Q: Can I run Windows software on a Mac?

– submitted by many readers
A: The answer is always yes. What differs is the way you can do this, depending on what kind of Macintosh you have and how you want to run Windows. The first order of business is to identify what kind of processor your Macintosh has.

The older Macintosh processor technology still in common use today is the PowerPC. You can often identify Macs that use the PowerPC processor by name. Look for “Power Mac”, “PowerBook”, G3, G4, or G5. The newer processor technology Macs use today is the Intel processor. Yes, this is the same processor that most Windows computers use, which as I will explain later, is very beneficial to those who want to run Windows software on a Mac. Intel-based Macs do not include the “Power” moniker, so look for names such as “MacBook”, “MacBook Pro”, or “Mac Pro”. Some Macs, such as the iMac or Mac Mini do not reveal what kind of processor they use by name. To identify the processor in these Macs, choose “About this Mac” from the Apple Menu in the upper left corner. The informational window that follows will identify the processor.

If you have an older PowerPC-based Mac, your choices for running Windows software are somewhat limited. Your only real choice is emulation software, such as Virtual PC (http://www.microsoft.com/mac/products/virtualpc/virtualpc.aspx?pid=virtualpc). Emulation software basically runs a virtual Windows computer inside the Mac OS. Almost all Windows software will run in emulation, with a few exceptions, such as 3D games. While emulation software often gets a bad rap for being slow, it can be extremely useful for Windows software that is not particularly processor intensive.

If you have an Intel-based Mac, you have two main choices. The first option is the ability to boot your Mac directly into Windows. This is done with a technology from Apple called Boot Camp (http://www.apple.com/macosx/bootcamp/). With Boot Camp, your Mac becomes a full-fledged Windows machine, bypassing the Mac OS altogether. Since Windows is running “natively” on an Intel processor, just like in a regular Windows computer, it runs at full-speed, again just like a regular Windows computer. Boot Camp is useful for users who need to spend a significant amount of time in Windows, such as a user who uses Windows at work, but prefers the Mac OS at home or otherwise. Boot Camp is also useful for people who want to run Windows games on a Mac, since there is no performance penalty for running Windows in this way. The main drawback to Boot Camp is that because the Mac must be rebooted to switch between the Mac OS and Windows, it’s not particularly convenient for users who want to use both operating systems at the same time.

The second option for Intel-based Macs is ideal for users who want to use Windows software without rebooting the Mac. “Virtual machine” software, such as Parallels (http://www.parallels.com/en/products/desktop/) or VMWare Fusion (http://www.vmware.com/products/fusion/), run a virtual Windows computer inside the Mac OS. This is a similar idea to the emulation software for PowerPC processors. However, with these “virtual machine” products, only a small performance penalty is incurred, since Windows is running “natively” on the same Intel processors it would be on a regular Windows computer. Virtual machine products are useful for users who occasionally need to run Windows software on their Mac, or who want to use both Mac OS software and Windows software at the same time. The main drawback to virtual machine products is that more RAM is required since the Mac will be running two operating systems simultaneously. Also, compared to Boot Camp, the small performance penalty for running Windows in a virtual machine may be a minor drawback to some users.

The bottom line is that you shouldn’t feel that a Macintosh is not compatible with the Windows world. In fact, if you look at the Mac’s ability to run Mac, Windows, and UNIX software, it can actually run MORE software than any regular Windows computer. For users buying a new Mac, given the ability to run Windows, it is actually like getting two computers in one.

For all things Macintosh, Marcel is your expert.