Macs That Speak Fluent PC

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Apple Computer (AAPL ) caused a huge stir in early April when it released software called Boot Camp that lets Windows XP run on new Intel (INTC )-powered Macs. Apple's stock even got a 10% pop. Elegant as the program is, though, it's the wrong solution for the many people who might like to buy a Mac but need to run an occasional Windows program. There's a better way.

To try the new software, just download the free test version from Apple's site. Expect to take an hour or so to install both Boot Camp and Windows. After that you can start up your iMac, Mac mini desktop, or MacBook laptop in Windows rather than Mac OS X. Although you have to reboot every time you want to switch between the two operating systems -- which is a pain -- you'll be rewarded with a fine do-it-all PC.

In fact, the MacBook with the 2-gigahertz Core Duo processor and Windows XP is probably the fastest Windows laptop I've used. But about the only thing that kind of Windows speed is needed for is playing PC games. Power-hungry tasks such as video editing or music composition are what the Mac excels at. To edit movies or write songs, you are better off using Mac OS X programs such as iMovie or GarageBand.

If you don't want to reboot, there's a solution: an alternative software that lets you run Windows and Mac programs at the same time. It's called Workstation, from Parallels, and it's ideal for folks who enjoy the superior Mac experience but need access to some programs that aren't available for the Mac.

TOGGLING BETWEEN OPERATING systems is not a new idea. Macs with old-line G4 or G5 processors can run Windows using Microsoft's Virtual PC software. But Virtual PC only works well running undemanding Windows programs. It has to simulate an Intel processor using complex software, which takes a serious toll on performance.

Parallels is the first company to do this on Intel-based Macs. Workstation is a Ferrari compared with the old Virtual PC's Yugo. The program, available in a test version for free download, creates "virtual machines," using software within a single computer -- hence its ability to multitask Windows and OS X. The program still has some rough edges. The Mac's Wi-Fi networking doesn't work consistently in Windows. And it's a bit tricky to tell the virtual machine how to find the real CD/DVD drive. But performance is impressive. Using Workstation, Windows programs actually run a bit quicker on Intel-based Macs than does last-generation Mac software written for older non-Intel Macs.

Once the test period is over, Parallels Workstation will sell for $49, the same price as a sister product that lets you run multiple versions of Windows on a single PC. Another leader in virtual-machine software, VMware (EMC ), is expected to jump into this market soon. As for Microsoft, which has till now owned the Windows-on-Mac market, the future is murky. "The Mac business unit continues to work with Apple to investigate the future of Virtual PC on Intel-based Macs," Microsoft said in a statement.

However you choose to run Windows on a Mac, the first thing you'll need is a copy of Windows. Any old installation disk you have lying around probably will not do. Boot Camp can only install Windows from the very latest version of XP, a CD that includes Service Pack 2. Parallels is less fussy. Either way, however, Windows must be registered with Microsoft, and unless you're prepared to lie and cheat, that requires a legitimate Windows license. XP's Pro version lists for $309. The Home edition is $209. You can find copies for substantially less, but they are likely to be versions licensed only for installation by PC manufacturers. Beyond the legal niceties, you may run into trouble getting them activated.

The ability to run Windows on the new Macs is frosting on an already tasty cake. If you decide you need it, virtual-machine software such as Parallels Workstation is a better bet than Apple's Boot Camp.

For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Tech Maven at www.businessweek.com/technology/wildstrom.htm

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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