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Windows: Just Another Program To Run On A Mac

For years, the idea of running Windows on a Mac was a bit of a cruel joke. Emulation programs like SoftWindows and Virtual PC could simulate an Intel processor and all of the other hardware in a conventional PC, but that effort left precious little processing power to run Windows itself. At best, these solutions were "tolerable for occasional use," as a Post review concluded in 2004.


But a year later, Apple announced that it would switch from its PowerPC processors to Intel chips. And as I noted at the time, that meant that you wouldn't need to simulate an entire processor to run Windows on a Mac -- that entire performance conundrum would vanish.

Today's column looks at three programs for Intel-based Macs that run Windows at about the same speed as a regular PC (graphically-intensive applications excluded): Parallels' Parallels Desktop 4, $79.99; VMware's Fusion 2, $79.99; and Sun Microsystems' VirtualBox 2, free for personal use.

I'd tried Parallels and Fusion before, so these versions didn't offer any huge surprises -- even the fact that they still can't handle Windows Vista's Aero graphics didn't shock me. (I had a good chat with a VMware developer at January's Macworld Expo about this; Aero support is a more complicated task than you'd think, and even today, neither Parallels and VMware would estimate when they would accomplish it.)

Fusion 2 did, however, seem to represent a bit more of an advance over the previous version. Parallels 4 may be a case of going too far to mesh the Windows and Mac environments -- my guess is that most people running Windows programs on a Mac won't be doing so all the time, and so they don't need to have the two operating systems stitched so tightly together. It doesn't help this version's cause that the Parallels application itself has a particularly ugly icon.

VirtualBox, however, was new to me. I can see why this application is free for home use; its performance, compatibility and user interface all need work. Consider the gyrations necessary to turn on audio support: Click the "Settings" button for your virtual Windows system, then click the "Audio" icon; in the Audio window, click the "Enable Audio" checkbox, change the "Host Audio Driver" menu to "CoreAudio" and make sure the "Audio Controller" is "ICH AC97." (Activating USB support is simpler: click that Settings button, click "USB," then click the checkboxes "Enable USB" and "Enable USB 2.0" checkboxes) And yet... I suspect that many Windows switchers don't need to run more than a handful of Windows programs on a new Mac, and they'd gladly accept a limited, slower form of Windows emulation that saves them $80.

Or, of course, you could stick with the Boot Camp software built into Mac OS X, which provides total hardware compatibility -- including Vista Aero graphics -- but only accepts Windows XP or Vista and requires you to reboot the Mac to switch operating systems.

There's yet another option for running Windows programs on a Mac, CodeWeavers' CrossOver. This application doesn't even require a copy of Windows -- but it can only run a subset of Windows titles, sometimes with only some of their functions intact.

So which of these five options do you use to run Windows programs on a Mac? Or have you stuck with a sixth option: Find Mac equivalents to the Windows applications you once used? Let me know in the comments. Got any questions about this whole concept? Ask away in my Web chat, starting at 2 p.m. today.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  December 11, 2008; 11:55 AM ET
Categories:  Mac , Windows  
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To run a serious gatesmobile app, which I don't do that often, I'm content to get the full-strength of boot camp even if it means a shutdown/reboot. For lighter fare, such as quickly checking a web page's performance in IE as I designit, Crossover has been a good friend running a version of IE and a few other apps.

Posted by: senseinai | December 11, 2008 1:15 PM | Report abuse

Run Firefox, OpenOffice 3 (which Has Issues with Word docs that have lots of tables), iWork (non-free, but cheap), the Gimp, Photoshop Elements.

Have VmWare, and it runs Windows XP fine. But I don't have much need for it. Also use it to run Ubuntu Linux. The install/setup for that was no worse than for Windows.

Posted by: wiredog | December 11, 2008 2:57 PM | Report abuse

I use VMWare Fusion 2.0 to run AutoCAD and Revit. It's not lightning-fast, but fast enough, and I love the ability to switch instantly back to Mac applications like Firefox, Photoshop, etc. The OS treats the VMWare window just like any other, so you can use Expose, apple-tab, etc...

Posted by: petjam | December 12, 2008 4:23 AM | Report abuse

i run all Apple/Mac, all the time. i'm still using MS Office for Mac 2004 mostly to open & edit Word documents sent to me & i export from iWork apps into the Office apps as i need to.

Posted by: dkjazz3 | December 12, 2008 8:18 AM | Report abuse

We appreciate your mentioning CrossOver. I'd merely add that CrossOver is supporting a wider array of Windows software all the time--as Wine (the open-source software we're built on) continues to improve, so does CrossOver. We're not there yet, but eventually CrossOver will be a very robust, all-round solution. Even now, it supports many major Windows productivity apps and popular games. I'm glad it's working well for senseinai, above.


-jon parshall-

Posted by: jparshall | December 12, 2008 11:00 AM | Report abuse

I owned about 4 or 5 PCs before I bought a Mac (iMac G5.) The PCs and Windows always had problems. Now, my wife has a Mac Mini with Intel processor, and my daughter has an Intel iMac (she works in graphic design), and I don't see any reason to run Windows at all. With Office for Mac, iLife, even 3d Home Architect now in Mac version, what's the point?

Posted by: ddrachsler1 | December 12, 2008 11:54 AM | Report abuse

I had my Mac since February and no need to run any type PC software on my Mac. I do however use iWork Mac application to convert Word, Excel and Powerpoint, which works well when I receive PC applications.

Posted by: clifton3 | December 12, 2008 12:47 PM | Report abuse

I use VM Fusion on my iMac for a few programs--games for which I haven't found the Mac equivalents, MS Works 4.5 one of the easiest to use database/label maker in existence and WeaveIt, software for handweavers.

I put Parallels on my husband's iMac. The only problem with it is that it frequently states that the program is not registered, though, of course, I registered it over two years ago.

I tried CrossOver in May, find the terminology (bottles, etc.) a bit distracting. I like the convenience of not having to switch to a virtual machine. So far, though, it does not handle the software I want to use.

We don't need/use the sophisticated aspects of Fusion or Parallels. Of the two, Parallels is easier and faster.

Posted by: MMRudy | December 12, 2008 2:09 PM | Report abuse

I use Windows Vista on my MacBook under Parallels so that I can use Microsoft Money. I tried Quicken for Mac but couldn't take it.

Posted by: filmjoy | December 12, 2008 2:47 PM | Report abuse

apples=toys. Case closed.

Posted by: kmccorma | December 12, 2008 3:18 PM | Report abuse

There is another option. I have been successfully running some ancient DOS business programs in OS X using Dosbox. Windows refuses to run these programs so finding Dosbox was very useful. It was developed by gamers wanting to use DOS games in OS X or Unix. See tips at:
Parallels has been useful for converting some (Indeo) AVI videos to a format that Mac can use. Some old Video Studio software runs well in Parallels for this purpose.

Posted by: mpainesyd | December 12, 2008 3:52 PM | Report abuse

What about Linux? Who needs Windows or Mac?
Personally I'm Linux user and I don't miss any commercial app for daily needs.

Posted by: JoseJGrimaldos | December 12, 2008 4:50 PM | Report abuse

Just by a PC...

Posted by: ric971 | December 12, 2008 6:48 PM | Report abuse

I use Fusion with some very complicated ("high end") scientific computing programs on the Windows side of my iMACs and then use the iMAC side for the reports and everything else. The Apple hardware is simply better than the dozens of PCs we own mostly Dells. Anything I can get into DOS formats(DOS BOX) or JAVA I use directly on the iMAC side. Until all vendors have MAC OS program versions Fusion works well. I have been programming since 1958 (SOAP X on the IBM 650) and the latest Apple offerings have convinced me to switch due to both the hardware and the MAC OS - Microsoft is behind the curve and Linux does not do Windows.

Posted by: BillF110 | December 12, 2008 7:08 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for this interesting review. I think you have to see these application is the proper context.

Here is my take, coming from a moderately savvy, long-time Unix/Linux user who has been seriously considering a Mac, (after being impressed with how seamlessly my neighbor's MacOSX works as the desktop end for high-performance supercomputing). Being well-ensconced in Linux as my home environment, I have no need or desire to get into the Windows mess, worry about viruses etc, or pay the "Gates tax"...except...the issue for me is 3rd party consumer application software that runs "only" on *'doz. Sometimes on Mac, sometimes on Mac in limited/truncated form (grrr). For example, GPS software, heart monitor software, Concept2 erg software, etc etc. Oh, and genealogy software. I haven't found a really satisfactory general solution, other than possibly taking an old 486 laptop & installing Windows & only using it standalone -- never putting it on the internet.

Over the past 6-8 mos I have been seriously considering getting a Mac as a second computer, despite my reluctance to "cave" to a proprietary OS. Bottom line for me, it seems that a big advantage is the combination of a basically Unix-type environment (which I can live with) and (here) the ability to run these specialized consumer product applications which are (unfortunately) developed for the *'doz platform is the real winner here. I can't imagine using a Mac to routinely run lots of M* *'doz apps: if you want to run those most of the time, then just run *'doz, period. But if you want to be able to run specialized secondary apps that unfortunately only run on *'doz, and you don't feel like either having a *'doz computer just for (say) your heart monitor software or programming your own, then being able to run them on a Mac with a minimum of fuss is a plus. Who cares if the GPS analysis from your latest workout is a bit slow: it can run REALLY slow if you don't have to reboot, go up & down & all around, reboot again, just to get it loaded at all. These options appear to allow the option of using your specialized device software in reasonably straightforward fashion without a *'doz computer.

It is sad -- altho understandable -- that software for consumer devices is developed for *'doz, (not to mention hardware drivers etc, which is another issue), because it is assumed to be the LCD for the consuming public, but with crossover options, the Intel/OSX Mac seems like a really good solution for this dilemma. The current Mac OS provides most of the advantages of Unix/type OS, while these options allow accessing the specialized applications without needing a dedicated '*doz computer, dual boot, removeable drives, whatever. I'm seriously on the fence now more than ever.

Just my take ..


"The UNIX file system is a thing of beauty and a joy forever" -- ap. to J. Keats.

Posted by: icyone | December 12, 2008 8:21 PM | Report abuse

After building Windows Active Directory server networks and associated workstation baselines professionally as a MCSE for 10 years, I wanted something for home use that was akin to an appliance. The iMac gives me all I want in a simple to use, needs almost zero administration, and can run any Linux app in X11 emulation. I periodically boot into Windows XP using BootCamp, because of the required hardware graphics support that Parallels and VMWare cannot accomplish for video games.

My only complaint is actually with Microsoft. The Mac version of Office does not translate documents very well between Office 2007 (PC) and Office 2008 (Mac). Also there is no Microsoft Money for Mac. Very disappointed with both of these issues.

But wouldn't change my setup; I am more relaxed simply because I don't have to worry about ActiveX and so many viruses.

Posted by: altruisticone | December 12, 2008 8:29 PM | Report abuse

I'm a graphic designer/web developer, and I've installed Fusion on my MacBook Pro so that I can run Internet Explorer to check my web sites. It also makes for great conversation with my pc clients. Someday, when Internet Explorer becomes Xhtml standards compliant, it will no longer be necessary to check, but until that day, this makes a great, economical solution.

Posted by: claritygraph | December 15, 2008 4:38 PM | Report abuse

I would be interested in running Windows on my Mac, but the cost of $80 for Parallels Desktop 4 feels too high for a casual user if Windows ($100 to $200) needs to be purchased also on top of it.

I'm sure Microsoft loves Parallels - a few more sales of Windows never hurts.

Posted by: tomswift96 | December 16, 2008 8:10 AM | Report abuse

I've only used this to run some windows apps on Linux (with hit or miss success)...I don't own a mac so I haven't tested this but have you given Darwine a try for OS X?

Posted by: mlandsjr | December 17, 2008 7:59 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: mlandsjr | December 17, 2008 8:01 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for your review. I recently bought a MacBook and a iPhone, my first Apple products. I had read that it was possible to run Windows on Macs, otherwise I would not have bought the Macbook. I regularly use a mapping program for my Delorme GPS that does not have an Apple version.

I decided on the Bootcamp option rather than an emulation programs that since I don't use the DeLorme program on a daily basis and I found that everything else had an Apple equivalent.

I installed Windows last week and so far I am very happy with it. The funny thing is that Windows runs better on the MacBook that it did on my year old Dell. Probably because I have 4 gig of memory in my MacBook and it doesn't have all the garbage attached.

The bottom line is that I am extremely happy with the MacBook and I would recommend using Windows on the MacBook if you still need to run Windows programs. The installation using Bootcamp went very smoothly and should not be feared. The biggest drawback is the expense of buying a copy of Windows. I am glad to hear from this review that Parallel and Fusion also work well and offer good alternatives for those who need Windows on a regular basis. For now I am happy with my Bootcamp setup. And I am so so happy I switched to Apple.

Posted by: HikerSD | December 18, 2008 1:50 PM | Report abuse

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