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AECbytes Tips and Tricks Issue #22 (September 25, 2007)

Best of Both Worlds: Running Windows on a Mac

Scott Onstott
Book & Video Author

Let me begin this article with a disclaimer—I'm not advocating Mac OS over Windows or vice-versa, so there is no need to send impassioned emails defending your favorite operating system. Instead, I recognize the need for both, and what I'm sharing here are tips and tricks on how you can set up an Apple computer to give you the best of both worlds. I recently purchased an Apple MacBook Pro and now enjoy both operating systems—simultaneously.

First, I'll give you some perspective on my personal computing history. I played with x86's, Apple II's, and the original Macintosh when I was growing up in the 70's and 80's, but that's ancient history. In the early 90's, I had a Mac Quadra and worked in architectural offices that used both Macs and PCs. Lots of the architects I knew switched to the PC when Autodesk decided to pull the plug on their Mac ports of AutoCAD (R12 was the last Mac version). I've been running Windows on PC hardware ever since.

I had to learn Linux when I set up the dedicated server that hosts, and I grew to appreciate the rock-solid stability of this UNIX descendant. I took notice when Apple created OS X because it too has a UNIX foundation. Around the turn of the millennium, I tried VirtualPC on an Apple iMac PowerPC running a virtual Windows 2000—it was painfully slow. Part of the reason for its poor performance was the fact that both the operating system and the processor's instruction sets had to be emulated.

Now that Apple machines use the same Intel processors as are found in many PCs, the situation is different. You can set up Apple Bootcamp software, partition your hard drive, and install your chosen flavor of Windows. Then when you reboot, hold down the Alt/Option key, select Mac OS or Windows, and then you have a Mac or a PC. Apple makes such masterful hardware that you might just want to run Windows on it—end of story. However, if you want to explore Mac OS, the obvious disadvantage with Bootcamp is that you have to reboot in order to switch operating systems.

In the past, whenever I migrated from one PC to another, the trouble was always reinstalling and reconfiguring every single piece of software that I use. I use a lot of software, and for me this complex process usually takes about a month of tinkering to get the new PC where I want it to be.

When I was researching my move from PC to Apple hardware, I discovered Laplink's PCMover—it can be used to migrate a PC to a Bootcamp partition. PCMover transfers all your files, settings, and applications from one machine to another. It includes a USB cable with some special electronics inside that allow you to join the two computers (don't ever connect two computers with a regular USB cable or you will fry them both). I didn't end up trying PCMover in the end, because I didn't want to reboot to switch operating systems. In retrospect, I might have used PCMover to transfer Windows to a Bootcamp partition on the Mac. Then I could have booted the Mac normally and accessed Windows virtually through Parallels, or run Windows natively via Bootcamp for maximum performance.

I later discovered that Parallels Desktop for the Mac includes a feature called Transporter. I ended up using Transporter to migrate Windows XP from my PC to a Parallels virtual machine on the Mac—along with all my files, settings, and applications. Let me tell you, this worked really well. Transporter magically installed whatever drivers it needed due to the massive changes in hardware (you'll have to reauthorize Windows by the way). I could hardly believe it—this move saved me a month of tinkering. I ended up setting up file sharing temporarily on both Mac and PC and connecting the two machines with an Ethernet cable to make the transfer (it's faster than wireless). When it was done I had a 60GB virtual Windows XP file on my Mac (without using Bootcamp).


Parallels is one of several solutions for running virtual machines; I haven't tried VMware Fusion, Codeweavers' CrossOver, or any other emulator. I am quite pleased with Parallels, especially with its Coherence view. Coherence allows you to run Windows and Mac applications side by side. The image above shows 3ds Max running alongside iPhoto. You can switch into Full Screen mode so that you only see Windows (no Mac menu bar), or OS Window mode where Windows is in a floating window on the Mac. I like Coherence because it's the most integrated view.

You can use the Windows Explorer and/or the Finder to navigate your shared file systems. In the Windows Explorer, I mapped the Mac home folder to the drive letter Z, and Parallels automatically shows the Windows XP's C: drive as a network disk in the finder. By the way, all of this is done without having to enable file sharing on either operating system, as virtual sharing is handled internally by Parallels.

Notice that Windows and Mac applications coexist in the dock. Only Windows applications show up on the taskbar at the bottom of the screen (which you can optionally hide in Windows taskbar and start menu options).

I wanted to have as streamlined an interface as possible, so I set my Windows desktop background to black on the Desktop tab of the Display control panel. Making a black desktop on the Mac is a little more involved because black is not one of the default solid colors. I made a black bitmap in Photoshop, put it in the Pictures folder on the Mac, selected it in the Desktop & Screen Saver system preference pane (under Apple menu > System Preferences), and set the mode to tile.

The main problem I experienced running Windows on a Mac is getting used to its different keyboard layout and trackpad. You can solve that right off by using an alternative USB or bluetooth keyboard and mouse. However, as I am using a MacBook (that's a laptop or notebook computer), I don't want to lug an external keyboard around so I'm committed to remapping my brain to this new keyboard. If you're in the same boat, here are some pointers.

Open the Keyboard & Mouse preference pane. Check Use the F1-F12 keys to control software features. Then the Function keys will behave like they do in Windows. You'll have to press fn+F5 to increase volume (instead of just F5), for example.

Windows users will recognize the Ctrl and Alt keys but might be perturbed that they are in different locations as compared to commodity keyboards. Command acts like the Windows key while in Parallels. If you're spending time on the Mac side and are confused as to what the symbols in the menus mean, below is a reference image I put together. Several of these symbols do not appear on the keys—but they do in the menus—so I have no idea how the interface designers at Apple thought people would learn these symbols.

I am amazed that the MacBook has only one mouse button below its trackpad. Ctrl-click is the same as a right-click on Windows and Mac, but I find this workflow unacceptable for such a common operation. Thankfully, I did find a slightly better solution. Reopen the Keyboard & Mouse preference pane and select the Trackpad tab. Check Place two fingers on trackpad and click button for secondary click—this works fairly well after some practice. In the end I ordered a Wacom Intuos3 tablet with stylus and mouse because I don't feel particularly productive with the trackpad.

Program switching shortcuts differ on Windows and Mac. Alt+Tab switches on Windows whereas Command+Tab does it on the Mac. Let's say you're working in Revit Architecture on Windows and you want to switch to iCal. The workflow is complicated: press Ctrl+Option/Alt to transfer control from Parallels to the Mac. Then press and hold Command and tap Tab repeatedly to cycle through your running Mac applications until you find iCal. Switching from iCal to Revit isn't as bad because Revit's icon appears in the Mac's switching menu, activated with Command+Tab (Windows applications have tiny Parallels watermarks). But this workflow isn't efficient enough for me.

I opted instead to turn Dock hiding off (press Option+Command+D while on the Mac side) and click the icons to do all my program switching. The advantage to this approach is Windows and Mac icons are given equal treatment.

If you don't like the Dock's semi-transparent white background, a free utility called ClearDock will get rid of it. In addition, ClearDock can change the color of the application triangles (I chose Red), so you can clearly see what applications are running.

Here's another tip: while you're in Windows, press Command/Windows+D to minimize all applications to the taskbar. This makes it easy to see Mac applications. Alternatively, Exposé can help you select open windows on either OS, but you'll have to first press Ctrl+Option/Alt to transfer control to the Mac and then press F9-F11 to activate Exposé's various switching features.

FinderPop is another free utility that I use to launch Windows applications from the Mac. It works like this: click and hold on any Mac title bar and you'll see a menu of Windows applications. Select one and you're off and running without having to laboriously hunt through the Windows Start menu. To set this up, right-click (or Ctrl+click) on a running Windows application in the Dock and choose Add to Favorites. An alias/shortcut appears on the Desktop. Move this alias into FinderPop's library folder and the alias instantly appears on FinderPop's menu.

I must warn you that most Windows software vendors will not officially support their software running on Windows via Parallels. If that worries you, then running Windows through Bootcamp may be the safer solution. I haven't personally encountered any problems running 3ds Max 9 (using OpenGL), AutoCAD Architecture 2008, Revit Architecture 2008, SketchUp 6 Pro, Photoshop CS3 Extended, Firefox, or Thunderbird software through Windows XP on Parallels, and in my opinion the relatively negligible speed penalty is a small price to pay for being able to use Mac and Windows side-by-side. Now my software choices have expanded considerably and I no longer have to take sides on the heated Mac versus Windows debate. Mac and Windows is indeed the best of both worlds.

About the Author

Scott Onstott is a book and video author of AEC software tutorials. He has a degree in architecture from UC Berkeley and has served as an instructor there, in addition to working in several prominent engineering, architecture, and interiors firms in San Francisco. He has also worked as a technical editor and technology consultant.

Scott has contributed to over two dozen books and videos on AutoCAD, Architectural Desktop, VIZ Render, Revit, 3ds Max, VIZ, Photoshop, Illustrator, Painter, Fireworks, and Dreamweaver. He most recently co-authored AutoCAD:_Professional_Tips_and_Tricks with Lynn Allen. He can be reached via:

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