What is the best way to run Windows applications on Intel Macs? This is one of the common questions for new Mac users especially switchers from Windows. For some, the ability to run Windows applications is a must-have feature when they pick up a Mac. Windows applications especially custom made programs from your company and games are more often than not Windows only, and there is no equivalent available in Mac OS X.
Back in the PowerPC Mac days, virtually everyone who needs to run Windows applications uses the program Virtual PC. Microsoft decided not to develop an Intel Mac compatible version of Virtual PC when Apple switched to using Intel processor in January 2006. Since then, a number of products have appeared to take advantage of the Intel processor for better Windows support than ever. These products fall into three broad categories, each with different strong points.
Dual-boot using Apple Boot Camp
Apple Boot Camp is an utility program that configures your Mac for dual-booting, allowing you to choose either Mac OS X or Windows when the computer boots up. Apple Boot Camp supports 32-bit releases of Windows XP or Windows Vista, and comes with device drivers for Windows to take full advantage of Mac hardware. When you boot up Windows via Boot Camp, your Mac is essentially a PC just like any other Dell or HP, and Windows is running at native speed.
Use Boot Camp if your Windows application requires full computing resource, or you want the best experience running graphics intensive PC games on your Mac. However you don’t have access to both Windows and Mac OS X at the same time. This will create inconveniences if you share data between your Windows and Mac OS X applications. Imagine you use your Windows application to create your design document, but your email and web publishing programs are on Mac OS X. After you have completed your design document, you will need to shutdown Windows completely and boot up to Mac OS X in order to email and publish your document.
Running Windows in virtual machine using VMWare Fusion or Parallels Desktop
Virtual machine application allows you to run multiple instances of operating system such as Windows and Linux, all at the same time, under Mac OS X. When you start up an instance of let say Windows XP under the virtual machine application, you in essence is booting up a software (virtual) copy of a complete PC.
When you run Windows in a virtual machine software in Mac OS X on an Intel Mac, Windows run at near-native speeds, as opposed to the native speeds of Boot Camp. One advantage of running Windows under virtual machine is the ability to switch between Windows and Mac OS X applications without rebooting. You can even copy and paste between Windows and OS X programs and move files between them.
The best virtual machine software currently available on Mac OS X are VMWare Fusion and Parallels Desktop. Each has its own strengths and we advice you to run the trials for each to see which suit you best. We recommend memory upgrade for your Mac as these programs run best with more memory.
Running Windows programs without Windows using Crossover/Wine
CodeWeavers CrossOver for Mac is a commercial version of the open source WINE software. CrossOver allows you to run Windows program in Mac OS X without running Windows itself. CrossOver is not a virtual machine software such as VMWare Fusion/Parallels Desktop or a dual boot utility like Apple Boot Camp. You do not need to install Windows operating system or purchase a Windows license to use this software. Instead, CrossOver contains codes and files needed to emulate the Windows Win32 API environment.
CrossOver runs each Windows program in a Mac OS X window and there is no Windows Desktop or start menu. CodeWeavers claims that CrossOver runs PC games faster than VMWare Fusion or Parallels Desktop as it has native support for Intel Mac’s graphics hardware and does not has the overhead of running Windows.
CrossOver however only supports a selection of Windows applications and games. Microsoft Office 2007 and Office 2003 are supported, so are programs such as Quicken 2007, Internet Explorer 6, Adobe CS and Adobe CS2. CodeWeavers published the list of compatible applications at their web site. Some users have reported that a few non-supported applications do run, but most do not.
How to choose?
Which solution you choose depends on your need and how you prioritize their tradeoffs. CrossOver is a viable option if you are certain that you will only run those supported and compatible Windows programs listed. Running CrossOver reduces the overhead require to run and maintain Windows operating system. And you save the cost of having to purchase a Windows license.
If your Windows application is not cpu and graphics resource intensive, as with most Windows applications, we recommend the virtual machine solution. Virtual machine in our opinion is the better solution among the three options for general purpose Windows need, offering the convenience of accessing to Windows and Mac OS X at the same time. With modern Mac hardware and memory upgrade, the performance penalty of running virtual machine is negligible.
If you are a hardcore PC gamer and insist on using Mac as your gaming rig, Apple Boot Camp and Mac Pro is the way to go. If you are a moderate or casual gamers, you might find the performance of gaming under virtual machines acceptable. VMWare Fusion even comes with an experimental support for accelerated 3D Direct X 9.0 graphics.