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Windows on a Mac: A Parallel View

© 2006 Lawrence I. Charters

See the companion article on Windows XP under Boot Camp

Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint information

Computing with a bipolar disorder

Several months ago, our Windows computer died. This was the second time it had died within a year, and we were getting tired of such behavior. We'd been putting off purchasing a new Windows computer until the release of Windows Vista, the next generation of Windows. In spring 2006, Microsoft announced that Windows Vista would be delayed – again – until sometime in 2007. Since it was originally supposed to ship in May 2003, we gave up waiting and started to actively look for a new Windows machine.

We found it in a strange place: at Apple. While we were looking for a spiffy Windows box, Apple announced Boot Camp, a "technology demonstration" as much as anything else. Called a beta test, it was a preview of what will be offered in Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, which should come out in the latter half of 2006, or before Windows Vista, or most likely both. Boot Camp is very, very good (it is covered elsewhere in the Journal). But for us, a parallel effort holds more promise.

A Virginia company, Parallels, Inc., released Parallels Desktop for Macintosh. Unlike Boot Camp, which forces you to restart to use Windows XP if you are using Mac OS X (or vice versa), Parallels Desktop allows you to run Windows XP, or several other versions of Windows -- or Linux or Solaris or other operating systems -- side by side with Mac OS X. Yes, if you want to get technical, they aren't really side by side: Windows (we'll assume you want to run Windows XP for the rest of this article) runs inside Parallels, and Parallels runs as a task under Mac OS X. You can quit out of Parallels just like you would any other Mac OS X application.

Mac mini bestseller

A Windows machine based on the Apple Mac mini is not much bulkier than a best-selling novel, and far more useful. (Photo by Lawrence I. Charters, taken with a Minolta A2 digital camera.)

Given these paths to Windowdom, we selected as our new, improved Windows computer an “Apple Mac mini Intel Core Duo” (what a horrible name) running Mac OS X 10.4. After trying out the Boot Camp beta and a demo of Parallels, we decided to go with Parallels Desktop for Mac, which in turn ran Windows XP. All this power and flexibility came on a computer not much bigger than a bestselling novel.

A Windowed Window on Windows

Installing Parallels proved simplicity itself. You can purchase it via their Web site, download the installer, and have Parallels up and running in an hour; most of that hour will be spent waiting for an E-mail from Parallels with your installation code. Parallels is a standard Mac installer: double-click, answer a question or two, and you are done.

Of course, you still must install Windows XP. For this you must purchase a full installation disc of Windows XP, which is not something you can download. Even with a physical disc in hand, it takes roughly eight hours (including meal breaks) to install Windows XP, install all the patches and such, and get it up and running. Unlike Mac OS X installations, you can’t just run the installer and then walk away; Windows asks all kinds of odd questions at random times, either during the installation or during the updates or patches or tweaks, and the process comes to a halt until you supply whatever is being requested. Fortunately, you have a fully functional Mac OS X machine right in front of you, so you can write E-mail messages or listen to iTunes or browse Web sites while Windows grinds along its user-friendly installation process.

Not included in this time estimate is the week spent cajoling Microsoft into letting us install Windows XP. You must “register” Windows XP for it to run as something other than a 30-day demo, and by installing XP under Boot Camp first and then under Parallels, we’d triggered an anti-piracy alarm at Microsoft, disabling the ever so friendly 25-digit installation code. A week later, Microsoft graciously offered a heavily-accented substitute code of around 100 digits; type this code in perfectly and, eight hours later, you have Windows XP! Naturally, you can avoid this painful step by simply not trying out both Boot Camp and Parallels. Who needs choices, anyway?

We took a series of screen shots of the Windows installation, using Parallels’ built-in Console Screenshot utility. They aren’t necessarily informative, but we found many of them quite funny.

Follow all directions on label

Some things you need to consider if you want to enter the land of bipolar computing:

Windows XP under Parallels on a Mac mini

Windows XP running in a window under Mac OS X 10.4 on a Mac mini. Windows is busy with the two biggest uses for Windows: checking for viruses and playing Solitaire.

Tandem computing

Assuming you do want to run Windows, Parallels offers some nice features, and a few disadvantages:

Memo to self: zero Hz is apparently too slow for Windows Vista. Or at least for the "core experience." Since Apples have cores, and since a Mac mini Intel Core Duo has two, this is a shame.

Parallels console

This simple control panel allows you to start, stop, and pause Windows XP using Parallels. You can also configure how much memory Windows XP uses, how much hard drive space it can use, how it should talk to the network, and other basic details – or you can ignore all the settings and accept the defaults. "Winders" is our name for the virtual directory, and not some nasty comment by Parallels, Inc. It is our nasty comment.

Discoveries and annoyances

As far as we can tell, Parallels uses only one of the two processors in our dual core Mac mini. This isn’t necessarily bad: the other processor is running Mac OS X, so everything moves along quite briskly. Just the same, it is the only Mac OS X program we’ve used that doesn’t automatically and transparently use both processors on a dual processor machine.

Somewhat more annoying: CLT-Alt-Delete. If you want to lock the screen in Windows without actually shutting everything down, you simultaneously press the Control key, the Alt key, and the Delete key. This doesn’t work when running Windows XP under Parallels. In several weeks of investigation, it was clear that it didn’t work under Boot Camp and Windows XP as well, at least when people were using a Macbook or Macbook Plus. The Macbooks don’t have a Delete key.

But the standard Apple keyboard does have a Delete key, and the Option key is even conveniently marked with “alt” written above it in one corner. Therefore, CTL-Alt-Delete should work – but it didn’t work for us. This may seem a trivial issue, but most Windows-centric organizations will not allow you to bring in a Windows machine that you can’t lock up by pressing CTL-Alt-Delete. The Center for Internet Security (http://www.cisecurity.org/), for example, considers this “three fingered salute” to be a standard part of a baseline installation of Windows.

A Washington Apple Pi member, on the Pi forums (http://tcs.wap.org/), pointed to the answer in the form of a Microsoft technical note, posted at:


Q. What happened to Lock Computer? In Windows 2000 and Windows NT version 4.0, you could type CTRL+ALT+DEL to bring up a window that contained the Lock Computer option. In Windows XP, this key combination brings up the Task Manager.

A. Press the Windows Logo key + L to lock your computer. You can also turn off the Welcome screen to go back to logging on and off by pressing CTRL+ALT+DELETE, which opens the Windows Security dialog box that contains the Lock Computer option. (If you're on a domain, you don't have the option of turning off the Welcome screen.)

To turn off the Welcome screen:

1. Open User Accounts in Control Panel.

2. Click Change the way users log on or off.

3. Clear the Use the Welcome screen check box.

In other words, Windows XP isn’t supposed to use CTL-Alt-Delete. But since Windows system administrators expect this behavior, we made the necessary changes and now Windows works as they expect.

While this was not tested, users of Macbooks and MacBook Pro laptops need a different solution, as neither laptop has a true Delete key. Microsoft has a key remapping utility, Remapkey.exe, available for free as part of the Windows Server 2003 Resource Kit Tools, available at:


One very pleasant discovery: Parallels is extremely stable. We gave it some mind-numbingly difficult tasks that sucked up vast amounts of RAM and disk space, and kept it busy for hours on end. The tasks were completed in completely unremarkable fashion – except that we got the results much faster than on the late, unlamented dead Dell. Among other things, the Dell tended to crash; the Mac mini running Parallels and Windows XP did not.

Mac mini with plasma screen

This is supposed to be a photo of our Mac mini running Windows XP connected to a $10,000 plasma monitor. We were so surprised that the mini worked with the monitor that we forgot to take a photo with Windows running. Trust us: Windows XP ran just fine. (Photo by Lawrence I. Charters, taken with a Canon PowerShot S500 digital camera.)

Until there is a cure

On a Mac mini, both Boot Camp and Parallels perform well. On an Intel-based iMac or MacBook Pro, both should be screamers, since these machines have very powerful dedicated video cards (and are also simply faster).

Having said all this: don't try either Boot Camp or Parallels unless you know enough about Windows XP to lock it up and protect it. Until there is a cure (Microsoft hopes Windows Vista will be the cure), you can't fully protect Windows XP by faking it; genuine skill and knowledge is required, too.

Meanwhile, you can run Windows on the slickest Windows machine yet produced: a Mac.

Parallels Desktop for Macintosh, $79.99
Parallels, Inc.

Check out the installation pictures, too.