Living on Air: A Windows guru spends two weeks with a Mac

Windows expert Preston Gralla was challenged to work with Apple's MacBook Air for two weeks. Will he ever go back to a PC?

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The multitouch trackpad gestures also take some getting used to. I would suddenly find my application unaccountably zooming in or out, without any apparent action on my part. The cause: I accidentally brushed two fingers against the trackpad. Move two fingers toward one another on the trackpad (in a pinching gesture) and you zoom out; move the fingers away from one another and you zoom in. There are other trackpad gestures you can use as well, for rotating pictures, for example.

In general, with a little bit of re-learning, I did get used to the MacBook Air's keyboard. I did miss the Home and End keys, though, and have yet to find any key combination that gives their PC equivalent on the MacBook Air.

If you're looking for help with keyboard shortcuts, Apple has a very good list of them. And anyone who wants to rearrange their Mac keys, to make them more PC-like, for example, can use the free utility DoubleCommand. You can have the Mac keyboard Home and End keys work on a Mac like they do on a PC, for example, and you can swap the Alt (Option) and Command keys. (On the PC keyboard, the Alt key is to the right of the Ctrl key; on the Mac keyboard the Alt key is to the left of the Command key.)

I found that the single-click trackpad of the MacBook Air was inferior to the two-button trackpad of a PC. It's simpler to right-click an item to get an options menu than it is to press the Option key and click the spacebar, which is what you have to do on the Air. However, the scrolling trackpad is quite nice; you can scroll through documents by moving two fingers down the trackpad. And, as I mentioned previously, there are other gestures that you can use well, for zooming in and out of documents and more.

Running Windows on the Mac

One of the big benefits touted by Mac users has been the Mac's ability to run Windows as well as Mac OS X. Boot Camp, which is part of the Mac operating system, lets you set up the Mac as a dual-boot machine that can boot into either Windows or the Mac OS. However, I was more interested in running Windows inside Mac OS X as a virtual machine, so I had to find another solution. Parallels Desktop and VMware's Fusion will both do that, but each costs $79.99, and I wanted a free alternative.

I found one: the free, open-source VirtualBox from Sun. I had heard that it ran more slowly than Parallels Desktop and Fusion, but you can't argue with free.

Creating a virtual Windows machine in VirtualBox is relatively straightforward, with some potential gotchas along the way. You'll need either a Windows installation disc, or else an .ISO image of the installation disc. I chose to go with the .ISO image. Once that's in hand, you download and install VirtualBox, and then run it. To install Windows as a virtual machine, you launch a wizard, and first choose and name the operating system you're going to install.

Living with a Mac

The first step in creating a virtual Windows machine on the Mac, using VirtualBox.

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Next, you choose how much RAM you want to give to it. This is an important consideration, because any RAM you give Windows won't be available to Mac OS X. You need to balance both their needs for sufficient RAM. I chose 768MB for Windows, which seemed a reasonable compromise.

As you go through the rest of the wizard, most of what you'll encounter is self-explanatory. One thing that may confuse you is that you'll need to create a virtual hard disk in which to install Windows -- something that really should be done at the beginning of the process. So when you're asked where to install Windows, you'll need to go through the process of creating a virtual hard disk.

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