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Installing Windows 7 on a Mac

We're pretty excited about Windows 7, and we know that users are too. After all, with any luck, Windows 7 will be what Vista was supposed to be. Lee has done a bang-up job covering Windows 7 tips and tricks for PC users, but Mac users who use Windows for work or for compatibility testing don't have to be left out. Hey, I might not ever switch back to using a PC full time (and I'm certainly not going to buy a laptop that doesn't have the word "Mac" in it), but that doesn't mean that I'm uninterested or unexcited about Windows 7.

Although Intel Macs can run Windows 7 in Boot Camp, for most users, the easiest and most hassle-free method will be to use virtualization. This way, you can test out all the features of Windows 7, without having to dual-boot. The big pitfall for virtualization: gaming and HD-video playback, are less an issue in Windows 7 because those areas are still being tweaked and aren't ready for prime time anyway.

The three big players out there for virtualization on the Mac are:

I've installed Windows 7 in the latest version of each program and tweaked the settings to get the best results.

Here are some overall settings to keep in mind:

  • You'll want to dedicate at least 1 GB of RAM to Windows 7 Beta
  • For best performance on your Mac, it helps to have at least 2 GB of RAM dedicated to OS X, so that puts total RAM in the 3 GB and up range.
  • Reserve about 40 GB of HD space for your virtual machine installation. If you don't have the space on an internal drive, you can use an external drive without a problem (that's what I do)
  • Disable 3-D graphics support, as it really isn't working in any of the virtualization programs right now and can be buggy

VMWare Fusion 2.0

VMWare Fusion doesn't officially support Windows 7. But it installs just fine -- even in Unity mode! Note, I used VMWare Fusion 2.0.1, but I've read reports that VMWare Fusion 1.1.3 works with Windows 7 as well. Unity might not work correctly, but everything else should be OK. Upgrading to 2.0 is free for 1.0 customers, so if you haven't already upgraded, you might want to take the plunge. Fusion 2.0 has some great features and it really is worth the upgrade.

Tips and Tricks:

  • Remember to use Windows Server 2008 or Windows Server 2008 64-bit as the OS of choice. Easy Install works just fine as long as Windows Server 2008 is what you pick.
  • Disable shared folders. There is currently a permissions issue so it's just best to disable it. This means mirrored folders won't work and shared applications might be buggy.
  • Again, disable 3D graphics because this causes some conflicts with certain DirectX appications

Check out the gallery for the full installation guide:

Windows 7 in VMWare Fusion 2

Additional thoughts:

  • VMWare Fusion 2.0 was the only program that performed a true "auto-install." This means you insert the activation code in a dialog box before the installation begins and everything is pre-configured, so you can actually just step away for a few minutes and come back to a Windows 7 virtual machine.
  • This also means it automatically installs VMWare Tools, which while not specifically designed for Windows 7, do stuff like enable audio and video drivers so you can resize the screen at ease, use Unity and listen to music.
  • Performance was solid, but more akin to running Vista rather than running XP.
  • Unity mode works, but can slow down the system. If you don't have at least 4 GB of RAM, use Windowed mode instead.

Parallels 4.0

The latest 4.0.3810 (released today) will automatically recognize and configure Windows 7. Previous Paralells 4 builds do work with Windows 7, but the new version supports Coherence Mode and performed better in my tests.

Check out the gallery for the full installation guide:

Windows 7 in Parallels 4

Additional Thoughts:

  • Remember to install your Parallels Tools. Both in the previous 4.0 release and in 4.0.3810, the Parallels Tools installation hung and needed to be aborted. However, in both cases, after restarting the virtual machine (which coincided with the installation of the latest Windows 7 updates), the Tools were installed and working properly.
  • The latest version supports Coherence and was pretty zippy.
  • The auto-configuration of the VM was also a nice touch, though you still need to manually go through the entire Windows 7 installation. In my tests, the latest build of Parallels 4 had the best performance with Windows 7 on my machine.
  • All forum accounts say that Windows 7 will NOT run well under Parallels 3.0

VirtualBox 2.1.2

VirtualBox is favorite for several of my fellow-Download Squad bloggers because it is free and is becoming fairly robust. The latest build, 2.1.2, even supports Windows 7 as a guest OS out of the gate.

Tips and Tricks:

  • Remember to allocate 1 GB of memory to Windows 7. VirtualBox defaults to 512, but that really isn't enough.
  • Additionally, VirtualBox recommends 20 GB of space for the virtual machine but 40 is really better. You can create an expanding drive, so only what you use now is taken up, but let the system have some room to breathe.

Check out the gallery for the full installation guide:

Windows 7 in VirtualBox

Additional thoughts:

  • The virtual machine creation process isn't as streamlined as Fusion or Parallels. I'm not saying it is hard to figure out, it's just clunky.
  • By default, audio and USB support are disabled. After you install Windows 7, you'll need to manually enable them in VirtualBox's settings.
  • Despite support for guest tools (VirtualBox's version of Parallels or VMWare Tools), resizing Windows 7's window is still a bit slower than the other two programs.
  • Overall performance was a bit lower in VirtualBox than the other two programs, at least in my tests.
  • There's no Unity or Coherence mode, you have to run VirtualBox either in a full screen or in a smaller sized screen on your computer.
  • As the comments pointed out, VirtualBox does have a Seamless mode, I just checked it and it works. Not as slick as the other two programs, but it exists! Thanks!

Tags: mac, parallels, virtualbox, virtualization, vmware fusion, VmwareFusion, windows-7