Review: Boot Camp Lets You Run Windows on Your Mac

Boot Camp
Apple, Inc.

Apple’s Boot Camp provides the fastest Windows environment available on a Mac. And because you're truly running Windows, not using a virtualization product, running Windows in Boot Camp is generally more stable, and works with a wider variety of peripherals, than any other Mac-based option.

Manufacturer's Site

Pros

  • Runs Windows at your hardware's native speed.
  • Assists you in dividing your startup drive to accept a Windows partition.
  • Guides you through the process of creating a set of Windows drivers.
  • Help you through the Windows install process.
  • Can be used to uninstall Windows.

Cons

  • Can’t run Windows and OS X concurrently
  • Very limited set of Windows versions supported.
  • Can’t install Windows on external drives.

Requirements

  • OS X Leopard or later.
  • Windows ISO installer or DVD installer.
  • A USB flash drive for creating the Windows drivers.
  • Intel-based Mac.

Let’s get this out of the way first: Apple’s Boot Camp isn't a virtualization system that allows you to run Windows. The Mac’s hardware, which is built from pretty much standard PC components, is perfectly capable of running Windows as is, provided you could gather together all of the needed Windows drivers for the Mac hardware.

Boot Camp is really just an app designed to assist you in making your Mac ready to accept a Windows partition, and then to allow you to download and install all of the necessary Windows drivers.

That’s the core feature of Boot Camp, although it's true that Boot Camp does all this with the usual Apple flair, and by doing so, makes installing Windows on a Mac quite easy. In fact, many people buy portable Mac models just to run Windows, the reason being that the hardware is incredibly reliable and stable, and may be the best platform for running Windows.

Although we commonly speak of Boot Camp, the actual app that performs all of the work is Boot Camp Assistant. The purpose of Boot Camp is to recognize Windows disks at boot time, so you can choose between the Mac OS and the Windows OS when you boot your Mac.

Using Boot Camp Assistant

Boot Camp Assistant allows you to download the current Windows support software from Apple to a USB flash drive. This software includes a selection of drivers that will allow you to use your Mac's keyboard, trackpad, built-in camera, and other Mac hardware with your copy of Windows. In addition to the hardware drivers, the support software includes an installer that runs under Windows to ensure all of the Mac hardware drivers are installed under Windows correctly.

The second major function of Boot Camp Assistant is to install or remove a supported version of Windows (more on which versions are supported later). The installation process starts with Boot Camp Assistant creating a Windows volume; you can choose to divide your startup drive into two volumes, one for your current OS X data, and the other for your new Windows installation. You can select the size of the new Windows volume, and the partitioning utility will resize your OS X volume to make room for Windows.

If your Mac has a second internal drive, you can have Boot Camp Assistant erase the second drive and assign it exclusively for use as a Windows volume. Boot Camp Assistant is very particular about which drives can be used for Windows. Specifically, Boot Camp ignores any external drive. You must use one of your Mac’s internal drives.

Fusion Drives

If the drive you select to install Windows on is a Fusion drive, that is, one made up of an SSD and a standard hard drive combined together, Boot Camp Assistant will partition the Fusion drive in such a way as to create a Windows volume that is fully contained on the standard hard drive section, and won't ever be migrated to the SSD section.

Installing Windows

Once the Windows volume is created, Boot Camp Assistant can start the Windows install process. This simplified method guides you through the Windows install process, and is generally one of the easiest ways to get Windows installed on a computer.

However, there are a few spots along the way that can cause trouble, the most important being the point where you choose where to install Windows. This is part of the Windows install process as developed by Microsoft, and was never intended to be used on a Mac. As a result, when you're asked to select the volume to install on, you may see strange drive volumes, such as ones labeled EFI or Recovery HD. Only select the volume that is preformatted for Windows; selecting one of the others can overwrite your Mac’s data. For this reason I highly recommend printing out the Boot Camp Assistant guide (one of the options within the Boot Camp Assistant), so you can refer to the detailed instructions provided by Apple during the Windows install process.

Supported Windows Versions

At the time of this writing, Boot Camp was at version 5.1. Boot Camp 5.1 supports 64-bit versions of Windows 7.x and Windows 8.x. It's likely that sometime after Windows 10 is released we'll see an update to Boot Camp to support it, but don’t expect it immediately.

Previous versions of Boot Camp included support for older versions of Windows:

Boot Camp 3: Windows XP, Windows Vista

Boot Camp 4: 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows 7

In addition to the Boot Camp version, the Mac model Windows was being installed on also dictated which versions of Windows would be supported.

For instance, the 2013 Mac Pro only supports Windows 8.x, while earlier versions of the Mac Pro can support Windows XP and later. You can find a table of Mac models and the versions of Windows they support at Apple’s Windows System Requirements. Scroll down to near the bottom of the page to find the Mac model tables.

Removing Windows

You can also use Boot Camp Assistant to remove the Windows volume, and restore your startup drive to a single OS X volume. It's highly recommended that if you decide to remove your Windows volume, you do so using Boot Camp Assistant. While it's possible to manually remove the Windows volume and resize the existing OS X volume, many people have reported problems trying to do it this way. Using Boot Camp Assistant to remove Windows seems to be the best method, and one I highly recommend.

Final Thoughts

Boot Camp’s ability to allow your Mac to recognize and boot from Windows formatted volumes may not seem like much of a technically difficult process, and it really isn't. But it offers two very important features for anyone who needs to run Windows on their Macs:

First, speed; there's no quicker method of running Windows. By using Boot Camp, you're running Windows at full native hardware speed. You're allowing Windows direct access to each piece of your Mac’s hardware: the CPU, GPU, display, keyboards, trackpad, mouse, and the network. There's no software overhead between Windows and the hardware. If your primary concern is performance, Boot Camp is the fastest solution available.

The second feature is that it's free. Boot Camp is built into the Mac and OS X. There's no third-party app to buy, and no third-party support to worry about. Boot Camp is directly supported by Apple, and Windows is directly supported by Microsoft.

Of course, there are a few gotchas. As mentioned, Boot Camp runs Windows natively. As a result, there's no integration between the Windows and OS X environments. You can’t run both OS X and Windows at the same time. To switch between them, you must shut down the environment you're in, and restart your Mac into the other operating system.

The method of figuring out which version of Windows will actually work on your Mac is somewhat complex. In addition, you may find yourself waiting a while before Apple supports the next version of Windows.

But in the end, if you need to run processor or graphics intensive Windows apps, Boot Camp is probably the very best option available. And let's not forget it costs nothing, other than a Windows license, to give Boot Camp a try.

It’s also a great way to play all of the Windows games that have no Mac counterpart, but you didn’t hear that from me.

Published: 1/13/2008
Updated: 6/18/2015

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