Imagine this: You’ve just bought yourself a new Apple Mac, complete with an Intel processor. You think it’s great and have had fun discovering all the new programs that you can install, but find that there’s a handful of Windows programs that you just haven’t been able to replace with any Mac equivalent.
Until last year you were basically stuck – Macs not only had a different operating system to Windows computers but also different processors. While you may have had some luck with running open source programs in X11, or running Windows very slowly using VirtualPC, those Windows programs were otherwise out of reach. But now, with the move to Intel processors, several more options have opened up.
First of all, there’s Boot Camp. This allowed you to partition off part of your Mac’s hard disk and use it to install Windows, and then dual-boot between the two operating systems. This works well, but switching between OS X and Windows requires an inconvenient reboot, and extra software is required to be able to access the Mac-formatted hard disk partition. Though OS X can read the Windows partition, in most cases it cannot write to it, so sharing files between the two OSes becomes difficult.
Next, there’s Parallels. With Parallels, you install Windows inside a virtual machine, which means it can run inside a ‘bubble’ while you are using OS X and switch freely between the two. The latest beta brings the two closer together with a feature called ‘Coherence’ – Windows programs appear in the dock and can be run side-by-side with Mac programs. All in all it’s a very good setup, however, like with Boot Camp, you need to buy a full Windows license, and with a full Vista license costing around £200, plus the cost of Parallels, that adds up to considerable expense.
But there’s a third option, and this is what I’m going to concentrate on in this entry: CrossOver Mac. This is a commercialised version of Wine, which has allowed Linux users to run an increasingly large array of Windows applications without needing to run Windows itself. CrossOver Mac brings Wine to the Mac and integrates well with the operating system, allowing Windows programs to run in a not too dissimilar way to Mac programs.
CrossOver virtualises either Windows 98 or 2000, and allows virtually any Windows application to be installed. However, only a handful of applications are properly supported, though these do include Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer, which is in fact needed if you want your Windows programs to be able to access the internet. Those supported applications should run flawlessly, as if you running them in Windows. They also get direct access to your Mac file system – no need for shared areas or additional tools.
With other programs, it is very much hit and miss. I tried four programs: Picasa, NeatImage, Shareaza and IrfanView. Picasa and NeatImage seem to work fine, as far as I can tell. That said, Picasa for Linux is basically the same as the Windows version but wrapped in Wine, and so as CrossOver Mac is based on Wine it should run with no problems, and NeatImage has also been well-tested in Wine.
Shareaza runs, but it is flaky – problems with redrawing and it often freezes. And IrfanView won’t even install (I haven’t tried running it directly yet). But to have Picasa, NeatImage and Internet Explorer running fine is really helpful.
CodeWeavers, makers of CrossOver Mac, have a very good chart explaining the differences between the three approaches. Despite being produced by CodeWeavers themselves, it is very fair and highlights flaws in its own product when compared with, say, Boot Camp, which should run all of your Windows programs without any problems.
If you have the money I’d strongly recommend getting Parallels, but CrossOver Mac is very good value for money. Its normal retail price is only £30 – considerably less than the £200 you’ll need to pay for a full Windows license – and it’s currently reduced to £20 while the final throes of beta testing are carried out. I personally have bought copies of both CrossOver Mac and Parallels, and will probably buy a Windows Vista license when it becomes commercially available, and I can afford it at a good price.