My Turn

Does a College Freshman Need to Run Windows on a MacBook?

- 2007.07.24

My Turn is Low End Mac's column for reader-submitted articles. It's your turn to share your thoughts on all things Mac (or iPhone, iPod, etc.) and write for the Mac web. Email your submission to Dan Knight .

The following is a slightly modified Q&A thread that ran in a Virginia Macintosh User Group Discuss List.

First, the original question:

I just bought a MacBook for my college bound child. Can you explain what Parallels is and if it is needed? Why would anyone want to run Windows and Mac together?

Thanks

Second, my answer, slightly modified: We already know the child is a girl because of a previous question about what computer to look for.

Congratulations on your decision. I'm sure this will give her a good start on campus. If she can spare an extra hour or so in the first few weeks, she may gain good advantage by checking out a computer lab and a campus Apple representative, at least to know where help is available for questions and problems.

Beware of viruses: Running Windows opens that part of the MacBook to routine, ever-present attack by PC viruses and requires the same antivirus software and paid subscriptions as any responsible PC user would care for. If I had Windows on my Mac, I would strictly avoid going online on the Windows side. I would avoid taking software or applications or data from someone else's machine or CD without checking it for viruses.

Parallels

First, Parallels is not an emulator such as Virtual PC, which used to be the way to run Windows under OS 9 where the basic problem was slow performance. Parallels is a virtualization tool; it allows you to run Windows and Linux with their applications efficiently.

Also see Macworld's review of Parallels 3.

...and if it is needed?

Wait! Most probably not right away, and not likely at all unless your daughter intends to get into some geeky things. To use Parallels, you would have to install some version of Windows or download a free Linux, and you would have to know why you need to use Parallels. Bear in mind that with the Boot Camp software that comes with the MacBook, your daughter can run either Windows Vista or Windows XP. Boot Camp is still in a public beta (test) stage, but is very useable. We expect that the production version will come with OS X 10.5 "Leopard" in October 2007.

One advantage of Parallels over Boot Camp is that it will run older versions of Windows, back to Windows 98, I believe. For heavy gaming, Boot Camp is better than Parallels, since Boot Camp is not a virtualization tool but runs Windows natively on the machine. With Boot Camp, you cannot run both OS X and Windows simultaneously; you boot into one or the other. With Parallels, you can run them simultaneously, leading to your next question.

Why would anyone want to run Windows and Mac together?

Running together lets you move files and data from one environment to the other very easily. Does your daughter know that she will have to do this? At the bottom of the first page for the Parallels URL given above are their purported five top reasons for running Parallels. I doubt that any of these reasons apply to your daughter's situation.

If she is told later on that she must run a Windows application on a routine basis, Boot Camp with Windows Vista should suffice. Or she may be able to do that work at a campus computer lab.

Also, if running a Windows application becomes necessary, it may work for her to do this with a shareware called CrossOver for Mac. Here you do not need to buy Windows or Parallels. CrossOver is open source software (donation after trial) with a lot of interest in development and is adequate for many Windows applications. It could be worth a try.

Again, congratulations, may your daughter enjoy.

Al Poulin

Third, and probably superfluous at this point, is a very rare appearance by an Apple rep on our user group list.

I totally agree with Al's excellent explanation and recommendation. It is my recommendation as well to hold off on installing Windows on a Mac until you absolutely need it. Your child will be able to do everything in the Mac environment; if he/she finds something that requires Windows, you can always add it at a later time. I would not recommend installing Parallels and Windows preemptively. Feel free to call me if you want to discuss this further. If you would like to tell me which university your child is attending, I will be glad to give you the contact info for the local Apple rep.

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