When Apple announced in 2005 that it would switch to Intel processors in its Macs, it never mentioned one of the biggest improvements this shift would bring. Intel’s chips have been faster and more efficient — but they’ve also allowed Macs to run Windows as well as, or better than, any PC.
The usual way to do this is with the Boot Camp software Apple includes with the latest version of Mac OS X, which will carve off a partition from your hard drive, help you install a copy of Windows XP or Vista, and then let you choose which operating system to run each time your Mac boots up.
But with the right “virtualization” software, you don’t have to choose: Windows can be just another window on the Mac desktop.
Mac users now have three options for this job, all recently updated: VMware’s Fusion 2.0 (vmware.com/products/fusion) and Parallels’ Parallels Desktop 4 (parallels.com/desktop), both $79.99, and Sun Microsystems‘ free-for-personal-use VirtualBox 2.0 (virtualbox.org). All of these programs require a Mac with an Intel processor, the faster the better. They also all recommend or require a gigabyte of memory, but you’ll be a lot happier with the results if you have 2 GB or more.
All three involve the same basic setup. After installing the virtualization program, you create a “virtual machine” — a special file that, from the inside, looks like a PC’s hard drive — and install Windows itself. (Or you can install Linux or another operating system, but that can be trickier.) Once you boot up that copy of Windows, they prompt you to install a helper program that makes Windows feel more at home inside a Mac and allows you to move data between Mac OS X and Windows.
All three programs ran copies of Windows XP and Vista on a pair of MacBook laptops (one dating to this summer, one the newer model introduced this fall) at an impressive speed; windows and menus snapped open and non-graphics-intensive programs launched about as briskly as you’d expect on any random PC.
Instead, most of their differences surfaced at the first and last steps of that setup routine. Compared to the free VirtualBox, Fusion and Parallels provide more ways to put a copy of Windows on a Mac and make it far easier to swap files between the two operating systems.
Both Fusion and Parallels not only let you install a fresh copy of Windows, but can run — without rebooting — a copy of Windows installed earlier via Boot Camp. They can also run virtual machines created with other virtualization programs, although this can require an intimidating degree of fiddling with file-import settings.
In addition, Fusion and Parallels can migrate a copy of Windows from a “real” PC. Fusion allowed me to move over a Windows XP installation on an external hard drive, while Parallels required a slower transfer over a local network. Both migrations yielded virtual-machine files that required extra processing on arrival, but this added step took at least an hour longer in Parallels.
Fusion and Parallels each made almost all of a Mac’s components usable inside Windows; for example, a MacBook’s iSight webcam worked correctly in the Skype Internet-calling program. But this hardware help comes to a halt when you start playing with rich, 3D graphics. Neither program can run nearly as many games as Boot Camp, and neither could display Windows Vista’s transparent Aero interface.
These two virtualization programs also let you drag and drop files from Mac folders to Windows directories and move CDs or USB flash drives from Mac to Windows environments with a click of a toolbar icon.
Parallels, however, goes further in melding these two worlds — maybe too far. It normally runs in a “Coherence” mode that overlaps Mac and Windows parts on top of each other, leaving the Windows taskbar floating on top of Mac OS X’s Dock, with the Windows Start menu floating off to one side. The results looked, well, incoherent. Parallels also maps your Mac home folders to the equivalent Windows user directories so that you see the same set of files in each place, which was also confusing at first.
VirtualBox does much less than either Fusion or Parallels. This jargon-rich application essentially requires you to pay in time or expertise instead of money as you work around issues such as its failure to enable audio and USB support by default and its painfully wonky behavior with flash drives and CDs. Some of VirtualBox’s problems can only be fixed by an improved release: It doesn’t let you drag and drop files from Mac to PC, its shared-folders option is horribly awkward to set up, and it couldn’t play a high-definition QuickTime video without stuttering.
But VirtualBox did use less memory than the others, and it is, of course, free. It could suffice if you only need to run one or two Windows programs — a likely scenario for many Windows-to-Mac switchers.
The most likely scenario, however, may be this: A Windows user buys a Mac and doesn’t plan to run any more Windows programs, but can sleep better at night knowing this option exists, just in case things ever change.