Hands on: A Windows expert tries out Apple's Boot Camp...

...And likes what he finds

A long-held dream of experienced computer users and IT departments was finally fulfilled last week by Apple Computer Inc. with the beta release of its Boot Camp software.

Apple has given Windows and Mac users the first realistic way to run both OS X Tiger and Windows XP on a Macintosh computer. Although other products, including Microsoft's $130 Virtual PC for Mac, have employed different means to accomplish the deed, in real-world use they've been less than satisfactory.

Apple has dramatically improved on the Windows-on-a-Mac experience over emulation-based solutions. After completing Boot Camp, Windows XP runs extremely fast on the Mac with very few quirks or issues -- so fast and well, in fact, that the notion of having your cake and eating it too comes to mind. That decades-old fork in the road between being forced to choose either the Mac for its superior design or Windows for its wealth of available software has disappeared. With a recent-model Mac, a large hard-drive -- and for the cost of a full-install version of Windows XP -- you can have both operating systems on the same computer — the best of both worlds.

So how did Apple achieve this? Boot Camp is designed solely for Intel-based Macs, including the new MacBook Pro and the iMac and Mac Mini models with dual- or single-core Intel CPUs. Intel-based Macs can run Windows XP natively, which means there's no emulation process needed to handle the differences in how PowerPC and Intel chips run software. So, the hard part of the equation was accomplished by Apple's adoption of Intel CPUs.

Apple's Mike Shebanek, product manager for Mac OS X product marketing, affirmed yesterday that Apple is ahead of schedule with the roll out of Intel CPU-based Macs and expects to complete the transition across its product line by the end of 2006.

Apple needed a way to set up the hard drive and install Windows XP on supporting Macs; It accomplished that by creating the Boot Camp Assistant software. Boot Camp is essentially a dual-boot utility. It works similarly to the multiple-boot functionality supported by all recent versions of Windows. The only real downside is that anytime you want to switch from Windows XP to OS X or vice versa, you must reboot the computer.

When you run the Boot Camp Assistant utility, it carries out several steps: It burns a Windows driver CD specific to your Mac hardware; dynamically repartitions your Mac hard drive, creating a new logical drive for Windows; and initiates the Windows XP setup process (using a "full install" copy of Windows XP Pro or Home Service Pack 2 that you must acquire separately).

The Windows installation routine asks you to select the partition to install Windows (the answer is always C:), formats the partition and installs Windows on your Mac. After you successfully boot into Windows XP, the last step is to install the Windows drivers from the disc burned with Boot Camp. The process is less complicated that it sounds.

Apple's beta release of Boot Camp was offered as a test in preparation for the release of Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, the next major release of Apple's operating system. Leopard, which could arrive early next year, will include Boot Camp. Apple will not distribute Windows XP with Boot Camp. The company won't comment on whether it will upgrade Boot Camp and OS X to perform the same feat for at least some versions of Windows Vista. But there's no question that Apple has already delivered a breakthrough.

Meanwhile, Virtual PC has a couple of advantages over Boot Camp. You can switch back and forth between Mac OS X and Windows more rapidly without having to reboot. It also runs on PowerPC-equipped Macs. In fact, it's a bit ironic that Microsoft's Virtual PC software does not support Intel-based Macs. For details, see this Microsoft FAQ.

Beyond Boot Camp Assistant

The first thing you'll notice about running Windows XP on an Intel-based Macintosh is how very fast it is. This is the way Windows XP was meant to perform. It may not sound like a good thing to some people, but after only a few minutes of working with Boot Camp-installed XP, you may entirely forget that you're using a Mac. Windows XP works exactly like it should when Boot Camp installs it.

There are a couple of minor shortcomings, mostly due to hardware support issues. Because of a difference in the way OS X/Unix and Windows handle system time, every time you boot into Windows the system time will be several hours ahead. It's possible to fix the problem using the Date and Time Control Panel's Internet Time update button, or you can adjust it manually. In the Boot Camp Beta, Apple's hard drive motion sensor, iSight camera and some other devices don't have driver support. You also can't use Apple's Bluetooth wireless keyboard and mouse with XP on your Mac, and two-finger scrolling on the MacBook Pro TrackPad doesn't work. (The TrackPad works, but at something like a 40% of its OS X functionality.)

Apple has done a great job with drivers it has supplied for the video, audio, wireless networking, Ethernet, Bluetooth, the eject button,and others. The mission critical hardware works well under XP. Although this is beta software, Apple hasn't publicly committed to further hardware support, and was cagey on this point when I asked about it in an interview. In case it's not clear: Windows users would like more hardware driver support from Apple with Boot Camp. A MacBook Pro TrackPad driver is required, and the ability to use the wireless input devices, iSight, motion sensor and so forth is highly desirable.

Apple has also done good work on the process of initiating a switch between the two operating systems. Boot Camp employs very simple but effective tools for managing its dual-boot process.

On the Mac, the operating system you're currently booted to will be the one that loads the next time you start or restart Mac OS X or Windows in the conventional fashion (a very different starting assumption than the one Microsoft uses for Windows). There are two ways to alter that standard Mac boot behavior. The first is more useful when you're powering up from an off state. As the Mac begins powering up, you'll hear its "bong" tone. Press and hold the Option (Alt) key. A graphical menu appears that depicts Mac and Windows hard drives. You simply choose the one you want to boot.

The second method is easier when the Mac is already running in either Mac OS X or Windows. Boot Camp adds a Windows start-up option to Mac OS X's Startup Disk System Preferences pane and a nearly identical Startup Disk Control Panel to your Windows XP installation. To switch to the other operating system, you merely open the Startup Disk settings applet, choose the operating system you want to boot to and press the Restart button. The Mac then restarts to the operating system you chose.

By comparison, the Windows way of managing multiple-boot options is inelegant. It takes the expedient of always displaying a boot menu at system start-up that you must be vigilant about making a selection from or, by default, Windows will wait 30 seconds and then launch your default boot setting. Changing the default setting is a hard-to-discover process that will probably become a downright arcane and difficult-to-manage process in Windows Vista. Apple's solution is far better. Microsoft's chief advantage is it is able to handle multiple boot partitions, while — with Boot Camp — OS X is limited to itself and Windows XP.

After putting Apple's Boot Camp Beta through its paces, I have to applaud the company's decision to release this functionality. The work Apple has done so far is excellent. With some additional hardware support and a few tweaks, Boot Camp will be all that it can be. And nothing will put a smile on your face faster than watching how fast Windows XP runs natively on a 2-GHz dual-core MacBook Pro. Boot Camp is a boon for both Mac and Windows aficionados — not an easy thing to achieve.

What's It All Mean?

I don't want to read too much into the significance of Apple's Boot Camp, but it's difficult to ignore an emerging trend borne out of the arrival of this software. If Apple aggressively pursues the course of making it possible to run Windows software on Macs, the company's attractive hardware and superior operating system may well win back lost market share. There is a possible future where Apple wises up and works to open the closed nature of the Mac experience.

When you look at Apple's stars over the past few years, they seem to line up, pointing to a strategy. Apple develops Mac OS X, an operating system that is underpinned by the ever-portable Unix. Apple fixes the problems with Mac OS X and networking in a Windows environment, arguably the first time Macs and Windows PCs became easy to integrate on a small peer LAN. Apple announces that it's dumping PowerPC processors in favor of Intel CPUs for all future Macs. First-quarter 2006: Apple rolls out about half its Mac product line with Intel CPUs, ahead of schedule. It affirms its commitment to finish the job by the end of the year. April 2006: Apple releases a stable beta of a utility that allows you to install Windows XP and run it natively on Intel-based Macs. What's Apple's next step? The company certainly has my attention.

Is it absolutely inconceivable that someday Windows applications could run under Mac OS X? Probably. But could it become a lot easier for independent software makers to port their Windows applications to OS X? Could a Rosetta-like emulation layer run Windows applications under OS X with better performance characteristics? Would a virtualization solution designed for Intel-based Macs run faster than Microsoft's Virtual PC for Mac (which only supports PowerPC Macs)? Can Apple's engineers make Boot Camp a spit in the bucket compared to the additional things they'll do to make it more convenient to run software written for Windows on Macs? Every small step Apple takes in that direction has the potential to win over Windows users — and sell more Mac hardware. The most important goal for Apple, though, should probably be to help software makers write for the Mac. Apple has not always done the best job of supporting Mac software and hardware makers.

One thing Apple CEO Steve Jobs' company should stop doing is focusing entirely on its different drummer persona. As it has done more of in recent years, it should embrace the best technologies available. Many software and hardware companies have innovated for Windows in ways that have become quite popular with that very large user base. Remember how long it took Apple to release its own four-button mouse with scroll functionality? While Lenovo's ThinkPads, for example, have for years come with an innovative three-button pointer/touchpad input device with a usable scrolling feature, Apple's otherwise excellent MacBook Pro is limited to its imprecise one-button TrackPad with a hard-to-control two-finger scroll feature. Microsoft's customizable Start menu is in every way the analog of OS X's Apple menu, but you can't customize the Apple menu. Apple's user experience standards are supreme, but it's not the only company with good ideas. Sometimes its zeal for simplicity prevents it from doing something more useful.

There are signs, though, that Apple is beginning to lose its not-invented-here syndrome. Is it too little, too late? Almost certainly if you're thinking about Macintosh world domination. But there's clearly plenty of cachet in the Apple brand and enough great thinking in its operating system to attract advanced users. Microsoft appears to be dozing at the switch with this user segment. But they're influential people. IT folks, for example, are advanced users.

Another change Apple should make is to build cheaper hardware. The company's industrial design has always been first class. On the MacBook Pro, the Apple logo is made of a translucent material that glows because it allows light from the LCD's backlight to pass through. The LCD cover and bezel comprise the thinnest computer LCD I've ever seen. Engineering and manufacturing hardware with these aesthetics costs a lot of money -- money that enterprises and small businesses just aren't willing to have passed along to them. Apple is building a Maserati instead of a Ford Model T. But what if the company set its sights on building a low-cost "Business Mac"? I'm not talking about the ubiquitous white box computer, because that wouldn't be a Mac. But isn't Apple smart enough to engineer something with a modicum of style that doesn't cost that much to build?

I don't know about you, but I'm tired of the lack of viable competitors to Microsoft's Windows operating system. Windows has improved significantly in this decade. Windows Vista also appears to be a major upgrade, well worth consideration. But the advent that would go the longest way toward improving Windows would be the emergence of real competition from Apple and possibly others.

Coming later this week -- Boot Camp Basics: How to Set Up Win XP on an Intel-Based Mac.

Scot Finnie is online editorial director at Computerworld and has been an editor for a variety of IT publications for more than 20 years. This article originally appeared in Scot's Newsletter and is reprinted by permission.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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