Technology, Writing

Trials and Tribulations of Windows on the Intel Macs

As previously reported, I have been playing with a MacBook Pro for the past few weeks.  One of the first things I wanted to try was running Windows XP since I had heard that a group had successfuly created a hack to get it installed and operating on the new Intel Macs.

 The first method I tried was the free and open source bootloader that was featured on the OnMac site.  The install procedure is not for the faint at heart since it requires repartioning the hard drive (destroying its contents in the process), re-installing Mac OS X in the first partition, replacing/blessing the OS X bootloader with a special dual-boot bootloader that could boot either OS X or Windows XP, and installing Windows XP in the second partition.  Once XP was installed and booted it then needed to have a number of drivers installed to utilize the hardware in the MacBook Pro.  I was able to get Windows loaded but after playing for a couple of days I became disillusioned with the solution because:

  • By default the Mac Keyboard’s “Delete” key is mapped to Backspace in Windows XP. This meant I could not issue a CTL-ALT-DEL to log on to Windows.  There are ways to remap the keys but I didn’t bother trying.
  • There was no right-click support using the MacBook Pro trackpad. Having to lug a mouse around wasn’t very exciting.
  • There were no video drivers (at the time I did the install).
  • The sound drivers would only work through the audio out port. The internal speakers were silent. (this is also resolved now).
  • The real time clock displayed different times in OS X and Windows – so when booting between environments the time was wrong.

After a few days I repartitioned the machine for OS X only and figured I would just wait until a better solution came along.   Within a week Apple announced it’s Boot Camp beta which is an Apple supported method for installing Windows XP on Intel Macs.  Boot Camp appeared to have several advantages over the open source solution, namely:

  • A firmware upgrade for machines that provided the necessary boot functionality for Windows to boot on the Mac.  This means no more having to replace the OS X boot loader with the open source dual-boot bootloader.  The advantage is that applying OS X upgrades or going into the Startup Disk preferences panel wont blow away the boot loader (which required a manual re-install and blessing of the open source boot loader).
  • A dynamic re-partioning capability that didn’t require destroying an existing OS X installation.
  • Drivers for video, audio, ethernet, wifi, etc that worked as expected.
  • Support from Apple!

Within hours of the Boot Camp release I had installed it and found that I had a decent Windows XP system running at blazing speeds.  However some problems lingered:

  • The Delete key mapping still made CTL-ALT-DEL impossible “out of the box”.  I still didn’t bother trying any of the remapping solutions.
  • The right-click problem persisted.  Someone of the Apple support forums suggested a utility that allows using CTL-Click to emulate right click. This sort of works but required selecting an item with left click before trying to right-click on it. I found this annoying.  Plugging in a USB mouse works as expected but wasn’t the solution I was hoping for.
  • The real time clock problems persist.

After a couple of days I decided to take advantage of another the Boot Camp utility’s functions: Removing the Windows partition and restoring the machine to Mac OS X only functionality.  At this point I started thinking about what I really wanted on my Intel Mac.  The main issue for me is the inability to run 3 key applications that are not available on OS X, specifically, Groove from Microsoft (formerly Groove Networks), Microsoft Project, and Microsoft Visio.  There are applications similar to Project and Visio for the Mac but as a consultant I need to have the same tools as my clients.  If I could use these under OS X I wouldnt really need Windows.  Either something like the Darwine project which provides a WIN32 layer under OS X (meaning you can run Windows Applications under Mac OS X) or a virtualization product similar to VMWare workstation that I use on my PC.  Darwine is still a work in progress and doesnt yet meet my needs and VMWare is currently only available for Windows or Linux. Microsoft says it is investigating bringing Virtual PC to the Intel Macs but has made no commitment to doing so as of yet.

I was about to give up on the Windows on Mac idea for a while and revisit the issue in a few months when I read an article last week on a new beta product for Intel macs (as well as other Intel machines) called Parallels Workstation.  A quick look at the web site for Parallels revealed what appeared to be a product very much like VMWare and there was an OS X for Intel version available for free beta testing.

I downloaded the beta version and tried it out. Within an hour I was able to create a virtual machine, Install Windows XP, and have a running XP environment.  There was no sound support initially (this has been implemented in Beta 3 released 12-April-2006) and a colleague reported some crashing issues when running an XP guest when a MacBook Pro goes to sleep (also corrected in Beta 3).  The speed of Windows XP under Parallels is impressive – largely because Parallels leverages the dual core processor and doesn’t have to perform any CPU instruction translation (the reason behind slow performance of Virtual PC on the older G4/G5 series Macs).

Is Parallels the holy grail I have been looking for?  Its alot closer to what I want but still not totally ideal.  It DOES solve the ability for me to run OS X as the primary operating system but have the capability to run my critical Windows applications when I need them.  I think ideally I would still like something like a Windows emulation layer in OS X that just allowed Windows applications to run but I think that is some ways off.  Darwine looks promising though a supported capability from Apple would be even better.

My conclusions on the three solutions:

  • Open Source Bootloader from OnMac
    • Pros: Open Source, Great for people who like to tinker with their machines
    • Cons: Unknown support, difficult to install, quirks in support right-click, etc.
  • Apple’s Boot Camp
    • Pros: Supported by Apple, Full set of drivers, Easy to install, Very Fast
    • Cons: quirks in support right-click, etc.
  • Parallels
    • Pros: Easy to install, Pretty Fast, Supported by Parallels, Inc.
    • Cons: Takes time to boot Windows XP under Mac OSX, requires more system resources, limited hardware support within the virtual machine

    The open source solution is best for those who like to play and understand what they’re doing to their machines.  Apple’s Boot Camp is great for those who can live with the quirks and who need a high performance dual boot OS X and Windows machine (XP is FAST on the Intel Core Duo processor, and the supported video drivers enable gamers to run their PC games on a Mac). Parallels is great for someone who wants OS X as their primary OS and occasionally needs to run Windows applications and doesn’t mind waiting for windows to boot under OS X, etc.  Parallels is also great for developers because MULTIPLE virtual machines are supported at the same time – you can run virtually any version of Windows, Linux, etc in a Parallels virtual machine under OS X.

    For now Ill keep my eye out for the holy grail. I will report back when I know more!

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