How to get Windows running on your Mac

The allure, cachet, build quality, and beautiful industrial design of Apple's products are irresistible for many technophiles. Macs and MacBooks in particular offer form factors that enchant – the sliver-thin MacBook Air and the space-saving all-in-one iMac. The company's no slouch at software either: OS X Mountain Lion is a wonder of usability and boasts many powerful, clever features, along with its beautiful interface design elements. The fact is, however, that despite some recent Microsoft missteps, it's still a Windows world.

There are times when you just can't get around the need to run Windows, even after you've made the Mac switch. Maybe the company you work for has some essential Windows-only business applications. Maybe your hobby involves a Windows video editor like CyberLink PowerDirector, or a photo editor like ACDSee Pro.

Whatever your reason for needing to run Windows, you don't have to spring for another PC to do so – you can run Microsoft's operating system right on your Macbook, Macbook Air, or iMac. You've been able to do this for years, and it's still possible with Microsoft's newest OS, Windows 8. In this article, we’ll show you how (and when I say “we,” I mean that I had some help from a couple of colleagues in writing this article – namely Edward Mendelson and Samara Lynn).

Okay, so there are two basic approaches to running Windows on a Mac: You can set up Apple's Boot Camp, or you can run Windows in a "virtual machine." Which route you take depends on your needs, and in particular how often or permanently you need Windows.

The first option sets aside a partition on your Mac's hard drive that you can boot into and run Windows directly on the Apple hardware.

With the virtualisation approach, you're running Windows inside a container window inside Mac OS X. The interface between Windows and the underlying hardware is handled by virtualisation software, so you're not running Windows direct to the metal, as it were. This approach does have advantages, namely that it doesn’t require a reboot, and you can run Mac OS X and Windows side-by-side on the same screen.

However, it also means there's a middleman between the hardware and the operating system, so your performance and hardware support could suffer. But virtualisation software vendors have made great strides in these areas. Even so, the other downside is that you’ll have to fork out between £40 and £70 for the virtualisation software, whereas Boot Camp comes free with Mac OS X.

Whichever method you wish to use, you'll need a valid, full Windows installer, either on a disc or USB thumb drive. Note that the Windows restore disk that came with your Dell, HP, Lenovo, or any other computer will not work.

Running Windows on Mac via Boot Camp

Apple actually makes it pretty easy to create a Boot Camp setup on your Mac. You just need to make sure you have enough disk space to accommodate the second operating system. The minimum disk space requirement for a Windows 8 installation is 16GB for the 32-bit and 20GB for the 64-bit version of Windows, but you'll definitely want more than that for applications and data files. I'd suggest at least 40GB. This could actually be a stress on a lower-end Air. (Note that running Windows on Macs via virtualisation also takes a lot of disk space – 16GB for Parallels, the most popular option.)

Which versions of Windows your Mac will be able to run depends on the vintage of your computer; in general Macs from 2009 and earlier (except for Mac Pros) won't be able to run Windows 8, while the newest machines built from 2011 and onwards won't be able to run Windows XP and Vista. A complete chart of which machines support which Windows versions appears on this Apple support page.

That page also tells you which version of Boot Camp can run which versions of Windows. Version 5 (only available on OS X Mountain Lion v10.8.3 and later) works with 64-bit Windows 7 and 8, while Boot Camp Version 4 works with 32-bit Windows 7, XP, and Vista. Version 4 only runs on Macs running OS X Mountain Lion v10.8.2 and earlier. Another great resource is Apple's Boot Camp Support page, which is linked to in Step 1 below.

With that behind us, let's start boot-camping your Mac! Here’s a step-by-step guide on what to do:

Step 1. Run Software Update and makes sure your Mac OS X version has all the latest patches applied. Also go to http://www.apple.com/support/bootcamp and check for Boot Camp-specific updates.

Step 2. Before you start boot-camping, check which exact Mac version you have, by choosing "About this Mac" from the computer's Apple menu.

Step 3. Based on the info from step 1 and the Apple support table, determine whether you can run the Windows version you want to run.

Step 4. Back up your Mac! This kind of deep system change can occasionally produce unpredictable results that could result in data loss. It’s always better to be safe rather than sorry.

Step 5. Print out Apple's downloadable Boot Camp Guide. There's another opportunity to print this after the next step – you will really need this for the procedure.

Step 6. In Spotlight search, type "Boot Camp," and click on Boot Camp Assistant. You'll also find it under Applications > Utilities, if you prefer going through Finder. Run it.

Step 7. You'll now be in the Assistant's wizard interface, where you'll see a Print Installation & Setup Guide button. Do so, if you haven't already.

Step 8. Hit Continue in the wizard. This takes you to the page where you choose what you want to do. There are three check boxes: (1) "Create a Windows 7 or later version install disk," (2) "Download the latest Windows support software from Apple," and (3) Install a "Windows 7 or later version." If you've already got your Windows Installation media, you can uncheck the first. If you've downloaded an ISO file of the Windows installer, leave it checked. The last option creates the Boot Camp Windows partition on you Mac's hard drive, so you'll want that one checked.

Step 9. Create the bootable USB drive if you've copied the Windows installer ISO to your Mac. You'll need a stick of at least 8GB capacity, and the process will erase all its contents. The preferred method is to create the bootable USB installer through Boot Camp, since this will add support files, saving you a step later. But I ran into an issue where the process halted in the middle. Instead, I used Microsoft's USB Download Tool to create the bootable installer USB key.

Step 10. Next the wizard will download the Boot Camp support software. You'll need another USB drive to save this data to.

Step 11. Choose how much hard drive space you want to dedicate to the Windows partition by dragging the divider in the rectangle graphically representing disk space. How much space you need depends on how many programs you’ll be using, and how much data you intend to use in Windows programs (for example, if you'll be editing video, you'll want a lot). The minimum space for 64-bit Windows 8 is 20GB, but I recommend double that for general usage.

Step 12. Hit Install. At this point, the disk is actually partitioned, and you'll need to have your USB drive containing the Windows installer plugged in. The machine will reboot, and start up the Windows installer.

Step 13. Go through the simple Windows 8 installation process, choosing Custom for the installation type, and the drive partition named BOOTCAMP. You'll need to click Drive Options (advanced), and then click Format.

Step 14. Click Next. This kicks off the regular Windows installation, in which files are copied to the hard drive, then extracted and installed. It took me about 10 minutes. Once that's done, you'll be in Windows.

Step 15. Install the Boot Camp support software by double clicking setup.exe in the Boot Camp folder in the USB drive you saved this to in step 10. This installs hardware drivers for things like the display, camera, and keyboard function keys.

From this point on, whenever you restart your Mac, you can hold down the Option key right after hitting the power button. This will present you with the option of starting in Windows or in OS X. You can set either to be the default in OS X System Preferences/Startup Disk. You can also switch to OS X from Windows using the Boot Camp utility. You can get to this by typing Boot Camp from the Start screen with Settings selected, or from its diamond-shaped system tray icon in the desktop view. Running this will require a User Account Control dialog OK confirmation.

We got surprisingly good functionality in Windows 8, including working brightness and volume keys and two-finger scroll support. Mac's don't have the same keyboards as Windows, though, so you'll have to get used to using Option instead of Alt, and Command instead of the Windows key.

Running Windows on Mac the virtual way

Virtualisation is a software technique that creates a machine (or machines) within a machine. It's commonly used to create multiple server instances on one physical server computer, but Mac users can use the same technique to run an instance of Windows inside their Mac OS. The most popular software that lets them do this is Parallels.

While Parallels Desktop is the easiest software to set up and use, our networking expert, Samara Lynn, recommends virtualisation software VMware Fusion for power users, since it offers more advanced control, performance, and customisation levels. Another consideration is the fact that VMware’s offering is cheaper, at £38 compared to £72 for Parallels. However, both products are available as free trial software.

Since these programs offer step-by-step wizards to get going, we won't provide instructional steps below. To get started with either program, you plug in your Windows installer media.

Using Parallels Desktop

Parallels offers two basic modes, one in which Windows apps appear in their own window as though they were Mac apps (called "Coherence mode"), and another in which Windows gets its own desktop window where all Windows apps appear and run. The software offers several options for creating a virtual machine: Install Windows, install an OS from DVD or image file, migrate Windows from a PC, or use Windows from Boot Camp. Additional options include downloading Ubuntu and installing OS X Lion using the recovery partition.

You cannot install Windows with Parallels without a valid Windows key – entering that key kicks off an installation wizard. The wizard asks how you want to integrate Windows programs, which saves you from having to configure that after installation. This Parallels knowledge base article shows all the steps for setting it up.

Windows programs integrate well with the Mac environment in Parallels. With Windows 8 on the Mac OS in Coherence mode, Windows apps can be placed on the Launchpad and an app will run in its own window on the Mac desktop. The other option keeps Windows desktops and programs in one window, but lets you drag and drop objects, and perform cut-and-paste between the host OS X desktop and the virtual Windows desktop.

Using VMware Fusion

You start with this virtualisation software by inserting your Windows installation disc and then running the VMware Fusion program. The New Virtual Machine Assistant will try to identify which Windows version is on your install disk, and then walk you through the process of creating a virtual machine suitable for it.

You'll probably want to assign more memory than the program suggests. You may also consider other minor modifications, if for example you want to run your virtual copy of Windows with two processors instead of one (this is probably not necessary except for advanced graphics software) or you want to fine-tune Windows' access either to your default OS X printer or any other printer you've installed in OS X. When the Assistant is done, Windows will install itself on your new virtual hard disk.

When the installation is complete, the VMware Tools utility should install automatically on your Windows system, but you can use the Virtual Machine menu to install it manually. VMware Tools lets you drag files between the OS X and Windows desktops and use the clipboard to copy and paste between your OS X and Windows systems.

Experiment with VMware Fusion's full-screen mode and its Unity mode (equivalent to Parallels' Coherence mode), which runs a Windows application in a separate window on your OS X desktop while hiding the rest of Windows. When you run a Windows application in Unity mode, its icon appears on your OS X dock, and you can keep the icon in your dock for quick access to the application later.

One feature of a virtualised Windows setup is that you can suspend a Windows session, shut down VMware Fusion, and turn off your Mac; later, when you restart your Mac and Fusion, you can resume your Windows session where you left off. It works a lot like hibernation on a native Windows machine, except that you can keep running OS X while Windows is sleeping. Suspending a session is easy – you'll find a big Suspend button on the VMware Fusion toolbar, and you can also choose Suspend from the top-line menu.