Hands on: A MacBook Pro heads to Boot Camp

When a MacBook Pro goes to Boot Camp, it comes back a changed laptop

There’s something a bit disconcerting about the idea of a full-blown installation of Windows XP on a Macintosh. Even installing XP by way of Virtual PC for Mac seemed somehow like cheating on Mac OS X, but since it was emulation software and bug-ugly slow, it was more like an operating system dalliance than a real affair.

And it did nothing for efforts to convince wannabe Mac users who on occasion really need to run a Windows app or two that anything from Apple Computer was a viable alternative to their trusty work-issued Dell or HP laptop.

Those days are over. Done. Finis.

Let me give you a real-world example. My partner is a real estate agent and longtime Mac fan. Two years ago, he had to get rid of his PowerBook G4 because software he needs is specifically coded for Windows XP (and even more horrifying, requires Internet Explorer). He had a choice: Keep doing real estate or keep his laptop. He wound up with a Sony Vaio.

As of now, he can safely return to the fold. Apple’s release this week of Boot Camp, which allows users of its newest Intel-based hardware to install Windows XP natively on their computer, now gives him -- and the rest of us -- the best of both worlds: A stylish Apple computer with a solid operating system that also does Windows. No emulation. No pokey performance.

I know, because I downloaded Boot Camp, snagged a copy of Windows XP at CompUSA, installed it and promptly fired up that real estate program in IE. It worked like a charm. In fact, since my MacBook Pro has a Core Duo 2.16-GHz processor inside, Windows practically flew. It runs faster than it does on his Vaio. It runs faster than it does on my Vaio -- itself no slouch, with a 2-GHz processor and 2GB of RAM.

And installation, in true Apple form, was a snap. The longest part (and most disturbing to the eye) was watching XP install on the MacBook.

Before I get into details about the installation of Boot Camp and XP, I have to say that I don’t really know how Apple’s decision will shake up the world of computing, both at home and at work. There are Mac fans who’ll see this all as some kind of horrible abomination. There are Windows backers who’ll never buy what they see as overpriced hardware from Apple that caters to snobs. (Checked out operating system-focused message boards this week? The flames are already under way.)

And then there’s the remaining 80% of the world for whom this is potentially a big deal.

Count me in the 80%. I now have two computers in one and can run virtually any software out there. I’m not a gamer, but if I were, I’d be happy. I don‘t have to figure out which computers, Macs or PCs, to dole out at work. If so, I’d be happy. I’m not a high-level IT exec who’d like to try out Macs but is afraid of marching too far down a technology path without an out. If I were, I’d be happy. Boot Camp, which will be a part of the upcoming Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard," now offers that IT exec just the option he or she needs.

I do know this: The next time a Windows user makes cooing noises about Mac OS X, or praises the design and style of my MacBook, I can -- and I will -- promptly fire up XP and suggest that they can have the best of both worlds. I find it a compelling argument, and I think a lot of people will agree.

Installing Boot Camp was easy, although it took me longer than expected because I already partitioned my laptop’s hard drive right after buying it. Boot Camp only installs on a non-partitioned hard drive. I know this because Apple says so and because I tried to anyway. No dice. That meant backing up my software, reinstalling a fresh copy of Mac OS X and restoring my files.

Note to new Intel-based Mac owners: If you think you’ll want to try Boot Camp, don’t partition your hard drive.

After that, I updated the firmware on My MacBook Pro, checked to make sure that I was, indeed, running the latest version of Mac OS X (10.4.6) and fired up the Boot Camp installer. In a nutshell, it allows you to partition your hard drive on the fly; Mac OS X runs in one partition, the second one is set aside for XP. I chose to give XP 12GB of room, leaving the rest of my 100GB hard drive for Mac OS X.

Boot Camp also walks you through the creation of an installation CD that holds software drivers that allow Apple hardware to work with Windows -- so make sure you have a blank CD handy when you install. After that CD is burned, you eject it, pop in your Windows XP installation disk and sit back and wait.

A reminder: You need a version of XP that has Service Pack 2 (SP2) included. You can’t use an older version of XP and then update it to SP2 after the installation is done. And no, earlier versions of Windows won’t work.

Installing Boot Camp and burning my Mac software drivers onto a CD took only a few minutes. Formatting the new partition and installing Windows took about 45 minutes more. Another very important note: When you’re asked which partition you want XP on, choose “C.” Otherwise, you could wipe out the data on your Mac OS X partition. This would be a bad thing.

I watched while various arcane file names scrolled by as the Windows installer proceeded, clear evidence of XP’s DOS underpinnings. After I had tweaked a couple of settings, Windows fired up, asked me to register and set up my account and I was in XP-land. At first, the screen resolution was off, but as soon as the Apple software had been installed -- it does this automatically after you insert the CD you made -- I rebooted and Windows looked as it should. I connected to my wireless network at home, promptly downloaded Firefox and was happily surfing along.

So how does XP feel on a MacBook Pro? In a word, fast. It’s clearly faster than I’ve seen it run on any other PC or laptop I’ve used. Is it faster than Mac OS X? I’m not even going to go there. Mac OS X on Intel is blazingly fast. XP feels merely fast. I don’t think speed is an issue.

There are few caveats to keep in mind, and since this is beta software, that’s no surprise. Apple’s wireless keyboard and mouse don’t work in XP, so you’ll need USB models to navigate the system. The Windows clock seems to reset itself between restarts. And because you have to choose either Windows XP or Mac OS X when you boot your computer, the two systems don’t run at the same time. That means dragging and dropping files between them doesn’t work. Assuming you format your Windows partition as NTFS, however, you can still read the Windows files when booted into Mac OS X. In a sense, this can be a good limitation; It means viruses or malware can’t escape XP and corrupt Mac OS X.

Finally, the one puzzler I have yet to figure out is how to get a “right-click” using the MacBook Pro’s single-button trackpad. In Mac OS X, you simply hold down the Control key. But none of the modifier keys I’ve tried yet brings up a right click menu or function in XP, and according to information on Apple's Web site the only option is third-party key-remapping software. (Update: Try Apple Mouse Utilities, a program written for one-button Apple mouse users who run Windows.)

Truly, though, these are quibbles. Boot Camp does exactly what it’s supposed to, and with the relative ease you’d expect from Apple software. I have no doubts that Apple has a winner here. What it means for the long-fought operating system wars I don’t yet know. But it looks like a whole new ball game.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

Bing’s AI chatbot came to work for me. I had to fire it.
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