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Installing Windows 7 on your Intel Mac

Step by step Heading to OSX Boot Camp
Tue Nov 24 2009, 13:28

WHEN APPLE ANNOUNCED in 2005 that all of its future desktop and laptop computers would soon make the transition to sporting Intel CPUs, the Macolyte community was split. One camp decided that the move would see poor little Apple bullied and cajoled by the biggest chip maker on the planet. The other camp realised that IBM's PowerPC chips were struggling to keep up with the rest of the world and something had to be done.

Intel's projected roadmap for future chips was way in advance of the competition and Apple boss Steve Jobs had an inkling that performance per watt was going to be the most important factor in the future of modern computing. The laptop revolution, as it soon turned out, was just a few months away.

Apple hammered the final nail into the coffin of the PowerPC line last month when it announced that its latest Snow Leopard operating system - Mac OSX 10.6.2 - could only be installed on boxes with Intel inside. As a secondary consequence of moving to Intel hardware, every modern Apple computer is capable of running Microsoft's Windows operating systems in a variety of flavours.

Boot Camp is an application that has been supplied free with all installs of OSX since 10.5 Leopard and which, according to the official documentation, allows easy installation of Windows XP (SP2) and 32-bit versions of Vista.

Why anyone would ever want to sully a perfectly good Apple computer with an ancient operating system is entirely beyond us. Don't get us wrong. We have nothing against XP. It's a very nice operating system. But it is about to start collecting its pension. Snow Leopard, on the other hand, is a cutting-edge OS with a fantastic reputation for usability, reliability, security and all round lickable Apple loveliness.

Five years ago you might have had good reason to want to run Windows XP on a Mac. Applications for OSX were pretty thin on the ground unless you worked in one of the creative industries. Designing magazines or editing video was no problem. But if you wanted play games, or design a building, or decompress commonly used binaries from the Internet, or use any one of thousands of less commercial, perhaps esoteric, software packages, your only recourse was to bite the bullet and get a Windows box. Many a Mac user guiltily hid a cheap Wintel machine under the desk in an effort to keep up with the rapidly changing face of software.

But since Apple finally bit the Intel bullet, things have changed. Porting most Windows applications to Mac OSX is now a much simpler affair and, as a result, it's much more difficult to find a Windows application that doesn't have at least one OSX equivalent. We're sure that our dear readers will bombard us with long lists of examples that we have failed to find, but it will be hard for even the most die-hard Windows fan to admit that the Apple cross-platform situation is far more equitable now than it was in the recent past.

Anyone who wanted to install Vista on a Mac, unless they were being held at gunpoint, was definitely in need of a check-up from the neck up in our opinion. Despite trying very hard to look like OSX, Vista was a bloated mess of an operating system.

But now there's a new kid on the block and some Mac users are looking at Windows 7 with curiosity, if not jealousy. The official Apple line is that Boot Camp does not yet support Microsoft's shiny new OS, but we wondered whether that was simply down to Cupertino control freakery rather than good old fashioned incompatibility.

Our step-by-step installation guide to getting Windows 7 up and running on your Intel Mac is far from comprehensive, being isolated to just one one flavour of Macintosh, but it does prove that running Windows 7 on Apple hardware is possible without waiting for permission from Mr Jobs and the Cupertino Cabal.

First Steps
The first thing you'll need to do is to realise that anything you do to your beloved Mac as a result of reading this guide is not our fault! As we have said, there is no official Apple support for what we are about to do, so if you brick your hardware, you are on your own.

Do not try to install Windows 7 on your main boot drive. That's just asking for trouble. Boot Camp must be installed on a fresh NTFS partition and footling with your main HD is not recommended. We used a recently-installed secondary internal drive simply so that if anything did go horribly wrong we could rip the thing out and bin it. It would also be a very good idea to back up absolutely everything at this stage, but we don't really need to tell you that.

Next you'll need to use Software Update to get everything up to date. We initially tried to install Windows 7 using OSX Snow Leopard 10.6.1 and there were some major issues. The installer failed to even recognise the 64-bit disk, and the 32-bit version had a whole host of graphics and driver issues that we won't go into here.

Upgrading to the latest Snow Leopard 10.6.2 iteration of Mac OSX, which conveniently appeared in the middle of preparing for this guide, made things a whole lot easier, so we recommend you do the same.

Please also make sure you have stopped every single program apart from the finder and the dock from running. We wasted quite a few hours twiddling our thumbs waiting for installations to happen because a rogue copy of Mail was running hidden in the background, which was most annoying.

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The first thing you'll notice on starting Boot Camp Assistant is the lack of any mention of Windows 7 in the splash screen. We warned you. As with most things, If Apple hasn't approved it, it doesn't exist. You should take note of the advice on backing up and power adaptors for laptops, however.

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Boot Camp will next ask you if you want to create or remove a Windows partition. If you started with a fresh disk as we suggested, you'll need to create a new partition. This will cut your hard drive into two separate chunks, effectively creating two logical hard drives on one piece of hardware. Again, please don't try to partition your main hard drive. You are looking into a world of pain if you do that and if you don't know what you are doing things will go wrong. This is why Apple wants you to wait for the official method to be ready, some time before the end of the year. Those with less patience should plunge in and partition the drive.

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If you have more than one available hard drive, as we have on our Mac Pro, you'll have to identify which you want to sacrifice to Windows. In our case it was the freshly backed-up Drive 2 which is located in Bay two. Bay one usually contains the default hard drive for your startup disk. If you don't know which drive contains your startup disk you should stop right now, because what is coming next is not for you. You can choose to either erase the entire disk and create a single partition just for Windows, or partition the disk making it part Windows and part OSX. Just to be awkward we chose the latter, because that is what you would have to do if you were fiddling with a single drive. Which, of course, is something you are not about to do… right?

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The default partition size is set at 5GB which might be OK for an XP install but won't leave you much room for anything other than the system files for either Vista of Windows 7. We chose a healthy yet arbitrary 150GB chunk of our 500GB drive to dedicate to Windows 7 and hit the partition button. For reasons that will become clear later, it might be worth using an easily identifiable number like 123GB.

Depending upon the state of your hard drive and the level of fragmentation of any existing files, this shouldn't take more than a few minutes, but we have heard reports of some drives taking an unexpectedly long time to partition, so be patient.

When the partition is sorted, you'll be sent back to the previous screen, which asks you if you'd like to begin the Windows installation process, and that is, of course, what we're here for. At this point you'll be locked out of you machine to all intents and purposes so it might be time to have a nice cup of tea or six. Which also neatly explains why we'll now be switching to live photos of the screen rather than nice neat screen grabs.

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What we're showing you here is the installation process for Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit, which we figured that, as the biggest and most complex install, would probably be the most difficult to get up and running properly. We have also tried the 32-bit version of Windows 7 Ultimate with identical results. You'll go through a couple of obligatory registration and licensing screens, but there's nothing to see here. Move along.

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The installer next asks you where you would like to install Windows, and this is where it gets a bit complicated. Not only are your hard drives not identified by their OSX names, you may also notice a number of partitions you didn't been know were there. Ignore them. You are looking for the BOOTCAMP partition created earlier.

Worryingly, the installer reports that Windows cannot be installed on this particular partition, but if you click on "show details" you will be informed that Windows 7 can only be installed on an NTFS partition. Click on "Drive options (advanced)" and you will be able to reformat the partition as NTFS. We can only assume that the Boot Camp Assistant formats the partition as FAT32, presuming you are trying to install XP.

After a minute or so of disk gnashing and wailing of hard drives, the installer will kick in and, from here on in it's pretty much a hands free ride. A couple of automated reboots and about 40 minutes later, and Windows 7 is a live and well and living on your Mac.

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More tea and a light snack later, and we have to admit that our expectations were rather low for finding a useable operating system with all the connectivity we expect from our Mac Pro. Would the keyboard and mouse work without fiddling? We had already heard reports that there were audio problems with earlier attempts. And what would W7 make of our triple monitor set-up running from two ATi Radeon HD 2600 XT graphics cards?

Well, in the end it turned out that after a few minor tweaks everything worked astonishingly well. The three monitors were in the wrong positions and were set to painfully low resolutions, but a quick visit to the Displays Control Panel soon sorted that.

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All of our internal sound interfaces were working fine, and even an attached USB audio mixing desk performed admirably without having to install drivers.

The Apple mouse and keyboard both operated perfectly aside from one small failing: the numeric keypad currently is not supported, nor is the rodent's fourth shoulder button (which everyone we know disables anyway) but these are minor niggles indeed.

Our ethernet Internet connection worked without having to do a thing, and our Logitech webcam was smart enough to go off and download and install its own driver. Internet Explorer worked out of the box and downloading and installing a working version of the Google Chrome web browser was achieved in a matter of minutes.

We even grabbed a copy of the Crysis demo, which when left to its own devices set pretty much everything to medium and worked surprisingly well. Cranking everything up to maximum had the poor Mac groaning and creaking, but only the snappiest of dedicated gamers' PCs can cope with that kind of pressure.

Your average Mac user is a pretty dedicated soul, never happy to step outside the confines of Apple's warm embrace. The folks at Cupertino take their time releasing products because they want to get them as right as possible before they bestow them upon their adoring public.

The fact that the company is not yet willing to give its blessing to Redmond's latest - and some would have it greatest - operating system is probably more about protecting its punters than its market share. But there must be a certain amount of fear in the Apple campus.

Windows 7 is without a doubt the closest Microsoft has ever come to catching up with OSX in terms of good looks and user friendliness. The constrictions of this article obviously don't allow us to provide you with a full and comprehensive overview of the whole Windows-7-on-Mac experience, but we will say that anyone who is forced, for whatever reason, to run a Microsoft OS on Macintosh hardware will be in for a pleasant surprise. µ

 

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