Windows options for Mac users

In March 2016, the SfEP released a new online course, Editing with Word. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person looking forward to this course, especially as I hadn’t had the chance to attend either of the Society’s old onscreen editing workshops. Editing with Word would be ideal, I thought, because it would be full of up-to-date content, and, crucially for me, I’d be able to take the course online. Contributors to the course included Paul Beverley, Daniel Heuman and Paul Sensecall – all well-known names in the editorial community – so this was a course not to miss.

Perfect.

Then I saw that three of the course’s ten chapters would require some sort of access to Windows. And that got me wondering about how suitable the course would be for Mac users.

Like many writers and editors, I’m a big fan of Apple Macs. But there are times when an important piece of software works only on Windows, and that gives Mac users some questions to answer. Should we stick to using only those tools that work natively on our Macs, foregoing Windows software that might have saved our bacon? Should we keep a PC on standby just in case? Are there any other options?

Below are some examples of software that Mac users might find very useful if only they could get access to Windows. The first three of these feature in the SfEP’s Editing with Word course:

(SfEP members receive a 15% discount on PerfectIt and on ReferenceChecker. Discount codes can be found in the Benefits section of the Members’ area.)

So, there are times when having Windows to hand could really be of help to a Mac-using editorial pro. Now we need to consider what that means in practical terms. Let’s look at the options.

Option 1: use a real PC

PC

There are no two ways about it: for the authentic Windows experience, use a real PC. That doesn’t mean you need the full-on desktop ensemble. An old laptop, netbook or PC tablet might do the job, depending on what software you’re trying to run.

Pros

  • Low-cost option if you already have any Windows-compatible hardware on standby.
  • PC keyboard may be best to use for Windows-specific shortcuts.

Cons

  • Need to use home networking, Dropbox or other sharing methods to move files between Mac and Windows.
  • More clutter: you may need to make space on your desk for that extra computer, monitor, keyboard and mouse.
  • It’s a PC. Prepare for hardware wrangles, blue screens of death and more besides. Why did you buy a Mac anyway?

Option 2: use Boot Camp

icon-bootcamp

Boot Camp is Apple’s built-in software that lets you install Windows on part of your hard drive.

Pros

  • Uses native software built in to the Mac, so should stay up to date so long as your Mac does.
  • No need to install third-party software to run Windows.

Cons

  • Need to restart to switch between Mac and Windows, which significantly slows down workflows and makes it more difficult to share files between operating systems. You’d need to use Dropbox, a USB thumb drive or an external hard disk to shift files between systems. Fun!
  • Usual home-networking routes won’t work: your Mac will be rendered invisible while Windows is running, and vice versa.
  • Requires your hard drive to be partitioned, so you need to decide how much space to reserve for Windows (a headache if you need to change your mind later).
  • Requires installation of a licensed copy of Windows and any other software to be run on the system (e.g. MS Office).

Option 3: use a ‘virtual machine’

icon_parallels

A virtual machine is software that allows you to access an entire operating system (such as Windows) and its programs via a single window on your Mac desktop.

Pros

  • Very easy to share files between Mac and Windows.
  • No need for a second machine, monitor, keyboard or mouse.
  • Windows runs inside a self-contained app.
  • Can share the host Mac’s internet connection or can be used in offline mode, providing strong protection against viruses, worms, etc.
  • Takes up only as much disk space as is required (no need to partition your hard drive).
  • Can inherit an existing Boot Camp installation of Windows.

Cons

  • Requires a powerful Mac.
  • Not the cheapest route (see requirements below).
  • Requires installation of a licensed copy of Windows and any other software to be run on the system (e.g. MS Office).

My recommendation: use a virtual machine

I’ve tried all of the methods above and, for me, the best option has been to use a virtual machine. My old PC took up too much space and was a pain to keep updated and protected. Boot Camp appealed for a while, but losing access to my Mac while Windows was running soon became a no-no. The final option I tried – a virtual machine – is what I’ve stuck with quite happily since around 2010.

There are a couple of big players in the virtual-machine market. In my case, I’ve opted for Parallels. The main alternative is Fusion. Both products do the same job, so, before committing to a purchase, you might want to take advantage of a free trial of each to see which software you prefer. Prices are also almost identical, with each product costing around £65 for a one-off licence. The software is updated every year and there’s a charge for upgrading, but upgrades aren’t mandatory. The latest versions of Parallels and Fusion work well with all modern versions of Windows, so you probably won’t need to upgrade for a few years.

Requirements for running a virtual machine

Here’s what you’ll need in order to run a virtual version of Windows on your Mac:

  • A powerful Mac: running one operating system inside another requires a powerful machine. If you’re using a mid-range MacBook, your computer might not have enough resources to adequately sustain a virtual machine.
  • Virtual-machine software: Parallels and Fusion are the main players. Each offers a free trial.
  • A licensed copy of Windows: even if you already own a PC with a pre-installed version of Windows, you’ll probably need a separate Windows installation disc for your Mac as well as a licence key. If you’ve previously installed Windows via your Mac’s built-in Boot Camp software, you can make Parallels or Fusion use that existing installation rather than having to install Windows again.
  • CD/DVD drive: you’ll probably be installing Windows from an optical disc, but new Macs no longer come with an internal disc drive. If your Mac doesn’t have a slot for CDs and DVDs, you’ll need something like the Apple USB SuperDrive.
  • Licensed copies of all software: an Office 365 subscription is a good option if you wish to run Word and the other Office apps on both Mac and Windows. (Office 365 now works quite well on the iPad, too.)

Note that if you want to make a wholesale move from an existing PC to a virtual machine, Parallels can migrate your entire Windows installation, meaning you won’t need a separate Windows licence, installation disc or CD/DVD drive.

Still, the above represents a substantial requirements list. Take a look at what you already have and see whether running a virtual machine is going to be the right choice for you. In some cases, it will work out better to accept the cons of running a cheap, second-hand PC.

A note about anti-virus software

When Mac users think about installing Windows, they often wonder whether they need to install anti-virus software on their virtual copy of Windows. Strictly speaking, the answer is yes: you’ll be running a fully functional version of Windows that will have access to the internet, and therefore it’s possible for it to be infected in just the same way that a real PC might be. However, there are some mitigating circumstances that might change your thinking on this topic:

  • Your use of the internet inside the virtual machine is likely to be very limited. Do you think you’re likely to use an email program inside Windows, for example, when you already have access to email on your host Mac? Will you be browsing the web inside Windows? Wouldn’t you just use Safari or Chrome on your host Mac, as usual?
  • Virtual machines don’t always need access to the internet. You could disable internet access inside the virtual machine, leaving Windows offline and therefore protected from almost all threats. Even in this state, you could still share your Mac’s files with your Windows installation and vice versa.
  • Virtual machines allow you to take snapshots of your system, so any unforeseen problems (e.g. a virus or worm affecting your installation) can easily be rectified by rolling back to a previous snapshot. You can also delete your entire Windows installation without it affecting your Mac, and then reinstall. This is easier to do with a virtual machine than it is with a real PC.

But I just want to use PerfectIt!

All this information might appear complicated and scary if all you want to do is use the PerfectIt add-in for Word on your Mac. If the above methods aren’t for you, there might yet be hope …

Intelligent Editing, the makers of PerfectIt, intend to release a cloud-based version of the software in late 2016. When this happens, PerfectIt will be able to run on any system, including your Mac. No firm release information is available at this time, but I’ll be keeping a keen eye on developments and will update SfEP members when I know more.

A note about Wine

The more technically minded readers, particularly those familiar with Linux, will probably be wondering why I’ve neglected to mention Wine. This software provides another route for Mac users to run Windows software, but I’ve never had a good experience with it and therefore wouldn’t recommend it. Still, it might be worth a go if the other options above aren’t right for you.

What do you think?

If you’re a Mac user who sometimes uses Windows, which method suits you best and why? Post a comment below to let us know.

John EspirianJohn Espirian (@espirian) is the SfEP’s internet director and principal forum administrator.

As a freelance technical writer, John specialises in producing online help content that’s actually helpful.

18 thoughts on “Windows options for Mac users

  1. Janina

    Hello is this similar to dual booting? because i have an external hard drive that both runs on mac and windows. I’m not really a techie person but i love reading about computers. Thanks

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Boot Camp would be the dual-boot option. But a virtual machine such as that run by Parallels would mean you could run Windows and Mac OS at the same time, making file sharing much quicker.

      Reply
  2. Janice Gilbert

    VERY pleased to hear about the PerfectIt for Mac version coming out! Please do keep us informed – I did go to the expense of purchasing a Windows laptop – refurbished as I needed it only for that one programme – but found the screen very dim, probably as it wasn’t shop-new, and also didn’t anticipate the difficulty I would find on trying to use a more recent version of Office than the one I’m familiar with on my Mac. Fortunately I hadn’t paid for that, but had been thinking I might need to “downgrade” just for PerfectIt! So thanks for the heads up!

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Thanks, Janice. Yes, I’m hopeful that Intelligent Editing’s cloud-based version of PerfectIt will see the light of day by the end of 2016.

      Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Thanks, Randy. You’re quite right. I found out about VirtualBox from a colleague just a few days after publishing this post. It didn’t seem quite as user-friendly as Parallels but may well be a perfectly adequate alternative.

      Reply
  3. Liz Hurst

    Great post John! Answers my own queries.

    I have a MacBook Air which I adore and, in all honesty, I wouldn’t go back to a Windows machine if they paid me.

    Luckily, I have made use of a deal struck between my day job employer and Microsoft which allows me to have the full MS Office Suite for £10 (!). Naturally I have taken full advantage.

    I would, however, like to use PerfectIt, so I’m very glad it’s coming out for the Mac. Do let us know when it’s ready 🙂

    Reply
  4. Craig Wright

    Thanks for pointing this post out to me, John. It answered most of my questions, apart from how do you find the performance of Parallels? As you haven’t mentioned it, I assume all is hunky-dory with it?

    Also worth pointing out that Microsoft make it easier to get windows on to Macs without optical drives now – you can buy Windows as an iso and just download that. At least, that’s what they told me yesterday.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Thanks for commenting, Craig. Performance is fine so long as you have a beefy Mac. An iMac is best, I’ve found – never got brilliant results from my old MacBook Pro running Parallels. I didn’t know about the ISO option but it makes perfect sense.

      Reply
  5. Sue Midgley

    Hi
    I’ve just read through ‘Windows Options for Mac Users’ but it seems to have been written some time ago.
    I’m trying to decide what the best option for me would be and wonder if any of the information has changed or updated?

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Sue. Yes, it’s been a little while since I wrote the document, but the advice hasn’t really changed. I still find Parallels a good option (WMware does the same job too) but it’s not a cheap route. I know several editors have bought a cheap second-hand PC for low-level tasks that they can’t carry out on their Mac. If you have space on your desk, that could be an option.

      Reply
      1. Sue Midgley

        I think I’ll need to get a laptop as I don’t have much space.
        I’ve found this on Amazon
        HP Stream 14-ax000na 14-inch HD Laptop (Aqua Blue) – (Intel Celeron N3060, 4GB RAM, 32GB eMMC, 1TB OneDrive and Office 365, 1 Year Subscription Included, Intel HD Graphics, Windows 10)
        but I don’t know if it’s too basic for what I’ll need?
        If it isn’t suitable could you give me some guidelines about the sort of thing I should be looking for?
        Thanks, Sue

        Reply
        1. admin Post author

          If you’re going to use it primarily for editorial work, that ought to be fine. Would be better with a bit more RAM (8GB is usually the minimum I see).

          Reply
  6. Anna Markwell

    I’m not sure if I’m missing something, but would it not be possible to just use Word 2016 for Mac? I can’t bear the thought of having to use Windows again!

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Yes, that’s fine, Anna. The topic has come up of using Windows on a Mac because so many editors wanted to use PerfectIt, the Windows-only Word add-in. The good news is that a cloud version of the add-in is due to come out next year, which means Mac users won’t need to bother with Windows as part of their workflow (at least, not for this purpose).

      Reply
      1. Anna Markwell

        Marvellous! I’ve heard great things about PerfectIt, and it seems that many people are eagerly awaiting the cloud-based version.

        Reply
        1. admin Post author

          Yes, it’s a highly useful tool. We’ll be discussing the cloud version further on the members-only SfEP forums soon, so make sure to log in and keep an eye on the chat there.

          Reply

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