Installing or Upgrading to Windows 7 : Installing Windows 7 on a Mac

9/20/2012 1:08:08 AM
When Apple switched its desirable Macintosh computers from the aging Power PC architecture to Intel's PC-compatible x86 platform in 2006, the computing landscape was changed forever. No longer were PCs and Macs incompatible at a very low level. Indeed, Macs are now simply PCs running a different operating system. This fascinating change opened up the possibility of Mac users running Windows software natively on their machines, either in a dual-boot scenario or, perhaps, in a virtualized environment that would offer much better performance than the Power PC–based virtualized environments of the past.

These dreams quickly became reality. Apple created software called Boot Camp that now enables Mac users to dual-boot between Mac OS X (Leopard or higher) and Windows XP, Vista, or 7. And enterprising tech pioneers such as VMware and Parallels have created seamless virtualization environments for Mac OS X that enable Mac users to run popular Windows applications alongside Mac-only software such as iLife.

Now consumers can choose a best-of-both-worlds solution that combines Apple's highly regarded (if expensive) hardware with the compatibility and software-library depth of Windows. Indeed, Paul has been using an Apple notebook running Windows 7 ever since Microsoft's latest operating system shipped in early beta form.


The differences between these two types of Windows-on-Mac solutions are important to understand. If you choose to dual-boot between Mac OS X and Windows using Boot Camp, you have the advantage of running each system with the complete power of the underlying hardware. However, you can access only one OS at a time, and you need to reboot the Mac in order to access the other.

With a virtualized environment running under Mac OS X, you have the advantage of running Mac OS X and Windows applications side by side, but with a performance penalty. In this situation, Mac OS X is considered the host OS, and Windows is a guest OS running on top of Mac OS X.  Thus, Windows applications won't run at full speed. With enough RAM, you won't notice any huge performance issues while utilizing productivity applications, but you can't run Windows games effectively with such a setup. Note, too, that the Windows 7 Aero user experience is not available in today's virtualized environments, so you would have to settle for Windows 7 Basic instead.

Regardless of which method you use to install Windows 7, be aware of a final limitation: you need to purchase a copy of Windows 7, as no Mac ships with Microsoft's operating system. This is a not-so-fine point that Apple never seems to mention in their advertising.

1. Dual Boot with Mac: Using Boot Camp

Boot Camp is a feature of Mac OS X and is configured via that system's Boot Camp Assistant. As shown in Figure 1, Boot Camp Assistant is available from the Mac OS X Utilities folder (Applications => Utilities) and provides a wizard-based configuration experience.


Boot Camp is available only in Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard" or newer, and it supports only 32-bit versions of Windows XP, Vista, and 7.

Figure 1. Boot Camp helps you configure a dual boot between Windows and Mac OS X.

The key to this wizard is the Create a Second Partition phase, where you can graphically resize the partition layout on the hard disk between Mac OS X and Windows, as shown in Figure 2. (Macs with multiple hard drives can be configured such that Mac OS X and Windows occupy different physical disks, if desired.)

Figure 2. Drag the slider to resize the Mac and Windows partitions.

After that, Boot Camp prompts you to insert the Windows 7 Setup DVD and proceed with setup. From a Windows user's perspective, setup proceeds normally and Windows looks and acts as it should once installed. Be sure to keep your Mac OS X Setup DVD handy, however. It includes the necessary drivers that Windows needs to be compatible with the Mac's specific hardware.

Once you have Windows 7 up and running on the Mac, there are just a few Mac-specific issues you should be aware of:

  • Configuring Boot Camp: When you install Windows 7 on a Mac using Boot Camp, Apple installs a Boot Camp Control Panel application, which you can access by selecting Start Menu Search and typing boot camp. This application helps you configure important functionality such as the default system to load at boot time (Mac or Windows).

    There's also a system notification tray applet that enables you to access the Boot Camp Control Panel and Boot Camp Help and choose to reboot into Mac OS X.

  • Switching between operating systems at boot time: While you can choose the default operating system at boot time via the Boot Camp Control Panel application, or choose to boot into Mac OS X from within Windows by using the Boot Camp tray applet, you can also choose an OS on-the-fly when you boot up the Mac. To do so, restart the Mac and then hold down the Option key until you see a screen with icons for both Mac OS X and Windows. Then, use the arrow keys on the keyboard to choose the system you want and press Enter to boot.

  • Understanding Mac keyboard and mouse differences: While Macs are really just glorified PCs now, Apple continues to use unique keyboard layouts and, frequently, one-button mice. As a result, you may have to make some adjustments when running Windows on a Mac. Table 1 lists some commonly used keyboard commands and explains how to trigger equivalent actions on a Mac.

Table 1. Windows Keyboard Shortcuts on the Mac
Windows Keyboard ShortcutApple External KeyboardBuilt-In Mac Keyboard
Ctrl+Alt+DeleteCtrl+Option+Fwd DeleteCtrl+Option+Delete
DeleteFwd DeleteFn+Delete
EnterEnter on numeric keypadEnter
Num LockClearF6
Print ScreenF14F11
Print active windowOption+F14Option+F11

2. Windows on Mac: Virtualization Solutions

If you'd prefer to join the ever-increasing ranks of Mac switchers—you traitor, you—you can still run Windows and, more important, Windows applications, from within Mac OS X. You do so via a virtualized environment such as VMware Fusion or Parallels Desktop, both of which fool Windows into running inside of a software-based PC that itself runs as an application under Mac OS X.

In the past, virtualized environments presented a number of huge issues, especially on the Mac. First, performance was abysmal, owing mostly to the underlying architectural differences between the PowerPC and Intel x86 platforms and the difficulty in translating running code between them. Second, virtualized environments have typically presented Windows and its applications as a sort of thing-in-a-thing, whereby the entire Windows environment would run inside a closed-off window that was quite separate and distinct from the Mac environment in which it was running. Moving back and forth between the Mac and Windows environments was jarring and difficult.

Modern virtualized environments—such as VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop—have mostly overcome these issues, just as Windows Virtual PC has on the Windows side. Thanks to the underlying Intel x86 platform now used by the Mac, virtualization offers better performance because there's no need to do on-the-fly code conversion. Yes, performance still suffers, but you might be surprised by how well Fusion and Parallels Desktop actually work.

More impressive, perhaps, both VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop offer unique new usage modes that blur the line between the Mac and Windows desktops. VMware Fusion offers a feature called Unity that enables you to run a Windows application directly from the Mac Dock, switch between Windows and Mac applications using the Mac's Exposé window switcher, and drag and drop files between both systems.

Parallels Desktop offers a similar feature called Coherence, which also integrates Windows applications into the Mac desktop experience. Coherence even supports copy and paste between Mac and Windows applications, and many other integration features.

VMware Fusion also offers an impressive bit of integration with Apple's Boot Camp functionality. If you've already installed Windows 7 in a dual-boot setup with Mac OS X using Boot Camp, Fusion will detect that Windows install and automatically enable you to access it as a virtualized environment from within Mac OS X. This, truly, is the best of both worlds, as you can choose to access Windows 7 natively via Boot Camp or virtualized from within Mac OS X using Fusion, all on the same machine.

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