Running Windows on a Mac is commonplace but can be frustrating. Whether you’re booting your Mac with Windows or running a virtual machine, there are plenty of ways to get in trouble. (If you haven’t decided which method is best for you, see How to Run Windows on Macs, a Comparison of Available Solutions.)
Windows can bog down your Mac, or create uncertainties on backing up, and create general hassles that you won’t experience with OS X alone. Here are my top ten tips to take charge of performance, battery power, back up and recovery strategies, and other ways to make Windows shine on your Mac.
- Use recommended RAM settings for virtual machines
Virtual machines are not real machines. Assigning more RAM to a virtual machine in the settings dialog is not like adding RAM to a real PC. In fact, assigning too much RAM in your virtual machine’s settings can slow your whole Mac down, OS X included. Stick with a setting that is within the range of RAM that is recommended in the virtual machine settings box.
- Give your Mac enough real RAM
When you’re running a virtual machine (Parallels Desktop, VMware Fusion, or Oracle VirtualBox), you are running not one, but two operating systems: OS X and your guest OS. If you don’t have enough RAM in your Mac, both OS X and Windows will grind to a halt.
Regardless of what the virtualization companies say, 4 GB is the bare minimum of what is practical. But having 4 GB is not enough to prevent your Mac from slowing when running a virtual machine. I recommend having at least 8 GB in your Mac. This should be adequate for most ordinary business apps. Consider more RAM if you are using memory-hungry Windows apps, such as graphics editors.
When running Windows with Boot Camp, you Mac only runs one operating system at a time. For this situation, 4 GB of RAM should be plenty for average tasks.
- Get the latest virtualization software
It’s annoying being asked to buy an upgrade to a new a version of software. But with virtualization software, newer is always faster. Parallels Desktop 9 is faster than version 8, which is faster than version 7. The same is true with VMware Fusion. And, unlike some other types of software, new versions of Fusion and Parallels are not known to break things or add incompatibilities.
With Boot Camp, major new versions don’t add performance. Instead, they add compatibility with the latest Mac hardware and Windows software. For instance, Boot Camp 5 added compatibility with Windows 8. You should not, however, automatically upgrade your Boot Camp drivers without checking to see if the new version supports your Mac. For instance, Boot Camp 5 does not run on Macs older than a few years. (To see which Macs Boot Camp 5 supports, see this article.)
- Buy the right version of Windows
Windows 7, Windows 8, Home, Professional, System Builder, Upgrade; the choices and combinations of choices are staggering. Buy the wrong type of Windows, and you may spend too much, or not get features you need, or you may not be able to run the Windows application you need, or you may not be able to run the Windows you bought at all.
If you using a standard Windows applications, your best bet is Windows 7, which is still the most popular operating system in the world. It comes in six versions (including two with the word “Home” in the title. Windows 7 Professional is a safe bet for most people.
Go for Windows 8 if you need to run an app that requires Windows 8 or just want to have Microsoft’s latest. Shopping for the right edition of Windows 8 can be more confusing than buying Windows 7. To make sure you get a version that you can actually install on your Mac, see Choosing a Windows 8 version for your Mac.
Boot Camp 5 supports fewer versions of Windows than do virtualization applications. Boot Camp 5 can run Windows 8.0 (64-bit) (regular and Pro), and Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate (all 64-bit). As of this writing, Boot Camp 5 did not support Windows 8.1. Parallels Desktop 9 and VMware Fusion 6 do.
- Turn off Windows eye candy to save battery power
Whether you’re booting with Boot Camp or running a virtual machine, you can save some battery power and improve performance by turning off Windows’ visual effects. These include:
- Animate windows when minimizing and maximizing
- Animations in the taskbar
- Enable transparent glass
- Fade or slide menus into view
- Show shadows under windows
- Slide open combo boxes
- Fade out menu items after clicking
- Fade or Slide ToolTips into view
- In Windows 7 and 8, you turn these off in the Advanced tab of the Performance Options dialog. Getting there is similar in both OS’s. Type View Advanced System Settings in the Start screen in Windows 8 and 8.1 (or Start menu in Windows 7). Click Adjust for Best Performance to turn off all the effects, or click the Custom box to select individual effects to turn off.
- Use an SSD or Fusion drive
Keeping your virtual machines or Boot Camp partition on a solid state drive (SSD) (also called “flash storage”) or Apple’s Fusion drive can significantly speed performance over a standard hard drive.
An SSD is faster than a Fusion drive, but has a smaller capacity due to the expense of the technology. For example, the SSDs offered in the MacBook Air are 128 GB, 256 GB, and 512 GB. Fusion drives come in 1 TB and 3TB capacities.
Boot Camp users can create the Boot Camp partition on an SSD or Fusion Drive using Boot Camp Assistant. But if you want to use the 3TB Fusion drive, make sure your Mac is running OS X 10.8.3 (Mountain Lion) or later. Boot Camp assistant with OS X versions 10.8.2 and earlier don’t support the 3TB configuration.
Apple’s Fusion drives only come with certain Macs, though you can also replace an internal hard drive with a third-party “hybrid” drive that is similar in concept. You can also buy a third-party internal SSD to replace a hard drive, and at larger capacities than Apple offers.
- Install VM on external drive when space is tight
A 128 flash drive in a MacBook Air is pretty tight for a Windows virtual machine that is many tens of gigabytes in size. If you are using Parallels Desktop, You can create a virtual machine on a sufficiently fast external drive, or move an existing one from your internal hard drive. (VMware Fusion does not support running a virtual machine on an external hard drive.) Keep Parallels Desktop on the internal drive.
During the normal virtual machine creation process, simply specify the external drive when you are asked for a location for the virtual machine.
To move an existing virtual machine from your internal drive, make sure it is shut down first then quit Parallels. Copy the virtual machine file (which ends in .pvm) from the Parallels folder (inside your Documents folder) to the new drive. Delete the old file. Then start up Parallels Desktop and click the virtual machine from the Virtual Machine Library. A dialog box may ask you to locate the file.
Thunderbolt is the fastest connection, but USB 3.0, and FireWire 800 are fast enough for a Windows virtual machine. FireWire 400 is a bit too slow, and USB 2 crawls at a snails pace.
- Keep a Golden Master copy of Windows
One advantage virtualization is that you can create and save a “golden master” copy of your Windows setup that you can easily reinstall should something go wrong, or if you want install the same configuration on multiple Macs. Your golden master should be a fresh installation of Windows and fresh installations of your Windows applications, with your settings in place.
Once you get your golden master setup, take a snapshot of it. You can then revert to it if you need it.
Next, make a copy of the golden master to safely store someone else, such as a large USB flash key or an external hard drive. You do this by selecting the virtual machine in the virtual machine list and making a clone of it. In Parallels Desktop 9, go to the File menu and choose Clone.
With VMware Fusion 6, you can clone right from the Virtual Machine Library and select Create Full Clone at left. Fusion 6 also has another handy feature that lets you create a clone of a singe snapshot. This is good in the event that you have created snapshots after the golden master Ð cloning just golden master snapshot will save some disk space. To do this, go to click Snapshots in the Virtual Machine Library, select your golden master snapshot, and right-click. Select either Create Linked Clone.
For the best security, keep your Windows data files outside the virtual machine in a folder shared with OS X.
- Don’t use Time Machine to back up virtual machines
Although Time Machine can backup your virtual machines, there are reasons not to. It can take a long time and use a lot of disk space. Additionally, Parallels warns that if your virtual machine is running while Time Machine does a backup, the backup can corrupt. And when restoring, you can’t browse through Time Machine to restore a single file. You have to restore the entire virtual machines, typically tens of gigabytes.
A better strategy is to keep your golden master in a safe place. Then, make it a practice to not store your Windows documents in a Windows folder Ð instead, keep them on a folder in the OS X that is shared with the virtual machine. This folder, along with your Windows documents, will then be backed up by Time Machine along with the rest of your Mac files. Another option is to back up your Windows data files from within Windows to a cloud-based service such as DropBox, Microsoft SkyDrive, or Google Drive. Either way, you can restore a single file, or use your golden master first to get a fresh copy of Windows and your apps.
You prevent Time Machine from backing up your virtual machines by going to Time Machine Preferences>Options. Use the Add (+) button to add your virtual machine folders to the Exclude. These folders are located in Documents. For Parallels, the folder is called Parallels. For VMware, it’s called Virtual Machines.
- Run Windows apps without Windows
If you only need to run one or two Windows apps, you can save the expense of buying Windows by using CrossOver from CodeWeavers. CrossOver enables certain Windows applications and games to run directly in OS X, without Windows. The overhead in terms of RAM and CPU utilization is much less than with virtualization because you’re only running one operating system. And unlike Boot Camp, you can access your Mac and Windows apps at the same time without rebooting.
The tradeoff for the low cost and low hardware overhead is that CrossOver doesn’t support all Windows applications. Most business applications (including Microsoft Office, Internet Explorer, and Quicken) are supported, as are many game. You can check the CodeWeavers web site to see if your Windows app is supported.