A few weeks back, a hack surfaced on the Internet that let users of Apples new Intel-based computers install Microsoft Windows XP.
It was probably more trouble than it was worth for most users, but Apple has come around with its own, much smoother pathway to Windows.
Indeed, as with most hacks, the Windows-XP-on-Mac-hardware workaround was a tricky one, and its tough for many (eWEEK Labs included) to grasp why Mac users would care to fuss with the firmware innards of their shiny new Apple Tiger boxes to run an OS that installs quite happily on nearly all the worlds desktop PCs.
On April 5, however, Apple strengthened the case for Mac Intel users switching from OS X to Windows XP, at least some of the time, with the release of an initial beta of Boot Camp. During eWEEK Labs tests, the beta software guided us smoothly through the process of turning an Intel-powered Mac mini into a dual-boot Windows XP SP2/ OS X 10.4.6 box.
We were impressed by how well the process went: In our previous experience with dual-booting systems—such as with Windows and BeOS or Windows and Linux—weve found serious potential for system breakage.
We started Boot Camp by updating the firmware on our Mac mini and downloading and installing all available updates for the machine.
We then launched the Boot Camp application, which offered to burn for us a CD that contained all the Windows drivers wed need to operate Apples hardware under Windows XP.
We rebooted with a Windows XP SP2 disk (Boot Camp supports no earlier Windows version) and began installing Windows normally.
Once Windows was up, we installed drivers from the disk Boot Camp had just burned. We were then in business, just as with any other old Windows machine.
Performance was a non-issue—nothing seemed noticeably faster or slower than what wed expect on a processor in this class—an Intel Core Duo 1.66GHz.
One potential snag for dual-booters is that Windows XP doesnt support the Macs default file system and Macs dont fully support the NTFS file system, which is the default for Windows.
We couldnt view any of our Mac files while in Windows.
Conversely, OS X offers at least partial support for Windows default NTFS file system and full support for FAT32.
When we installed XP on our Mac, we had the option of choosing between the two, but we stuck with NTFS.
Windows XP operates just fine on FAT32, but Microsoft defaults to NTFS with good reason—NTFS supports more granular access rights, built-in file compression and encryption, partitions larger than 32GB and file system journaling, among other features.
Once wed completed our Mac-to-Windows-and-back journey, we could read our NTFS-stored files, but we could not change them or write new files on our Windows partition.
The Linux kernel ships with read-only support for NTFS, as well as and experimental read-write support.
Provided that Apple can make full NTFS interoperability happen without jeopardizing data integrity, we hope to see this support built into OS X 10.5, in which Boot Camp will appear as a standard feature.
Otherwise, users opting for the dual-boot experience may find a Windows XP thats cut off at the knees.
Based on our past, not-so-great experience with dual-booting, its not clear to us how big of a hit Boot Camp will prove to be with Apple users.
Weve found that dual-boot scenarios tend to leave users spending the bulk of their time booted into one of the two OSes—typically the one that hosts the most narrowly compatible software (that is, many Windows applications).
Virtualization or terminal services work much better for enabling, for instance, a Mac OS X or Linux user to run Windows-only software.
When users lack full access to files on either operating systems partition, as is the case with Boot Camp, users will find it that much tougher for the OSes to coexist.
Wed love to see VMware cook up a version of its VMware Player for the Mac.
With OS Xs Unix underpinnings, and its capability for running X11 applications, porting the Linux version of VMware Player might not be too lofty a goal to reach.
That way, users could run Windows software without resorting to a dual-boot configuration.
Still, even with the limitations of dual booting, Boot Camp offers Apple hardware buyers more choices, and we in the Labs always welcome more choices for ourselves and our readers.
Boot Camp principally represents a bid by Apple to sell more hardware, but we welcome this gesture of openness.
If, to boot, Apple grew similarly more open to allowing OS X to run on non-Apple hardware, the strategy could go a long way toward improving the firms case for itself in enterprise IT.
Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at [email protected]