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Running Windows on a Mac (Part 2): The good, bad and ugly

If you're toying with the idea of getting a MacBook Air, Pro or an iMac and run Windows 7 on it full-time, it's good to be aware of where this unholy pairing shines and especially where it fails. In part 1 of this series, I discussed the performance impact you're going to get running Windows 7, as compared to Mac OS X Lion (spoiler alert: battery life suffers a bit, performance-wise it's "ok"). In this second installment in the series, I'll shine a light on the ups, downs, quirks and downright ugliness that you'll encounter when running Windows 7 on your Mac.

[ Running Windows on a Mac (Part 1): Lion vs. Win7 performance shootout ]

The good

I've been a Mac + Windows user for four years, and believe it or not there's a lot of good to be said about this combination. Here's why running Windows on a Mac is a great experience and why these reasons alone might be enough to make you deal with some of the compromises (you'll read about later on).

Near-perfect build quality

Let's get the obvious fact out of the way: Apple's desktop and laptop lineup sports some of the best build-quality on the planet. No doubt about it. The unibody construction on the Mac Mini, Mac Pro, iMac, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro isn't just beautiful, it's extremely durable and portable: The MacBook Air, for example, is currently the thinnest laptop on sale (though, the ultrabook competition is just around the corner) while still being highly durable. It represents the state of the art in terms of portability. Even the 17" MacBook Pro is thinner and lighter than the majority of 15" or 17" laptops built by the likes of Asus, HP (oh...wait) or Acer.

What's also highly annoying about Windows laptops (to me, at least) is the hardware clutter such as constantly flashing LEDs, pseudo-futuristic design elements or unnecessary buttons (e.g. buttons that launch OEM software that no one ever uses). What the Mac hardware offers me as a Windows user is a clutter-free and non-distracting design. Plus, Mac displays are top notch compared to similarly sized (and priced) displays.

Bottom line, I don't think that there's a Windows laptop or desktop built that matches Macs. To me, this outweighs most -- if not all -- of the potential downsides that come with running Windows on a Mac. I need portability and durability --- and if that means I have to cope with a couple of bugs or sacrifice a bit of battery life, so be it.

(Mostly) current-gen hardware

Up until now, Macs regularly came with CPUs or graphics that were at least one generation old. Gladly, that's not the really the case anymore: Intel's Sandy Bridge processors now run across almost all current Apple hardware, even on the MacBook Air, so you don't have to deal with the (now ancient) C2D processors anymore. And while the graphics aren't as high-end as they could be, the latest AMD Radeon 6000 and NVIDIA chips prove to be more than enough for day-to-day usage.

The bad

Yes, you'll encounter some quirks while running Windows 7 on a MacBook or an iMac, but most of them can be fixed and, in some cases, won't even be noticed after a couple of days.

Trackpad mania

Windows users will loathe the MacBook's trackpad when using it for the first time. No hardware buttons, no designated scroll area. Let me assure you: you'll come to love the trackpad. The two-finger scroll works better than on most Windows laptops you've used and you can decide whether you want to use "press" or "tap" to click; there's also an option to use the bottom-right of the trackpad as a right-click, which emulates the right-click button.

What's still quirky about it is that the multi-touch gestures, which work perfectly on the OS X side, won't really work on Windows 7. You can pinch-to-zoom in pictures or on websites, but it's choppy and way too sensitive. Additionally, the trackpad drivers of Boot Camp (even version 4.0) don't allow you to set pointer speeds and often falsely detect trackpad input when typing or when just moving the cursor around (which causes accidental drag & drop actions). Gladly, there's a workaround by Vladimir Plenskiy called Trackpad++. This updated driver and software combo improves pointer speeds, enables accelerated scrolling and improves about half a dozen other quirks.

Keyboard

The Mac keyboard will also take some getting used to. First, you need to cope with the fact that the Apple command key (the equivalent of the WIN key) is next to the space bar where the ALT key is the case on most laptops. Even after 4+ years of using a MacBook or the full-size Apple keyboard, I sometimes still need to look down and make sure I'm hitting the right key. It's annoying, especially if you need to switch between Mac and Windows keyboards.

Second, you'll hate the fact that there's no dedicated DEL button -- you literally need to hit "FN" and backspace. Same goes for the Page Up and Page Down buttons (here you hit the FN+Up and Down keys). Unfortunately, there's no fix for that, so you just have to get used to it. What can be fixed, though, is the keyboard backlight, which -- on some MacBooks -- can't be turned off or even cranked up to its full brightness. Thankfully, this can be fixed by installing "Power Plan Assistant".

Washed out colors

Compared to OS X, when booting into Windows many users have noticed that the colors seem washed out and have a blue-ish tint. The problem lies with the outdated NVIDIA drivers that are present in Boot Camp 2.x and the earlier 3.x versions. The solution is easy: get the latest Boot Camp 3.3 or grab version 4.0 (which isn't available as a standalone download but can be downloaded using the Boot Camp assistant under OS X Lion). This includes an updated driver that should fix this issue. If the issue still persists, you need to create a 2.2 gamme profile in OS X, copy the ICC file (Libraries\ColorSync) to your Windows desktop and double-click on it. This should fix your color woes.

The Mini DisplayPort: Get an adapter

While some laptop manufacturers and display makers have incorporated Apple's Mini DisplayPort, it's still far from widely adopted. In most cases, if you need to connect your HDTV, projector or a DVI-based display, you have to shell out additional bucks to get a Mini-DisplayPort-to-VGA/DVI/HDMI adapter. And while that's certainly not a Windows-related problem, it's worth mentioning if you decide to switch hardware.

File sharing between Mac OS X and Windows

It's a love-hate relationship: When booting into Mac OS X, you will see NTFS volumes, but you can't write to them. And on Windows 7, you can browse the HFS+ volume, but can't change a single bit. That's pretty annoying if you're switching between both OS worlds. Luckily, there are some workarounds for both sides:

HFS+ in Windows: Boot Camp's driver supports HFS read-only. Currently, only the commercial "Paragon HFS+ 9.0" ($20) supports writing to HFS volumes. An alternative to that is MacDrive, which offers its own partitioning and disk repair tool for about $50. There's a free alternative called "hfsexplorer", which hasn't been updated since 2008 and uses its own explorer rather than integrating with Windows Explorer.

NTFS in Mac OS X: On the Mac side, NTFS read/write drivers are all commercial, such as Tuxera NTFS, which sets you back $29, or their older free version NTFS 3G, which is about 5-10x slower than its paid brother. There's also Paragon's NTFS for Mac 9.0 ($20) --- unfortunately, there's no comparison between the two and they both appear to be working rather well, so I'd tend to go with Paragon's option.

The ugly

There are some downright ugly things you need to consider when running Windows on a Mac.

The price!

No, I won't rant about the Apple tax here. Back in February of 2009, I did spend a fortune for the maxed-out 17" MacBook Pro with a 256 GB SSD. I basically paid twice as much for the device when compared to a similarly spec'd Windows laptop, but -- according to hard disk statistics tool HDTune -- it's been running for 17888 hours (that's a total of 745 days of uptime in 2 years and 7 months) and it's been turned on 8900 times. And despite that and many dozens of trips, it feels like a brand-new machine and to me that's worth every penny spent. What you, as a Windows user, need to consider is that you're buying an expensive machine with no Windows or any software preinstalled. So in addition to paying $999 for your MacBook Air 11" you need to add in the cost of Windows 7 Home Premium ($180) and even Office ($210).

The AHCI disaster

This is where it gets really ugly: Mac uses a form of BIOS emulation to install and run Windows, which has the negative side effect that AHCI mode is disabled. As I briefly discussed in part 1, AHCI gives hard disk performance a boost as it enables higher transfer rates, Native Command Queuing and the TRIM command on SSDs. In part 3, I'm going to dive into some pretty hefty instructions on how to get AHCI working under Boot Camp.

No switchable Intel/Nvidia/ATI graphics in Boot Camp

One of the many reasons MacBooks don't get quite the battery life running Windows as running OS X is the missing ability to switch between the more powerful dedicated GPU and the low-powered Intel/Nvidia/ATI graphics. The BIOS mode emulation disabled the integrated graphics altogether, so your GPU is essentially running at full steam -- even if you're sitting on an airplane writing a document. To get the IGP to work would require an extremely risky BIOS mode hack and some reworked drivers, and not even the hacker community has managed to do that.

Bottom line

Let's be clear about this: Running Windows on a Mac is a compromise and it's good to know what you're getting yourself into. But for me, none of these issues are actual show stoppers -- with the exception of the price issue, of course. I've dealt with some of these quirks for years and can honestly say, that the benefits outweigh the downsides 2:1.

If you're ready to take the plunge, there's a lot to look forward to in part 3 of this series, including:

  • Setting up Boot Camp and install Windows 7
  • Get ReFit and install Win7 from a USB thumb drive (MacBook Air users rejoice!)
  • Learn the 5 most important Windows settings on Macs
  • Why it's a bad idea to completely wipe Mac OS X Lion, even if you're living 100% in the Windows world
  • Enable AHCI -- a dirty hack
  • Fix quirks such as trackpad issues
  • Redistribute disk space after you've set up Boot Camp
  • ...and more

Stay tuned!

This article, "Running Windows on a Mac (Part 2): The good, the bad and the ugly," was originally published at ITworld. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

Sandro Villinger is a contributor to ITworld. For more by Sandro, see: Running Windows on a Mac (Part 1): Lion vs. Win7 performance shootout

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