Rory Bowman of MacRory.com.
With the January introduction of the Intel-based MacBook Pro and iMac (Early 2006) Core Duo, Apple opened up a new world of possibilities for those interested in running Windows on their Apple Macintosh computers, especially after April when Apple’s Boot Camp software and the third-party Parallels Workstation were announced. Rather than running Intel-based operating systems such as DOS and Windows in emulation, these could now be run on native hardware or through virtualization. This article discusses these options, with special attention to the three ways to run Windows on your Mac: emulation, natively or through virtualization.
Most software is written in a programming language and then “compiled” to work with particular hardware. Unless a program has been compiled to run on a particular chip, it won’t work, no matter how good the hardware. This is why you cannot boot a newer Mac with an old version of Mac OS 7.5, your trusty Performa into OS X or either machine into Windows, until recently. Microsoft Windows was written to run on Intel chips and Intel lookalikes such as AMD. When software is running on the hardware for which it was compiled it is at its fastest, “native” speed. Windows on an Intel or AMD chip is its native environment.
Products such as SoftWindows and Virtual PC can run Windows on the Mac through a process called “emulation.” Essentially these programs construct a “virtual reality” model of an Intel or AMD PC, then run the operating system and programs within this emulated virtual environment, which is always slower than native hardware because of the emulation programs inherent overhead, sometimes called the “emulation penalty.” For many things (such as emulating 1980’s video games on modern computers, this penalty is inconsequential, because the programs themselves have such modest hardware requirements. For more complicated programs such as Microsoft Windows, though, it can become notable.
The emulation penalty varies depending on many variables but subjectively I’d say that most Virtual PC programs run at 10-40% of their normal speed than they would on even a moderately old PC. For occasional use, minor programs or such tasks as testing web pages, this is fine. For most things, though, it is decidedly suboptimal.
Virtualization takes a third approach I won’t go into in detail, but basically it involves running certain part of an operating system on near-native hardware at near-native speeds. This is the approach taken by Parallels Desktop.
Virtual PC, Boot Camp and Parallels
In extremely simplified terms, one can use Boot Camp to run Windows on the new Intel Macs at native speeds, as demonstrated by PC Magazine in recent benchmarks and reviews. This involves downloading and installing the (beta version of Apple’s) Boot Camp software, installing Windows from a new copy of Windows XP with Service Pack 2 and then rebooting the machine into Microsoft Windows. This will make your Intel Mac an honest-to-goodness Windows PC, with all the advantages and disadvantages this brings, including vulnerability to malware and the inability to run Mac OS programs. This is the preferred option for people who need extremely good performance, such as hardcore gamers.
A less expensive and only slightly slower option is to install and use Parallels Desktop, which also involves finding a genuine Windows CD, but does not involve constantly rebooting your Mac and allows you to use pretty much whatever flavor of Windows or Intel Linux you choose to install. The Windows portion of the machine has all the advantages and disadvantages of Windows, but you are able to copy and paste text between Mac OS and Windows, or switch between the two operating systems without rebooting. For most people who are running Windows on a Mac, this is probably the most logical option.
The only option for those who do not have an Intel Mac remains pure emulation with a product such as Virtual PC and whatever flavor of Linux or Windows you choose to install over it. If you already own a copy of Virtual PC or VPC disc images, this is still an option, but if you have been using it and are happy, there is no need to switch horsemen mid-apocalypse.
Days of WINE and Roses?
A fourth option which is not readily available yet is called WINE (an acronym for “Wine Is Not an Emulator” and a borrowed pun from other open-source names such as GNU and PINE). What WINE does is allow one to run Windows programs without Windows, by imitating the API’s that the program expects to see, but without Windows. An extremely popular choice among Linux afficianados, this is in some ways the holy grail of virtual computing, as it allows one to run Windows software without owning a single Microsoft product.
The next version of Mac OS (10.5, codenamed “Leopard”) will reportedly include the option to run Windows software, either through a reboot similar to Boot Camp, virtualization such as Parallels or (most intriguingly) some sort of WINE environment.
If you have always wanted to run Windows on your Mac, the shift to Intel chips has opened an entire new world of possibilities.