Running Windows Vista on a Mac

Published: Tuesday, Feb 12, 2008
Our lives are full of choices: paper or plastic… chocolate or vanilla… Windows or Mac. For nearly two decades, people have been divided into two camps when it comes to computers. Die-hard Windows adherents point to the thousands of business and specialty software applications that are available only for the Windows environment. They also boast that Windows PCs are more economical to purchase and operate and support a wider array of peripheral options.

Meanwhile, Mac acolytes rave about the Mac’s superior design and intuitive user interface, including the ability to start using the computer as soon as you plug it in, without any complicated set up or hardware driver installations. Macs are also safer than PCs from a security and vulnerability standpoint. And nothing can compare with Apple’s superbly usable suite of applications for music, photos, and making movies. However, Apple’s decision to start putting Intel processor microchips into their computers means that the days of having to choose between the Mac and Windows are over. Macs can now run Windows “natively,” which is a technical way of saying that Windows applications now enjoy speedy performance on a Macintosh computer comparable to that of a native PC.

Let’s say your practice uses Windows PCs (as most do). Your critical applications might include an EHR and some practice management software. You also may use Microsoft Outlook for e-mail and Word files for your various writing needs. At home, however, you enjoy using your child’s Mac, the iPod is your favorite gadget, and you are quietly hoping to get an iPhone soon. However, thanks to new programs like Boot Camp and Parallels that allow you to run Windows software on a Mac, you no longer have to live this dual life. It may well be time to make your next office computer a Mac, and get the best of both worlds.

Boot Camp and Parallels take advantage of the Intel chip now used in many Macs, and can run the Windows platform natively. Unlike emulator-type software, such as VirtualPC for the Mac, which must add a layer of translation for Windows programs to function, these newer programs tie directly to the processing chip and can run programs just as well as they would run on a Windows PC. Boot Camp beta is currently free and can be downloaded from Apple. As with all these programs, you must supply your own copy of Windows XP or Vista (which costs a few hundred dollars), but the installation process is fairly painless. After installing the software, you designate either the Mac OS or Windows as your “most of the time” start-up operating system. You can also choose which operating system to use each time you start up the computer. To do this, hold down the “option” key (that’s the “alt” key for longtime Windows users) at startup and make your selection. After starting up, your Mac runs Windows natively, just like it would run on a PC. To move to the Mac OS and its software, however, you need to restart the computer. This is not only time-consuming, but it means you cannot cut and paste between Windows and Mac applications.

Personally, I think a better approach is using one of the virtualization programs, like Parallels or VMware Fusion. Virtualization allows multiple “virtual” machines to run simultaneously on a single computer. In plain language, this enables you to live on the Mac desktop and seamlessly run Windows applications whenever you want, without rebooting. Virtualization programs let you launch, dock, and close individual Windows applications; cut and paste between programs; and even drag and drop files between your Windows and Mac desktops. Read the MacWorld article titled “Mac Virtualization: VMware vs. Parallels” for a good summary and evaluation of these products’ capabilities. The newest Macintosh computers even include USB 2.0 interfaces that will work quite readily with most “Windows-only” PC peripherals, including digital cameras, printers, keyboards, mice, and other input devices. Occasionally, you may have to search and install an obscure driver to use some advanced functionality, but that’s the exception, not the rule.

Now, we can finally have the best of both worlds—the aesthetic beauty and elegance of the Mac and the extensive software options available on the Windows platform. There are a few caveats of course, including the added cost of a second operating system and the Mac’s higher price tag. In the end, until Apple lowers Mac prices to PC levels, you will have to decide if that extra $400 (approximately) dollars is worth the improved aesthetics you’ll experience with a Mac.

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