Peering Through Windows on a Mac

Finally: Microsoft's OS on an Apple machine. It's disorienting, but a step in the right direction for Mac-loving gamers

Installing Microsoft Windows is never a particularly pleasant experience. But I found loading it onto a 17-inch MacBook Pro was indeed somewhat pleasant and, though it took a long time, painless. If, like me, you spend a lot of time in both the Mac and Windows computing environments, you'll find it's worth the effort.

Having finally laid my hands on an Intel-based (INTC) Mac (the very creation of which I scoffed at for years, until I heard the confirmation from Steve Jobs himself a little over a year ago), I was impressed with the raw speed of the machine. The boot-up sequence feels like it's been given a jet engine. And just tooling around in the Mac OS was a true pleasure: snappy on the response and smooth—as a Mac should be. Only now it's improved.

And then I began the process of getting Windows to work on a Mac, a feat made possible by the Boot Camp software introduced by Apple (AAPL) earlier this year. It was an acknowledgement that many of the computer maker's constituents spend time in both environments and could benefit from having both operating systems available on a single machine. I'm one of those users, and it was time to put Boot Camp through its paces.


  It seemed a little heretical to insert the Windows XP DVD and watch those old-school DOS characters appear on the screen during installation. But most everything worked as expected. I created a 20-GB hard-disk partition, a section of the hard drive that would act as an independent hard drive for data shared between the two systems. It should have felt momentous or somehow ominous, but it didn't. I was, after all, putting what I consider to be the bane of personal computing—the inferior joke that is Windows—on the same computer as the shining example of what a personal computer can and should be, a Mac.

Once the installation was done, it wasn't long before I was reminded that this was indeed Windows, with all that implies. Among the first things I saw after starting up in Windows were the requisite reminders to "register Windows" and that "your computer might be at risk" and so turn on this or that anti-virus software.

So there I was, with Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows XP installed on an Apple Mac. What to do first? I started by launching Internet Explorer, the browser I so dislike, so I could surf to and download the browser I love, Firefox. From there I wanted to see how video would perform in Windows, so I watched a few movie trailers, both in Windows Media and Apple's Quicktime format (the latter of which I also had to install).


  While watching those videos, I noticed a few things that didn't work—for one, the headphone jack. Nor did the volume control keys: F3, F4, and F5 on the Mac keyboard. So controlling the volume required clicking down into the system tray, bringing up the Windows sound control panel, and setting the levels that way. Ditto for the brightness control keys, F1 and F2. Adjusting the brightness requires a more elaborate keystroke: control-shift-F1 for dimmer or control-shift-F2 for brighter.

Using a Mac keyboard to interact with Windows can be a little disorienting in other ways. The command key, the one with the Apple on it, doesn't have anything to do. So it took a little effort to remember to use the control key instead. This is usually not hard to remember when on a Windows keyboard, such as the Dell (DELL) machine I use in the workplace, and switching back and forth between the Dell at work and the Mac at home is pretty seamless for me. But the odd combination of the two was truly weird.

I also went ahead and installed a Windows-only game, Activision's (ATVI) Doom, which I had lying around from other reviews. It installed easily and was as readily playable as on a Sony (SNE), Dell, Toshiba (TOSBF), or any other Wintel machine you can name. It was not only playable, but very playable, and showed excellent performance. The gamer in me grinned and said "sweet," and now I can't wait for the release of an Intel-based PowerMac that will allow Windows on a second internal hard drive instead of a partition. Two computers in one is what I want, so that as a Mac user I'm no longer left out of the leading edge of the PC gaming curve (see, 6/01/06, "Apple Needs to Get Its Game On").


  Be warned: There are some technical curiosities. When installing Windows XP, you have the option to choose the file system format you want, and generally speaking, most Windows users should choose NTFS instead of FAT32. These refer to the way that Windows stores files and information about those files on the hard drive, and which rules it follows to access them. FAT32 is older, and as such, limited in certain ways, such as the size of files it can work with, and by the fact that it can't support hard drives larger than 32 GB.

There are other technical differences between NTFS and FAT32 I won't go into. (Trust me: You don't need to know what the abbreviations stand for.) When using the NTFS format on an Intel Mac, there's one complication, which, depending on how you intend to use Windows on the Mac, may make a difference to you: If you select NTFS, which is the default option during installation, you should know that the Mac OS can read files from the Windows partition, but can't save them to that partition. This may be a good thing, because it seems to me that in most cases you'd want to have a pretty solid wall between the two environments, but it is something to consider.

Turns out moving files in the other direction is even less permissive. While the Windows partition shows up as a hard drive on your Mac OS desktop, the Mac partition is essentially useless while you're in Windows. It doesn't show up in the My Computer window, and when I clicked Properties on the C Drive, it showed only 20 GB, ignoring the other 60 or so on the physical hard drive. This is at least one reason that you'll never have to worry about Windows viruses and other malware crossing over to the Mac environment from Windows. A virus that infects Windows files won't speak Mac, and as such will represent zero threat to the Mac environment. That doesn't mean that someone won't invent a new cross-platform virus, but it hasn't been done yet, and isn't going to be easy.

However if you really want to access files on the Mac partition while in Windows, there's an easy way to do it. A company called MediaFour makes a software package called MacDrive for Windows. I haven't tried it, but I've heard it's worth a look.


  Overall, I love the novelty of running Windows on a Mac, and being able to jump back and forth between them on a single machine. The one possible weakness is that moving from one to the other requires shutting down out of one and restarting in the other, so there's no option to operate in both at the same time. Virtualization software firm Parallels has created a popular package that will let you do that. I hope to try that out soon and will let you know how it goes.

For now I'll say that I like the way this multiplatform era of the Mac is going, and that I have high hopes for the next version of Mac OS X, which is expected to include Boot Camp out of the box. With luck, it will get only more powerful and flexible once it's out of the testing phase.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.