac, uses a technique called Virtualization. It creates a virtual Windows computer inside a window within the Mac operating system. Parallels runs Windows a tad more slowly than Apple’s Boot Camp, but allows you to run both operating systems, and compatible software, simultaneously. You can switch rapidly between the two environments without rebooting. I’m writing this paragraph on a MacBook Pro laptop, but I’m not using any Mac software to do so. Instead, I’m using the Windows version of Microsoft Word, which runs inside Parallels Desktop.

For this paragraph, I’ve switched back to the Mac side of the computer and am using the Mac version of Word. And I copied the previous paragraph from the Windows side and pasted it into the Mac document. It was fast and flawless.

Each approach has its strengths as well as weaknesses.

Apple’s Boot Camp turns the Mac into a true, no-compromises Windows PC-just like a Dell or Hewlett-Packard computer. When you boot up the Mac in Windows, no trace of the Mac operating system is running; Windows has all the hardware and all the memory to itself. In my tests, Macs running Windows under Boot Camp were wicked fast and handled every single program I tried, including Microsoft Office for Windows, the Internet Explorer Web browser and various games. The downside is that pesky need to reboot when switching operating systems.

Parallels Desktop is much faster than the old software for running Windows on pre-Intel Macs, a Microsoft product called Virtual PC. That’s because Parallels makes use of special virtualization features built into the Intel chips. And it has the great advantage of running Windows applications at the same time you are running your Mac programs. But while quite fast, Parallels can’t match the speed of Windows running under Boot Camp, because it must share hardware and memory with the Mac operating system. Also, Parallels won’t work with certain high-end Windows games, and it can have trouble recognizing some USB drives and CDs. In my own tests, Parallels did handle everything I threw at it, but I introduced only simple games. Everything ran as fast as it would on an average Windows PC, though not as fast as the programs ran under Boot Camp.

Because Windows is much less secure than Mac OS X, when you run Windows on a Mac, you have to take the same precautions you would with a standard Windows PC. That means you need to install and run both antivirus and antispyware software that is generally not needed under the Mac OS.

Apple’s approach is more secure than Parallels’s in this regard — with Apple’s Boot Camp, Windows can’t see or access your Mac folders or files. That means any malicious software running in Windows can’t erase or damage your Mac files. Parallels, on the other hand, optionally allows you to share folders between the two operating systems; if you enable this feature, you could give a malicious Windows program an opening to damage or spy on the files on the Mac side.

Installing both programs is fairly easy, but it’s a multistep process. With Apple’s system, you first download and install Boot Camp. Then, using Boot Camp, you divide your hard disk into Mac and Windows partitions. Next you create a CD to be used later, under Windows, to install software “drivers” that Windows will need to control all aspects of the Mac’s hardware. Then you install Windows. Finally, you install the CD you created.

Note that Boot Camp requires a full retail version of Windows XP, called “SP2.” You can’t use any other version of Windows, and you can’t use an upgrade edition, which requires an earlier version of Windows to be present on the machine.

Parallels allows you to install any version of Windows, even a very old one. But if you use Windows XP, you will in most cases also need a full, retail version, not an upgrade package. You first must buy and install the Parallels program, which creates an empty “virtual machine.” Then you install your copy of Windows inside Parallels. Finally, to enable certain key features, you have to install a program called Parallels Tools, which is included.

This all sounds harder than it is. In each case, the whole process took me about an hour and required no technical skill.

And it’s worth the effort. Boot Camp and Parallels have turned the Intel-based Macintosh into the only computer that can run nearly every popular software program, whether it was written for Windows or the Mac. On the same computer you can edit photos in Apple’s iPhoto program and check your e-mail in Microsoft’s Outlook — simultaneously, if you choose Parallels. Now, that’s progress.

Top Products in Two Decades of Tech Reviews

December 17, 2013 at 6:04 pm PT

Diabetes Data Beamed to Your Phone

December 10, 2013 at 6:16 pm PT

Two Houses, One Cable TV Bill

December 10, 2013 at 6:14 pm PT

Calling Overseas on Wi-Fi

December 03, 2013 at 6:18 pm PT

Dell Tablets at Bargain Prices

December 03, 2013 at 6:12 pm PT

Latest Video

View all videos »

Search »

Walt Mossberg’s Product Guides

Desktop PC’s and Laptops

The Laptops to Buy

Digital Cameras

Digital Cameras Improve Zooms, HD Function