Buying a Mac to Run Windows

Guest blogger Karl Newark writes:

Running Windows on an Apple machine has been possible ever since Apple ditched the PowerPC processor for Intel; this can a very attractive feature to a potential customer as it can offer the best of both worlds. But is it that simple? Here are some points I would like to raise about my experiences with running Windows on a Mac.

There are two main methods of running Windows on a Mac: through a dedicated partition (managed by a tool provided by Apple called Boot Camp), or from virtualization software. Both have advantages and disadvantages, and suit different users.

To use Boot Camp, you have to launch the utility through OS X. It will then guide you through creating and formatting a partition, as well as helping you prepare drivers for when Windows is installed. It will then ask you to put in your Windows install disc; from then on it’s just a usual PC Windows install procedure. When it is complete, you will be left with a Mac that can run Windows, just as any PC would.

Buying a Mac to Run WindowsIf you would like to use OS X and Windows at the same time, you will have to use a virtualization software. This will probably be Parallels or VMware Fusion — each costs around $50. VirtualBox is a popular free alternative, but it is more complicated for the average consumer. Using virtualization to run Windows will allow you to seamlessly jump between both environments, but this has its disadvantages. Running two operating systems at once can use a lot of system resources, so it may not be suitable for lower powered Macs. Also, heavy applications such as 3D games and professional design suites are not likely to run well (if at all) on a virtual machine.

A lot of people will probably know a lot of this already, but what I don’t seem to see a lot of online is what it’s like to run Windows on a Mac on a regular basis. Is it just the same as any PC? Or do the hardware differences cause complications? Here is a recollection of some of my experience with a bit of advice for anyone who is considering this. It’s worth noting that I run Windows on my MacBook Pro through a Boot Camp partition, so this is where I get the majority of my opinion, though I have used Windows on an iMac and Mac mini in the past.

The first thing I noticed after installing Windows was how easy it was to get the necessary drivers. This was great; anyone who has installed or reinstalled Windows will know how frustrating it can be to track down source drivers — but Apple takes care of this quite well. When starting this process in OS X, the Boot Camp utility may prompt you to download the necessary drivers and save them appropriately, or (if you have an older Mac) you can simply insert your OS X install disc once Windows is running.

Drivers are installed and updated by the Boot Camp Windows software. This simplifies the installation of the drivers by keeping them all in one place and checking for updates. This is something I like; sourcing drivers for another PC OEM would often leave me searching around the Web for each driver, and often around multiple component manufacturers’ websites — and if the version of Windows was different from the one originally on the machine, I would often be out of luck.

After the drivers were installed, my first instinct was to see what settings I could access, such as a left click setting and the keyboard function key settings. Both of these were in the Boot Camp Control Panel that I could access through an icon on the system tray. There are also other features such as the ability to change the machine’s default operating system and enable or disable the infrared sensor.

Using Windows on my MacBook for some time, I have certainly noticed something I miss about more traditional Windows laptops: the lack of expandability. I use a 13-inch MacBook Pro, so it has two USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire port, an ethernet port, an SD card slot, and a combined audio jack. This isn’t such an issue for me when I use OS X as I am not used to expandability when using it, but often when I use Windows 7, I will instinctively go to plug in a USB flash drive or another peripheral only to realize that there are not enough ports free. I was also unpleasantly surprised when I realized there was no good way for me to plug in more than one external display. Other Apple computers may have more ports, but they almost always have less available than a Windows equivalent.

Other than that issue, using Windows on my MacBook has worked out great for me; although the MacBook and other Macs are designed for OS X, they really don’t do a bad job when being used with Windows. Although Windows 7 lacks all of the fancy gestures of OS X, it is still the nicest laptop touchpad I have used. The keyboard is very nice, and somehow manages to feel bigger and more comfortable than it actually is, and it’s a nice touch that the onscreen volume and brightness control animations from OS X are installed with Boot Camp.

Probably the thing I like most about using a Mac instead of a non-Apple laptop is how popular they are, which means there are plenty of accessories and support videos available. I have upgraded the hard drive, and when I’ve had to look up online tutorials, there are hundreds of step-by-step guides available. When it came to opening the machine, I knew exactly where the hard drive would be, and how to remove it, with no need for guesswork.

The popularity of Apple products ensures that accessory manufacturers will take an interest, and this is something I love. I have a Speck see-through case and I love it. I can use my laptop while traveling and take it in and out of bags without worrying about zips and other objects scratching the Mac; accessories like this are not available for laptops from other manufacturers as there are so many variants.

Over all, the MacBook has served my Windows needs very well, though I miss the expandability and low cost of a traditional Windows laptop. The Mac certainly was more expensive, and with a copy of Windows on top of that, it does add up. But the hardware design is fantastic and everything works well in Windows; I would definitely recommend buying a Mac to anyone currently in the PC market who wants what the best of both worlds have to offer.