Whether it’s to soften the learning curve by retaining a familiar Windows desktop while gaining the benefits of Mac OS X, or to give you access to just one crucial Windows application that simply doesn’t exist (or run as well) on your Mac, Parallels Desktop, VMware Fusion and Oracle VM VirtualBox offer three entirely usable ways of getting Windows running on your Mac. All three have been recently updated to support Microsoft Windows 8.1 and Apple’s latest upgrade to Mac OS X, Mavericks.
Yet simply installing the software is only the beginning of your Windows- on-Mac adventures: if you’re planning on using the setup extensively in the future, or it’s likely to become a key part of your daily workflow, you may want to make some tweaks or plan your product acquisitions with optimising the speed and functionality of these tools.
Here are the top 25 ways you can improve your experience with Windows-on-Mac tools. Your mileage may vary, of course, but all should give you a leg-up when it comes to getting the most out of your efforts to get the best of both worlds.
1 Move your files through the cloud.
While virtualisation tools let you drag-and-drop files between Mac and Windows desktops with ease, you can also ensure your files are up-to-date by using your DropBox, Microsoft SkyDrive, Google Drive, Box or other cloud-storage tool on all of your desktops. This is particularly useful for accessing files from both Mac OS X and Boot Camp-based Windows partitions.
This approach will ensure your files are the same in all of your working environments – although if you store a lot of large files, you may want to avoid duplicating yourself by using features such as Parallels’ cloud-storage virtualisation support, which redirects calls from Windows cloud-storage apps to the existing Mac folders; the net result is that you can only store a file once and it’s available to both operating systems.
2 Size your Windows partitions adequately when you start.
You may be tempted to try to keep Windows in a small corner of your hard drive, but once you start to use it, your virtual machine file is going to grow steadily.
Desktop virtualisation tools can resize your VMs dynamically as requirements change, but if you’re using Boot Camp you’ll need to ensure you allow enough space on the partition you allocate to Windows. As a rule of thumb, estimate what you’ll need, then double it – and double it again.
3 Use keywords to organise your files.
One of the important new features of Mavericks is its support for meaningful tags to facilitate file organisation, searching and more. Tags are even incorporated into the save-as field of many apps, helping incorporate the process into your workflow. Parallels also includes the option of using the same Mavericks tags to tag files in your Windows VMs, allowing you to seamlessly find content across both platforms.
4 When one screen isn’t enough.
It may be overkill for many, but an increasing number of Mac users are coming to know the joys of adding one or more screens to their main system. If you don’t have the desktop real estate, don’t worry about it – but if you do, the latest versions of Fusion and Parallels have tapped into Mavericks’ better multi-screen support to allow you to maintain simultaneous Mac and Windows environments running at the same time, all the time. Use two computers, but just one mouse.
Parallels enables users to open virtual apps from within Mission Control.
5 Find your inner voice.
OS X Mavericks includes enhanced voice- dictation features, including the ability to download a module that allows for dictation to be used even when the computer is offline. Fusion and Parallels let you use this dictation capability across both Mac OS X and Windows applications.
6 Get a really, really big monitor.
One very nice new Mavericks feature is the ability to broadcast your computer’s desktop to a conventional HDTV using AirPlay functionality. This feature is explicitly supported in the latest Windows-on-Mac platforms, and extended to virtualised Windows desktops as well.
Sure, using AirPlay in this way will require you to add an Apple TV to your lounge room – but at $109 it will not only give you great entertainment options but will let you enjoy your Mac and Windows desktops, and the media on them, in 55in or bigger splendour.
7 Buy a Fusion drive or SSD to boost performance.
If you’re upgrading to Mavericks and upgrading your Mac at the same time, consider shelling out a little more for a Fusion Drive. This Apple-offered option ($240 for 1TB or $430 for 3TB) combines a conventional hard drive with a solid state disk (SSD) drive that offers blistering-fast performance. Used when running a Windows virtual machine, your Windows environment will simply fly.
“Finding more performance was a key development theme for Parallels Desktop 9, and disk I/O has been one of the areas where we focused the most,” says Asia- Pacific head of marketing and sales for cross-platform solutions with Parallels, Eugenio Ferrante.
“In general, we see 40 percent better disk I/O in this version and on a machine with a Fusion drive you’re likely to see even better performance.”
8 Archive a clean image of your Windows install.
While each successive version of Fusion and Parallels makes it easier than ever to install new operating systems, it still takes time to go through the whole installation and setup process every time you want to make a new VM.
Consider making a master Windows image by setting up one VM exactly the way you want it, then duplicating the file (find it in Documents > Virtual Machines or similarly-named folder).
Then, whenever you want to run up a new Windows machine, all you have to do is make another copy of that template file, give it a new name, and double-click on it to add it to your environment.
Fusion 6 Professional offers another option that has the same effect but uses less disk space. Its ‘linked clone’ capabilities record just the delta between a reference base image and a new version – allowing the ability to clone a virtual machine without taking up twice the disk space.
9 Tweak your backup strategy.
If you become increasingly reliant on your Windows virtual machine, you’ll need a way to effectively and regularly back it up. Apple’s Time Machine backup will automatically replicate the VM files – but it runs on the hour so, if you’re doing some intensive computing tasks, you may want to disable Time Machine during work hours so it doesn’t slow you down.
“One advantage of virtualisation is that you have a very quick and safe way to do your backups,” Ferrante says.
Another option is to use a Dropbox- like cloud-storage system, use third-party applications to do regular folder copies, or try dedicated cloud-backup services like Carbonite, Backblaze, CrashPlan, SpiderOak or Bitcasa Infinite Drive that regularly back up both your Windows and Mac files to a safe offsite location.
VMware Fusion 6 can run virtualisations in full screen or in a single window view.
10 Consider other operating systems.
Although you’re most likely to get into a desktop virtualisation tool to run Windows, remember that the same virtualisation tools also support Linux, Google ChromeOS, Sun Solaris and other platforms. Parallels Desktop 9 includes performance optimisations for Linux, while Oracle VirtualBox is highly optimised to run Solaris, also owned by Oracle.
Load up a Linux web or gaming server, then and run it in a window from your Mac desktop and use features like Fusion 6 Professional’s and VirtualBox’s built-in Network Address Translation (NAT), which let your various Windows, Mac OS X and other VMs communicate as if they were on a network. It’s great for software testing or building multi-server environments on a single Mac.
11 Upgrade your VM software.
In what has become a traditional upgrade cycle by now, all three major Windows-on-Mac vendors have recently updated their software.
Typically they will also support new operating systems on the previous version – but if you’re keen to make the most of a new operating system such as Mavericks or Windows 8.1, consider upgrading the software so you can make the most of the new platform.
“Any new operating system requires a whole lot of testing and compatibility checking,” says director for Product Marketing with VMware Australia, Nicholas Rochard.
“There were a lot of changes under the hood that made the Windows 8.1 a better user experience, and a lot of changes going on under the covers that were less obvious. That kind of complexity is really hard to get right, so we made some pretty significant investments to make it work.”
12 Remember your Windows security.
Just because your Windows VM runs on a Mac doesn’t mean it’s free from the threat of malware. Ensure that each virtual image you run up is configured with a security suite that offers features like malicious URL filtering, malware scanning, firewall protection and more.
Parallels Desktop 9, for one, includes a Security Centre feature that lets you manage security tools and updates across both platforms at the same time.
13 Give your Windows system a Power Nap.
Both Mavericks and Windows have features – called Power Nap and SideShow, respectively – that allow applications to be seamlessly updated while laptops are in sleep mode.
Modern Windows virtualisation apps can tap into these features so that applications inside Windows VMs are quietly updated at the same time as the MacBook is doing its PowerNap. This is particularly useful for the security applications you must run inside Windows.
14 Buy Thunderbolt drives to boost performance.
They’ve primarily been high-powered playthings for Macs in the past, but Windows-on-Mac platforms’ strong support for Thunderbolt and Firewire devices allows you to use them equally on Windows systems and vice versa.
Parallels, for one, lets you connect Thunderbolt drives directly to your Windows VMs.
15 Go mobile.
Virtualisation allows applications to run independently of the hardware they’re on, and Parallels in particular has taken the idea to a new level with its Parallels Access software. This tool capitalises on the Parallels Desktop virtualisation engine to allow you to load and run individual Windows and Mac applications on your iPad as if they were standalone apps. The software translates multi-touch gestures to desktop instructions, effectively ‘applifying’ your desktop applications and making them accessible anywhere.
The VMware Learning Center offers video tutorials explaining helpful features and for those migrating from and installing Windows.
16 Consider free options.
Fusion and Parallels may have the biggest names in Windows- on-Mac virtualisation, but Oracle’s VirtualBox just got an upgrade and now includes features such as a session recording tool, 10-point multi-touch device simulation for Windows 8.1, better 3D acceleration for Linux, enhanced multi- monitor support and support for up to 32 virtual CPUs.
17 Take your Windows system with you.
It can be daunting for many Windows users to switch desktop interfaces, even though many Mac users were once diehard Windows fans. Modern Windows-on-Mac solutions simplify this process by allowing existing Windows systems to be ported into Mac OS X-based virtual machines with a few clicks. It’s not the best option if you’re looking to make a clean break in the Mac OS X world, but it can shave hours off your learning curve and ensure that nothing changes when you shift to your Mac.
18 Remember Boot Camp’s idiosyncrasies.
Boot Camp may be a great way to get Windows running at its maximum speed on your Mac, but it’s also quite particular about how it works.
You’ll need to use a hardwired USB keyboard and mouse, for example, during installation. You’ll also need to instruct Windows to reformat the Boot Camp partition using the NTFS file system during installation, since Apple’s continuing licensing intransigence means Mac OS X still can’t write to NTFS file systems.
19 Get more RAM.
One of the key goals in configuring your system for fast virtual Windows is to get access to as much physical memory as you can – particularly if you’re virtualising Windows on the Mac OS X desktop. In this case, you not only have to give Mac OS X enough room in RAM to stretch its legs, but also have to provide additional memory for Windows.
As a rule of thumb, 2GB of RAM will prove to be a pretty tight space to operate in. Four gigabytes is more acceptable since both operating systems can get 2GB each, but if you’re trying to do serious computing – or gaming, which is extremely resource-intensive – make sure you provide 8GB or more of physical RAM, and allocate it accordingly within your VM setup.
In anticipation of the new Mac Pro, for example, Fusion now supports up to 16 virtual CPUs, 8TB of disk and 64GB of RAM – and will tweak its virtual memory settings if yours are compromising performance.
20 Get in touch.
Windows 8 and 8.1 have really pushed the idea of touch-based computing, with large panels and a touch-optimised interface. While you still can’t get any Macs with touch screens, Parallels supports new Mac OS X gestures – which can also be mapped onto Windows applications – while Oracle VM VirtualBox offers emulation of a 10-point multi-touch device such as those found in touch- sensitive Windows 8.1 systems.
If touch is a big thing for you, consider investing in Apple’s Magic TrackPad, which is the closest thing you’re going to get to a touchscreen for now.
The Oracle VM VirtualBox Manager lists all of a user’s virtual machines on the left and details their properties on the right.
21 Run your games in Boot Camp
Gaming has never been Macs’ strongest point, although the number of entirely impressive native ports has surged in recent years. However, if you’re a hardcore Windows gamer and measure your systems’ value by their fps (frames per second) rates, you will maximise performance by installing Windows on Boot Camp rather than running in desktop virtualisation mode.
The latter will certainly work – particularly since the latest releases of Windows-on-Mac tools offer significantly improved 3D performance that Parallels claims to be up to 60 percent faster than before – but as you’ll be sharing CPU cycles with the underlying Mac OS X you’ll always be sacrificing some performance.
Boot Camp allows Windows to have the Mac’s significant 3D graphics power all to itself – and for gamers, that can make all the difference.
22 Turn off the frills.
When you’re running two operating systems at once, you may find battery life is lessened significantly in the process. This isn’t really compatible with using a MacBook for all-day working, so if you’re finding this to be a problem you may want to consider turning off some Windows visual effects within your VMs.
Within Windows 8, press Windows + x then choose System > Advanced System Settings > System Properties > Settings.
There, you can click Adjust for best performance or manually disable features like Animate windows when minimising and maximising, Animations in the taskbar, Enable transparent glass, Fade or slide menus into view, Show shadows under windows, Slide open combo boxes, Fade out menu items after clicking, and Fade or Slide ToolTips into view.
23 Consider your Windows and Mac usage.
Your reasons for choosing Windows and Mac applications will be unique to your work and play circumstances, but before you rely too heavily on your old Windows standbys, consider what equivalent Mac applications are now available. It may require a bit of relearning old habits, but there are mountains of powerful and well-designed Mac applications out there and you may find your workflow becomes even more efficient when you tap into their capabilities.
“Over the last year or so, we’ve seen the way people divide their time between Mac OS X and Windows is shifting somewhat,’ VMware’s Rochard says.
“A lot of people use Fusion because they want a Mac from a battery life and appearance point of view, but they don’t necessarily want to learn all of Mac OS X and all of its applications at once. Another class of users are those mostly working in the Mac side, but who need applications like Visio where there is no viable Mac or web native alternative.”
24 Read the manual.
Having managed to get Windows running smoothly under Mac OS X a long time ago, the latest versions of Fusion, Parallels and VirtualBox have been focused on tweaking performance and adding additional new features that you may not notice unless you take the time to work through the write-ups of their new features.
VMware offers an entire online repository of help videos to guide you through common tasks, while a cursory glance at Parallels may mean you miss
out on learning about the way it makes Mac OS X’s LaunchPad feature and new multi-touch gestures work across Windows and Mac OS X; enables the
use of Mac OS X’s PDF-making feature in any Windows application; allows editable keyboard shortcuts to be applied to Windows applications; and extends Mavericks’ Power Nap support so Windows applications can also be updated while the machine is sleeping.
With Parallels Desktop 9 users can now connect external drives to their Windows VM using FireWire or Thunderbolt.
25 Don’t worry.
Although it’s been commonplace for years, the shift to Mac is still daunting for many Windows diehards and novices alike. The good news is that Windows-on-Mac technology is now so well-established and so proven, that the biggest problem you encounter is likely to be your own unwillingness to change.
Take the plunge and you’ll soon be enjoying the best of both worlds.