Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Windows on a Mac - Alternatives to Parallels

I recently purchased a MacBook (Core 2 Duo) and bumped the RAM up to 4 gigs (yes, you can do that if you elect to purchase your memory from somewhere other than the Apple store). With all this extra memory and a number of unused licenses for Windows XP, I thought I'd download a trial copy of Parallels and give it a go. Parallels has this nifty little feature called the "transporter" that claims to be able to migrate an entire Windows install from some other machine on your local network and automagically install it on your Mac.

Sounds good, I think. I'll give it a shot.

So, I download and install the software, and run the installer. First, the transporter simply failed, several times over, so I gave up on that, and decided to do a simple clean install. This worked better, for awhile, but hung at "33 minutes left to install" and stayed there. Overnight.

Now, I'm sure this is an odd case, as lots and lots of people are successfully using the software, but I have a fairly low tolerance for software that does not work as advertised the first time (or the third -- I gave it three tries). So, I started looking to see what else was available.

The first thing that came up, of course, was Apple's Bootcamp. It looked promising, and I gave it a try. It works exceptionally well. The disadvantage, of course, is that it's a dual boot solution. You are either on Windows, or on the Mac, and never the twain shall meet. Not exactly what I was looking for. I'll give it this, though; it's fast. Since Bootcamp gives all the hardware directly to Windows, this isn't surprising, but it's arguably the best experience I've ever had with Windows on a laptop. Plus, Apple thoughtfully gives you a driver disk that enables things like the iSight video, the Bluetooth tools, the Airport wireless, and so on. Extremely well done. I just don't want to boot into Windows to do whatever trivial task I have to do that requires it. I want to have Windows run at the same time as Mac OSX.

Then I stumbled across VirtualBox. The site describes it thusly: " innotek VirtualBox is a family of powerful x86 virtualization products for enterprise as well as home use. Not only is VirtualBox an extremely feature rich, high performance product for enterprise customers, it is also the only professional solution that is freely available as Open Source Software under the terms of the GNU General Public License (GPL). See "About VirtualBox" for an introduction; see "innotek" for more about our company."

It's open source, it's free, and it exists for Mac OSX. This is exactly what I was looking for. I'm surprised I had not heard of this product before, as it exists for a lot of different platforms. I downloaded it, installed Windows, and was off to the races.

There are some differences between Parallels and VirtualBox. First, the desktop integration with Parallels is much smoother -- Windows does not live in its own window, as it were. At least that's what it says on their website; I never actually got that far. In VirtualBox, the entire Windows desktop exists by itself. I can copy and paste between Mac and Windows apps, though, so that's not such a big deal. The other thing to note is that it does not support the various resolutions of my monitor (neither the LCD panel that's part of the MacBook, nor the external Compaq 19" widescreen I have hooked up). I get 800x600, or 1024x768, and that's it.

Other than that, it works great. I highly recommend it.