June 20, 2007

The Macbook Pro and Windows

I call this: computers,gaming,mac,pc — Posted by KP @ 9:19 pm

One of the reasons I was originally excited about Apple’s switch to Intel processors was the prospect of running Windows at a reasonable speed on my Mac. I have always owned Virtual PC as long as I’ve been a Mac user, just because every now and then I’d find something that absolutely couldn’t be done without a PC (not your everyday tasks, but things like flashing a hacked ROM onto my cell phone). The one thing I use Windows for on a regular basis is gaming. I have a gaming PC (which I swear one of these days I’ll actually make a post about), but since my primary computer has to be a laptop because of my job, and a Mac because of my sanity, the prospect of taking my games with me was previously an impossibility.

When I first switched to Mac I tried to like the games, but the selection is limited to only the few most popular PC games, and they usually aren’t released until long after PC users have tired of them and moved on to something better. I knew this going in, but what distressed me even more as I came to own more Mac games, is that the few ported PC games there are are usually terrible ports. They’re buggy, they’re slow, and in general don’t play as well as the PC version. And from what I can tell, the developers don’t care, because there’s no competition (it was basically Aspyr and Macsoft), and so few people playing the games that it really doesn’t matter. If the same problems existed in PC games there would be a patch out immediately. So I quickly got tired of throwing my money away on such crap and decided I would be better off building a PC and having access to all the games I wanted, I just couldn’t play when away from home.

Having a Mac laptop running Windows fast enough to play games is something I’ve been looking forward to as long as we’ve known about Apple’s switch to Intel. So now that I finally have one, I’ve been catching up on all the options available and playing around with it. I knew that Boot Camp was the best method for running games, because it addresses the actual computer and all its resources, but I knew I’d also want virtualization software so that I could quickly access Windows while getting actual work done. Parallels was the first to come out with a solution, and I didn’t really become aware of VMWare’s Fusion until I began seriously researching this after buying the MBP.

I was stupid when packing for the summer and didn’t bring my Windows XP install disk from home, even though it was obvious I’d be getting a MBP at some point over the summer and would need this to install Windows with Boot Camp. I did have Virtual PC running on my Powerbook, and was happy to find out that VPC disk images can be easily converted to run on Parallels. So that’s how I first tried Windows on the MBP, running my old VPC image. It was certainly fast enough to feel like a real computer, not like the slow-motion experience of running VPC.

About a week later, I had my XP disk and some games from home sent up to me, and installed XP under Boot Camp. The install software will guide you through the process of partitioning your hard drive to make a partition for Windows. Thankfully, you can do this without erasing the whole drive. Here you have a couple choices to make. First, the size of your partitions. I picked 20GB for Windows, as I don’t really want to take too much space away from OS X, but I think 20GB will be enough to install a decent amount of games, which is all the XP partition will really need to hold.

The other decision is one I wasn’t expecting: you have to decide if you want the partition formatted in FAT32 or NTFS. I know from my Windows experience that NTFS is better for XP because it allows more advanced security features like encryption, and in general is better for stability. However, the installer warns that NTFS is not good if you want your Mac OS to be able to read the files in the Windows partition. This concerned me, since I wasn’t really sure what they meant by that. Much Googling was done before I proceeded. I still don’t fully get it, but what I found pointed to NTFS as the better choice. Apparently it works much better in Parallels as well, which is the main way I intend to share files between the two partitions. I assumed that the incompatibility was that I could not directly open files on the Windows partition by clicking on the volume in the Finder and navigating like I would any other disk. Well it turns out that you can access files on the disk, but it’s read-only. So to move files from OS X to Windows I need to drag them into Parallels.

By the way, you will wind up with the Windows partition visible as a volume in the Finder. At first I found this kind of annoying because I don’t really want that partition anywhere in my life if I’m not actively using it, but it’s growing on me. The biggest realization I had about the Boot Camp method is that when I back up my hard drive, backing up my OS X volume does not back up Windows. If I were using a Parallels virtual disk, one backup would cover everything because the Windows content would just be a file within my OS X files. Now I have to do two separate backups, so I partitioned my backup drive the same way, with a 20GB partition to back up the Windows volume. Part of me doesn’t give a damn what happens to the Windows partition and some game files, but I guess it can’t hurt to back it up once in a while.

I used my product key for a copy of Windows that I no longer use, and it activated and all was well. Using the driver CD that Boot Camp has you burn, I installed the drivers for the MBP with no problems, and all my hardware seemed to be working, and I was on my Airport network quickly. As Steve Jobs said in his WWDC keynote, when Leopard comes out it will have Boot Camp included and the drivers will be on the install CD so you won’t have to burn one yourself. As long as you’ve got a blank CD hanging around, it’s no big deal to use the current method.

So with everything in Boot Camp looking good, I rebooted in OS X.
You can set one OS or the other to be booted into automatically by setting the Startup Disk in OS X System Prefs, or hold Option when you start the computer to choose which one to use.

Now I went back to Parallels and got rid of my VPC version of Windows. Unfortunately Parallels will not detect the Boot Camp partition and give you the option to import it unless you have no other virtual PCs. So I just deleted the one I had been playing with, and it saw the Boot Camp partition and loaded it up.

There are two major obstacles to using a Boot Camp partition with Parallels, as far as I’ve discovered:
1. When you close Parallels you must shut down the virtual computer. You can’t save the state and return right back where you were the next time you start Parallels. This is to prevent you from screwing everything up by trying to access the files from Boot Camp while they are suspended in Parallels. I wish there was a better way around this so that if you primarily use Parallels you don’t have to always wait for the computer to start up and shut down, but I guess the only option would be to never close Parallels. Anyway, Windows doesn’t take all that long to start, so it hasn’t been that bad. VPC used to take twice as long just to restore from a saved state.

2. Activation. As you probably know, Windows has all sorts of annoying ways to make sure that it’s as difficult as possible for you to use the operating system you paid for. One of the things it does to treat all users like criminals is to look at your system specs and deactivate itself if the specs change too much. On a “real” computer this could mean upgrading RAM, changing your hard drive, video card, processor, motherboard. I’m not sure exactly what it looks at, but if you like to upgrade your hardware you’ll run into this problem. On the Mac this is pretty much unavoidable. When I installed Windows in Boot Camp, it sees itself installed on a machine with 4GB of RAM and a Nvidia something-or-other video card. When Parallels loads the same installation, it uses a virtual machine which tells Windows that it’s running on hardware of lesser specs than my real hardware (because some of my resources still need to be used to run OS X). So it sees a machine with 1GB of RAM, a Parallels Video Driver, and a virtual hard drive, and it thinks (not unexpectedly) that it’s installed on a different computer. So it freaks out and demands to be activated within 3 days or it will stop working. When you go to the website it directs you to, it gives you lots of reasons this might have happened, like maybe you bought the computer used and the guy you bought it from was using a pirated copy of Windows. Not one example assumes you actually are trying to use a legitimate copy of Windows in a manner allowed under the EULA, and that the activation feature is simply wasting your time.

So I called the 800 number they give, which of course directed me to India. I explained that I was using XP on a Mac and that because I was using Boot Camp and Parallels the activation software saw it as two different computers and was asking for another activation code. I was given no argument from the nice lady, she simply asked if I bought the OS at retail or if it came with a computer, and I said it was a retail copy. Then she gave me a code to put into the activation window, and it happily accepted it. When I got back into Boot Camp, it once again popped up the activation warning, and I was about to lose it. But when I picked the option to activate over the internet, it did its business and obviously got an answer it was happy with, because it activated. Since then I’ve not heard a peep from the activation app. I was pleased to find that the Microsoft rep did not give me any grief for being a Mac user or act like what I wanted to do with my copy of Windows was wrong or strange. I’ve heard others say the same as well, so I applaud MS for at least making that part of this ridiculous process easy.

I tried Parallels first because I was more familiar with it as the first virtualization program available for Intel Macs. In trying to find out the advantages and disadvantages between Parallels and VMWare, I realized that both programs are so new and developing so rapidly that anything I read was pretty much obsolete because the two apps have been constantly one-upping each other with each release. In fact while I was trying them out over the course of the first week I owned my MBP, both released pretty significant updates. I tried Parallels first and found it just felt a little more comfortable, so when my trials were running out and I had to make a decision, I went with Parallels, but I expect over the coming months the two will go back and forth with who’s got the newest exciting feature.

Once I got everything installed nicely I began installing some games. One problem I found early on was with Sid Meier’s Pirates, which relies quite a bit on the numeric keypad for its controls. Of course laptops don’t have full keypads, but the usual method is to hold the function key to turn a section of the regular keyboard into the numeric keypad. While this function was working in Windows, it wouldn’t work for me in the game, but I came across something called Input Remapper, which has more advanced keyboard drivers for Boot Camp, including the keypad, brightness and volume buttons, and more. Removing the Apple keyboard driver and installing Input Remapper solved my problems.

One more tip: by default Boot Camp’s partition will appear in OS X named “Untitled,” which is not a particularly attractive name for something you’ll probably be looking at in your Finder a lot. You can rename it, but you have to do it in Windows. Right-clicking on the C: drive in My Computer will bring up the option to rename it. After that it will display that name in the Finder as well.