How To Master Windows Virtualization On Your Mac

Mac|LifePaul Curthoys, Florence Ion, and Paul Lilly Features

Forget oil and water — these days, OS X and Windows 7 go together like cookies and milk. We’ll help you savor both flavors with an in-depth look at the most cutting-edge ways to run these two operating systems on one Mac.

Go ahead — close your eyes and pretend it doesn’t exist. Squinch those lids tighter, even. It won’t help. Windows is still out there, and while some of us can exist in a Mac-only computerscape, loads of us can’t. Case in point — ever tried QuickBooks for Mac? Yep, it’s rubbish, but for many small business owners, QuickBooks (and not some almost-QuickBooks Mac clone) is vital for their biz. Then there’s gaming — while Steam has helped Mac gaming reach new heights, some of the best computer games out there only run in Windows. And the examples go on and on.

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None of that’s a problem. While Windows endured some incredibly dark days in its Vista era, Windows 7 is actually a pretty sharp operating system. Better yet, it’s easier than ever to run Windows on your Mac. This guide will steer you safely through that sometimes-confusing terrain while also introducing you to the Windows software you’ll be thrilled to use — and don’t worry, none of it bites!

Putting Windows on Your Mac

You’re ready to take the plunge — you know that Windows 7 is actually pretty sweet, and you need it for something that OS X can’t do. But how to proceed? Let’s review the options for running Windows on a Mac so you can select the method that’s right for you.

Using Windows with your Mac begins, as many things do, with a choice: Boot Camp or virtualization. If you’re running Leopard or Snow Leopard, OS X includes Boot Camp, which enables Windows to run natively on your Mac. While that means better Windows performance, you can only run one operating system at a time this way, so switching between OS X and Windows requires restarting your computer. (For the details on how to get this option up and running, check out apple.com/support/bootcamp.)

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If you don’t mind restarting to switch operating systems, Boot Camp’s for you.

For most of us, all that rebooting adds up to too much hassle for day-to-day use, but fortunately there’s another side where the grass is greener. Virtualization software lets you run Windows (and many other operating systems) from within OS X by creating what’s called a virtual machine, or a VM. Typically, VMs appear as an application-style window inside which another OS (like Windows) runs in a virtual environment, essentially creating a computer within a computer.

With virtualization software, Mac users typically choose from two main options: VMware Fusion 3 and Parallels Desktop 6 (4.5 stars, Dec/10). For us, it’s an easy decision — we enthusiastically recommend Parallels 6 for two reasons. First, our friends over at MacTech put these two virtualization apps through one of the most exhaustive batteries of benchmarking tests we’ve ever seen, analyzing their performance on four different models of Macs in a variety of uses ranging from gaming to productivity software to 3D graphics and beyond. Parallels 6 beat Fusion 3 in 84 percent of those tests—and in 61 percent of them, it won by a margin of at least 10 percent. (Check out this terrific article at mactech.com/2011/01/05/virtualization-benchmarks.)

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For virtualization on a Mac, Parallels 6 is where it’s at.

Folks, that’s called a blowout, but Parallels has another thing going for it — tighter integration with OS X. By activating an option called “Coherence,” the window running your Windows VM disappears, and you can install and use Windows software from within OS X. Windows apps appear in a separate Applications folder, they can be launched from the Dock and used just like Mac apps, and they can access files anywhere on your computer. It’s a dramatic effect, especially if you’re used to older virtualization software that essentially quarantined the two operating systems, requiring Windows software to run solely within the VM’s window and forcing files to be copied between operating systems.

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Parallels’ best trick is integrating Windows so tightly into OS X that you barely even know it’s there.

Before we move on to the intricacies of Windows 7 and helping you get the most of Parallels 6, a brief word on requirements. Purchasing Parallels Desktop 6 ($79.99, parallels.com) doesn’t get you a copy of Windows, so you’ll need one with a valid, unused licensed key to get your VM set up.

Also, running a VM takes a big chunk of your Mac’s RAM and processor capacity. Parallels 6 defaults to using one processor core and 1GB RAM for this task, and of course it includes settings that let you devote more or less of your Mac’s muscle to Windows. But there’s no free power here — the faster you make Windows run, the slower OS X will run. With a newer Mac, you’ll be just fine, but if your Mac’s already a bit pokey, Boot Camp and its constant rebooting to cycle between operating systems might be the better route.

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This VM is configured to use 1GB RAM and one processor core from the MacBook it’s installed on.

To bottom-line it, we’ll start with Parallels 6’s stated minimum specs: Mac OS 10.5.8 or later; 1.66GHz Intel processor; 1GB RAM; 15GB for each virtual machine. But in our testing, we found that a 2GHz Core 2 Duo processor and 2GB RAM set the minimum threshold of performance that we found usable. Of course, the more horsepower your computer has, the snappier your VM will be.

Just Need Internet Explorer?

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If you only want Windows for surfing IE-only sites, Safari’s got you covered.

If your only reason for running Windows is access to Internet Explorer–only websites, back away from that VM! Safari can handle the job for you quickly and easily. First, go to Safari > Preferences, then click the Advanced tab and check the box for “Show Develop menu in menu bar.” With that menu activated, go to Develop > User Agent and pick which browser you want Safari to pose as when loading a webpage. Voilà!

On a Budget?

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You don’t have to invest in Parallels to run a Windows virtual machine on your Mac. Head over to virtualbox.org to download its eponymous and very solid open-source virtualization software. While it lacks Parallels’ awesome Coherence feature, VirtualBox is versatile and useful, and if your Windows needs are minimal or rare, free’s hard to beat.

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