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Running Windows 8 on your Mac

Maybe you have to do it for work. Maybe you're just curious. Maybe you're a glutton for punishment who lives on the bleeding edge. Maybe you lost a bet. Whatever the reason, you want to run the Windows 8 Preview Release.

I'm not here to judge you. I'm just here to help you get Windows 8 running on your Mac.

There are several ways to accomplish this, but I'm going to look at four options--Boot Camp, Parallels, VMware Fusion and VirtualBox.

Boot Camp

The first requires items that you probably have around the house--a recent Mac and OS X, which ships with Boot Camp, Apple's dual boot manager.

You might want to run Windows on an older machine, as Windows 8 actually has much less stringent hardware requirements than Mac OS X Lion, but the problem is that only Macs since about 2008 have firmware that can boot from disks with the modified boot sectors Microsoft started using in Vista. I was actually able to install an earlier preview release on a 2006 Core Solo Mac mini, but not the latest release, which is unfortunate. It is possible to extract the install into a new disk image with a normal boot sector, but it's complicated, and you'd need an existing Windows install to attempt it.

So, assuming you have a relatively recent Mac, the first thing you'll need to install Windows 8 Preview Release via Boot Camp is, not surprisingly, a copy of Windows 8 Preview Release, which Microsoft is providing for download at the cost of only a valid email address and your immortal soul. Since we've already determined that you're using a recent Mac, you'll want the 64-bit release. Remember to make note of the activation code. Yes, I said "activation code."

Hey, whoa, whoa. You're the one who wanted to use Windows, remember? Don't shoot the messenger.

Once you've downloaded the disk image, open Disk Utility on a Mac with an optical drive and mount the image in the sidebar. Click on the disk image and burn it to a blank disk. It's possible to use a USB disk image, but that also requires an existing Windows install as well as Microsoft's USB/DVD download tool.

Now get ready to lose some hard drive space! The 64-bit version of Windows 8 requires at least 20GB of disk space; the 32-bit version 18GB. Launch Boot Camp Assistant. On the first screen, uncheck the option to download the latest Windows support software from Apple, and check the option to install Windows 7. (Yes, Windows 7--as of this writing, Apple has not yet updated Boot Camp for Windows 8.)

Then select how much disk space you want to allocate to the Windows drive. Unlike partitioning a drive using Disk Utility, this process won't wipe your existing data; it'll just allocate a section of your free space for Windows. (If you want to reclaim it later, you can run Boot Camp Assistant again to remove it.) Put your burned Windows 8 install disk in the drive and click Install.

Your Mac will restart, and you should see the dreadful... uh, I mean happy Windows installation dialog. You can take it from there. I don't support Windows unless you're family.

Parallels

While Boot Camp will let you run Windows natively, Parallels almost makes installing Windows 8 a pleasure by comparison. Well, OK, you're still installing Windows, so maybe that's stretching things a bit, but it takes care of a lot of the process for you.

First download and install Parallels from that company's website. Parallels kindly offers a two-week trial period; after that the software costs $80 for a license.

Once you've installed the software, launch Parallels. Downloading Windows 8 is an option on the main screen. Select it and click Continue. Select a language, and Parallels will then even provide the activation code for you. It's almost like OS X, which has no activation codes! Except with activation codes!

If you uncheck the 64-bit Windows version box at the bottom, Parallels will download the 32-bit version instead. The only reason to do so might be if you have a Mac with less than 4GB of RAM. The 32-bit version of Windows 8 only requires 1GB of RAM versus the 2GB required for the 64-bit version.

You can then select to run Windows applications as if they are Mac applications, without having to view the Windows desktop, or to run Windows as an independent environment--"Like a PC," is how Parallels puts it. Then you'll be asked where you want to store the virtual drive file, which is the Windows data drive. Parallels also handles the Windows installation process for you, using your OS X user information to set up a Windows user.

VMware Fusion

The first thing you'll need if you opt for this approach is an online account with VMware to download the software. The account setup asks for your name and address as well as a phone number. (No, the company will not call you up and ask "Is your virtual machine running?" before shouting, "You better run and catch it, then" and hanging up. I mean, I would do that, but VMware is more professional about these sorts of things.)

Once you sign up for an account, you'll need to activate it through an email VMware sends you; then you can download a free 30-day trial. (A full version of VMware Fusion is a reasonable $50.) Open the disk image and do the old drag to install.

Launch the application, and you'll be asked if you want to submit anonymous data and statistics. Your online VMware account will include a trial license key which you'll need to supply; then, click OK and you'll be taken to the application's Virtual Machine Library. Click Create New. VMware will ask you what kind of disk you'll be installing from. In my instance, I was using Remote Disk from a MacBook Air, so I clicked "Continue without disc" and then navigated to the disc, which was being shared from an iMac eight feet away.

VMware will recognize your operating system as Windows but suggest that it's XP; you'll want to change that option to the closest available, which Windows 7 as of this writing. Also, as VMware defaults to allocating 1GB of RAM to the VM, I changed that to 2GB, the Windows 8 recommended minimum. Select Customize Settings, and VMware will prompt you first to save the file. Then click on Processors and Memory and increase the amount of RAM to 2GB.

Close the Settings window and your virtual machine shows a movie-like start arrow. Click it and you're in business. Unlike with Parallels, you'll need to supply the Windows activation code when prompted, as with a standard Windows installation process.

VirtualBox

If you don't want to pay to try Windows 8 and, for whatever reason, you don't want to use Boot Camp, you can use VirtualBox, Oracle's free virtualization software.

Download and install VirtualBox from its website. Once that's done, launch VirtualBox and click New to make a new virtual machine. Provide a name for the environment and select Microsoft Windows as the operating system and "Windows 8 (64 bit)" (or just "Windows 8" if you downloaded the 32-bit version) as the version. Then select the base amount of RAM to allocate, I'd say at least 1GB if you're running the 32-bit version and 2GB if you're running the 64-bit version.

Next, you need to create a virtual hard disk. Using the defaults of "Start-up Disk" and "create new hard disk," click Continue and select the format of the disk. I chose a VirtualBox disk, but there are several other formats including Parallels. Click Continue and select whether you want the space to be dynamically allocated or static. Click Continue again and give the disk a name and a maximum size. Click Continue to review your disk settings and click Create. Finally, click Create one more time to tie it all together.

You're almost kinda sorta there! Now you have the environment, you just need to install Windows 8. Click Start and VirtualBox will initiate the First Run Wizard which, and I hate to disappoint you, isn't that magical. Click the folder icon next to the popup menu and select the ISO disk image of Windows 8 you want to use. Click Continue to review again and then Start.

VirtualBox will start the environment using the Windows install disk image. From there, you'll need to run through the standard Windows setup providing the activation key.

Which to choose?

Of the four options I explored, I found that Parallels is far and away the most painless to configure, even if it does require you to shell out more of your hard-earned cash. VMware Fusion is a bit less and slightly less slick, but still a solid option. VirtualBox is slower and much less elegant than the other virtualization options, but it is free. Boot Camp will be the fastest of the options listed here since it's not running Windows in a virtual environment, but it requires you have a Mac with an optical drive.

Whatever you choose, here's hoping your Windows experience is short and relatively painless. That should be possible, right?

John Moltz recently gave up the glamour of working in corporate IT to write online at his Very Nice Web Site. He does not respond to questions about whether he used to write what amounts to Apple fan fiction.


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