Apple's Boot Camp: Macs Do Windows

The beta version of Apple's dual-boot enabler allows Intel-based Macs to speak Microsoft's language for the first time.

Richard Hoffman, Contributor

April 10, 2006

5 Min Read

Apple's switch to Intel CPUs for its new desktops and laptops brought up a fascinating question: Could the Intel-based Macs run Windows operating systems and software natively? The almost instant answer was yes. After gave a nearly $14,000 prize to the first person to prove it was possible, subsequent stories indicated that Intel-based Macs could run some Windows software even faster than comparable PCs. But Windows-on-Mac was still firmly in the experimental realm.

Then Apple unexpectedly released the beta version of Boot Camp, a dual-boot enabler specifically designed to allow users to install Windows XP on Intel-based Macs. Apple says dual-boot capability will be built into Leopard, the next major release of its OS X operating system. But how does BootCamp work today?

The short answer: amazingly well. I ran Boot Camp on a new Intel-based 20-inch iMac with a 2GHz Intel Core Duo processor, and installed Windows XP Pro almost without a hitch — so smoothly you'd hardly know Boot Camp was beta software. I then ran a full range of Windows software, from Office, Visio, and Outlook to Photoshop and graphics-intensive games. Whether OnMac's contest turned up the heat on Apple, or whether Apple planned all along to do a beta release of a dual-boot capability add-on, BootCamp shows little sign of being hastily rushed out the door.

No-Sweat Windows On Mac
The entire process of getting Windows on the Mac took about an hour from start to finish, most of which was spent on the standard Windows installation. You have to start with a single-disc copy of Windows XP SP2 Pro or Home version — no other versions will work. Apple's Boot Camp Assistant first burns a CD with all of the necessary drivers for Windows on your Mac. Creating the Windows partition itself is dirt-simple using Apple's slider system, but you have to have a buffer of 5GB free space on both the OS X and Windows sides.

One quibble is that there's no warning given at this point that if the Windows partition you create is larger than 32GB, formatting it as FAT32 instead of NTFS will not be an option during Windows installation (this is a FAT32 limitation). This will affect the ability to transfer files between the two operating systems — Apple's OS X can read and write to the Windows FAT file system, but has read-only access to NTFS. Windows XP can't access the OS X HFS partition at all without third-party software. But that barrier could be a blessing in disguise, since it keeps the OS X partition relatively safe from the flood of viruses, Trojans, and spyware that are much more common in the Windows world. A word to the wise, however — the Windows installation here has the exact same need for regular, frequent patches and updates as any other Windows instance.

There are a few other rough edges in Boot Camp. During Windows installation, if you choose anything other than the C: partition to install to (and of course the Windows installer gives no warning here), you can instantly wipe out your OS X partition accidentally. Printing out Apple's installation instructions and following them to the letter is advisable here, particularly for novice users.

In addition, Apple says the iSight camera, the Apple Remote, the USB modem, and the MacBook Pro keyboard backlighting aren't supported, but all of the other hardware on my iMac was fully recognized and supported, and worked virtually flawlessly. I had one early instance of failure to wake from sleep in Windows, requiring a hard boot, but it wasn't repeatable. The system time doesn't transfer automatically from OS X to Windows, so setting Windows to grab the time from a network time server is a good idea. Finally, Windows cannot boot from an external drive, so carrying around a self-contained Windows XP installation on a FireWire or USB drive unfortunately isn't currently an option.

Clean, Easy, and XP
Those relatively minor caveats aside (and Apple says it's working on fixes for the remaining hardware and time issues), Boot Camp was clean, easy, and enabled full-speed native use of Windows XP. Using Boot Camp, you can't switch back and forth between operating systems without a reboot. If you need that capability, a beta version of a virtualization product from Parallels has just been released, which might be worth a look.

Apple's senior director of Mac OS X product marketing, Brian Croll, says Boot Camp is designed for two main kinds of customers: those who have a handful of mission-critical Windows apps they need to run, and potential switchers to Mac who want the security blanket of being able to run Windows "just in case." If this logic proves sound, Apple may have a big winner here, and Microsoft certainly won't mind selling some extra copies of Windows to Mac owners.

Boot Camp's execution is good, and the concept is a stroke of brilliance on Apple's part. Apple does not sell or support Windows on Mac, and says they have no intention to pre-install Windows on their products. Time will tell whether that stance holds firm, but regardless, Apple now has a fast, capable, stylish line of computers which runs a wide range of operating systems natively: OS X, Windows XP, and Linux. That's something to get excited about — or perhaps, if you're Dell or HP, a bit concerned.

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About the Author(s)

Richard Hoffman


Richard Hoffman is owner of Geomancy Consulting and an IT industry veteran. Most recently he directed Internet strategy and Web operations for Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

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