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Windows Vista on the Mac

How to install it and how to triple boot with Mac OSX, Vista and XP using Boot Camp Finder icon windows

Posted February 8, 2007 by Lisa Gade, Editor in Chief

Background: Boot Camp vs. Parallels

So you want to run Windows Vista on your Intel Mac-- no problem. There are two ways to do it, one is by using Parallels Desktop for the Mac. Parallels is a virtualization application that runs inside the Mac OS. It allows you to literally run Windows in a window, without rebooting. Parallels works with Vista as well as XP and they provide you with support if you purchase their program. So you don't need our help on that one. If you do go the Parallels route, keep in mind you must also buy or own a copy of Windows XP SP2 or Vista, that's not included with the $79 Parallels Desktop application package. And it is a VM, which means Windows doesn't have direct access to the Mac's hardware as it would if it were running under a normal installation. Boot Camp, Apple's free utility, does allow you to install Windows just as if you were installing it normally on any PC, and Windows will have normal, direct access to all hardware as will 3rd party Windows-based programs. This makes it easier to use peripherals such as Windows Mobile smartphones and PDAs and other devices that plug into the Mac's ports. Video games will run much more quickly in a Boot Camp install than they will in a VM. The downside is, you'll need to reboot to switch between Mac OSX and Windows, whereas you can run Windows as if it were just another application inside Mac OSX when you use Parallels.

Boot Camping into Vista

Apple's Boot Camp is a reliable and easy to use application that will partition your hard drive (any internal hard drive will work) without harming your existing Mac volumes and data. It will resize the Mac partition smaller in order to make space for the Windows partition. For those of you who don't play with drives much, all hard drives have partitions-- it might be just one partition or it could be several. For those of you who have played with programs like Partition Magic, Boot Camp is simpler and faster. Before partitioning the drive, Boot Camp creates a drivers for XP CD which you'll use after installing Windows. We'll cover that later.

Boot Camp

Boot Camp: Creating a Windows partition (you can drag the partition divider to change the size).

For our tests, we used a Mac Pro 2.66GHz with 4 gigs of RAM and two internal serial ATA hard drives: the stock 250 gig boot drive that shipped with the Mac and a 750 gig Seagate drive. We used Boot Camp to partition the boot drive to create a 100 gig Windows partition, leaving 150 megs for the Mac OSX boot volume. No files were harmed by this process and our Mac OSX installation worked just fine afterwards. Boot Camp requires at least 10 gigs of space for the Windows partition, but you may want to use more so you can install Windows applications afterward.

After Boot Camp partitions the drive, it will ask you if you wish to start the Windows installation. Insert your Windows Vista install CD, and say yes to start the installation. We did this many months ago, when Windows XP was the latest Microsoft OS available on the retail market, and we installed XP SP2. Boot Camp and the Mac require a full install version of XP with SP2, so if you have an old pre-SP2 Windows XP install disc, you'll need to create a "slipstream" disc that integrates SP2 into the base XP install. Should you wish to install XP and have an old install disc, we recommend this excellent guide to creating a slipstream disc.

But we're going to focus on Vista here, and we suggest a full rather than upgrade version, though there are reports that upgrade versions work without too much hassle and don't even make you swap in the old XP disc during the installation process. And we'll also suggest that you do a clean install: Vista has an upgrade option to upgrade your Windows XP installation to Vista, or it can do a clean install and create a new Vista installation while moving your old Windows XP installation to a "windows.old folder. Clean installs are more of a pain since you'll need to re-install your 3rd party programs and possibly deal with re-activating them, and you must set up your prefs from scratch. It's still worth it given the major changes under the hood for Vista (despite some reviews that claim it's a face-life OS, it definitely is much more than that). Vista will run smoother and faster when clean installed and the installation itself with take half as long as an upgrade install.

Better yet: keep your Windows XP install and and Windows Vista on another partition! That way you can triple boot into your choice of Mac OSX, Windows XP or Windows Vista. Your Vista installation will work cleanly, your Windows XP installation will remain intact and functional and you'll still have your beloved Mac OSX. If you have a Mac Pro, you have the luxury of multiple drive bays. Drives are cheap: go get another one if you haven't already and pop it in the drive bay. Use Boot Camp to create a Windows partition on that second drive and install Vista on that drive. If you already have a second drive and have installed XP on it, then partition your boot drive to create a partition for Vista.

If you have a MacBook or MacBook Pro, you should be able to add yet another Windows partition to your internal drive, but you'll need to use the command line diskutil to do it (use Terminal to run diskutil). Alternatively, you could boot from your OSX install CD and use Disk Utility to partition the drive, but make sure it's using the hybrid drive (GUID) option. This is more complex as you'll need to partition your Mac's internal drive, and then install your various operating systems. The Mac supports a maximum of 4 primary (bootable) partitions per drive, though Boot Camp can only create 2. The EFI partition uses up 1, leaving you with 3 for other operating systems (i.e.: Mac OSX, Windows XP and Vista). We haven't tested this on a MacBook though, and make no promises. Make sure to use the hybrid option to support EFI (which the Mac uses) and MBR (which Windows uses) and make the HFS+ Mac partition the first one on the drive. After you partition the drive into 3 (OK, technically 4 including the EFI partition), install Mac OS. Then install XP onto your Windows partition by booting from the XP install CD (do not use Boot Camp). After installing XP, boot from the Vista DVD and install Vista. Here's the final catch: Windows wants to be the last partition on the drive. You want 2 versions of Windows on the same drive and they can't both be last, can they? This means that Vista should install but likely won't boot. You'll have to edit the boot.ini file in your Vista installation to remedy this. At this point, you get the idea you should only be doing this if you don't mind wiping out your MacBook's drive, repartitioning it and are also pretty savvy about Windows (if you've never heard of the boot.ini file, this might not be a good project for you). If you do wipe out your MacBook's hard drive, we suggest you back it up using SuperDuper first! We hope that the final version of Boot Camp, due out with Leopard's release, will support more than two partitions so users need not go through all this. In the meantime, Parallels is the easier route to take for those who wish to run all three operating systems and are limited to one internal drive.

You can install any Vista edition you wish. We did a clean install using the Vista Ultimate OEM version, though you might prefer a retail, Home Premium or Vista Business edition.

Boot Camp screenshot

Selecting the drive you wish to partition in Boot Camp.

So we ran Boot Camp 1.1.2 on our Mac Pro that already had OSX and XP on the first drive. We selected our second drive, the 750 gig in bay 2 and partitioned that drive to create a 120 gig partition (we want plenty of room for Windows apps on that partition, hence the large size). Vista itself takes up 10 gigs of space, so you'll want to go for at least a 20 gig partition. Boot Camp created a FAT32 partition on our second drive, and then we moved on to the business of installing Vista.

If you haven't played with Windows or partitions, the next step will require a bit of attention. Once you've started the Vista installation (which is mostly much friendlier and more modern than XP's), it will ask you where you want to install Vista. You'll see all your partitions on all of your drives, but not in a friendly way. They'll be listed as drive 0, drive 1 and so on, and the partitions won't have their familiar Mac names. The easiest way to identify them is by drive bay (you should know which bay you've put your drive in) and by their size in gigs (you should know the size of the Windows partition you created). You'll see some 200 meg partitions listed-- leave those alone, they're there for EFI BIOS compatibility. Make sure to select the correct partition and format it. Why do you need to format it? Because Boot Camp only creates FAT and FAT32 partitions and Vista requires NTFS. Once it's formatted, the installation will continue and it takes only about 25 minutes for a clean install on a Mac Pro. Vista will reboot itself a few times during the process: if you see a "press any key to boot from CD" prompt after one of those reboots, put those fingers back in your pockets and don't press any keys. The installation boots from the hard drive, not the CD at this point.

OK, so Vista is installed and you probably don't hear any sound and your Apple keyboard's special keys don't do anything special under Vista. MacBook users will notice that Bluetooth, Airport, sound and iSight don't work. We'll take care of that. Those of you who are installing XP can use the Windows drivers CD that Boot Camp created to install drivers for your computer under Windows (it has a nice Windows XP installer on it). If you're using Vista, DO NOT run the installation program on the drivers CD. It's not compatible with XP and will fail and roll back to the original drivers. Instead, insert the CD and say no if Vista asks you if you wish to run setup. Go to the Start Menu and choose "run". In the box type "Install Macintosh Drivers for Win XP.exe" /A/v. Instead of installing the drivers, this will put them in the directory of your choosing on your hard drive, in neat little folders, expanded for individual use. Go to that folder on your hard drive and look inside the "program files" folder inside the folder you specified during installation. Don't install everything there! Vista has better and newer drivers for your Mac's motherboard, graphics card and Ethernet than does the Apple XP drivers CD. Mac Pro users: you do want to run the setup program inside the "realtek" folder to install the proper audio drives (your Mac's sound will then return). If you use the Apple keyboard, you'll want to run the setup.exe program in the Apple Keyboard folder. MacBook and MacBook Pro users as well as Mac Pro owners with Apple's Airport and internal Bluetooth inside will have to do a bit more work. For an excellent walk through on how to install missing drivers, visit

Our Mac Pro is running perfectly with Vista Ultimate with one issue remaining: just as with the 32 bit version of Windows XP, Windows Vista Ultimate 32 bit sees only 2 of our 4 gigs of installed RAM. 32 bit Home and Ultimate editions can address up to 4 gigs of RAM, so we're not sure why this problem persists. We could have opted for the 64 bit version of Vista but drivers are still scare for that version of the OS, so we opted for the 32 bit version.

Vista stats

The Vista welcome screen showing basic hardware info. This Mac Pro has the ATI Radeon XT1900 video card.


The good news is that we can switch between OSX, Windows XP and Vista. How do you do this? Hold down the Option key when the Mac boots (press the key by the time you hear the Mac startup chime). You'll see the following screen, or something similar:

boot screen

Use your mouse to click on the drive and OS you wish to boot, then click the arrow just below. Yes, Boot Camp and the Mac call both the Windows XP and Vista installation "Windows", so you'll have to guess which one is which the first time. Our Vista installation is the 2nd Windows listed, but yours may be different. You can use the Startup Disk control panel in Mac OSX to set your default boot OS and partition so you need hold down the Option key every time you boot (unless you wish to boot a different OS than usual).

Your Windows Vista partition will appear on your Mac OSX desktop and you can view files on that partition and copy them to your Mac drives. Since the partition is formatted with NTFS, the Mac can't write to it, which means you can't copy files to it. If you have Windows XP installed on another drive, you'll be able to access that hard drive under Windows Vista directly-- it will appear as another hard drive installed inside your local computer.

Experience score

How fast is the Mac Pro for Vista? Vista has an experience score that tells you how fast and capable your PC is. The scale currently runs from 1.0 to 5.9. The Base Score is actually the lowest number among the 5 tests and not an average. As you can see from the screen above, the Mac Pro with the ATI XT1900 video card scores extremely well.

So that's it in a nutshell. If this sounds too complex, you can wait for Apple to release Leopard which will have Vista support built into Boot Camp.


The End


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