You've got a household full of PC's and you've stopped yourself from getting a Mac because you don't want to deal with incompatibility headaches. Eight years ago that would've been understandable, but today Mac OS and Windows can work together in harmony on the same home network, sharing files and printers, mounting one another's drives and using the same equipment, like wireless routers and USB drives. If you're considering a mixed Mac/PC home or office, here's a primer on how the two systems inter-operate (and the few instances when they don't.)
Both OS X and Windows can see each other's shared drives over the local network. To mount a Mac's shared drive on a PC, it's a simple matter of enabling Windows Sharing in System Preferences and browsing to the shared folder the way you would on any other PC. Here's a step by step rundown for accessing a Mac's files on your PC.
By default, OS X shares only your home folder. To share out another location on your Mac—like, say, an external drive that houses all your media files—use the free SharePoints System Preferences pane to configure advanced sharing.
To go the other way around and see your PC's files on the Mac, use Finder's built-in support for Samba, a network file-sharing protocol. Here are the details on mounting a shared Windows folder on your Mac.
File and Application Compatibility
Once you're whizzing files back and forth between your Mac and PC, you'll see that practically all the filetypes you need work on both systems. A Photoshop .PSD file created on a Mac will open in Photoshop for Windows without any kind of import or formatting. Word documents, spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations, PDF's, images, zip files, text, rich text, MP3's, AVI's—you can even play Windows Media Files on your Mac.
But while you're unlikely to run into filetype compatibility issues, Mac newbs should know that applications are not compatible across operating systems. That is, if you buy Microsoft Office for Windows, you've got to buy a whole new package/license for Office for Mac. Same goes for Photoshop and other utilities like text editors or FTP clients. Some Mac-only apps can export files that work on PC, but won't run on PC's—like iPhoto, for instance.
File Sync and System Files: Thumbs.db and .DS_Store
You can even easily sync files between Mac and PC using a variety of methods, like FTP, rsync or any file copying utility that recognises the networked drives you set up above. Once you do start copying whole folders, though, you'll start to reveal some of the inner workings of both Windows and OS X in the form of folder view system files. Mac OS X by default creates a file called
.DS_store in each of its folders, and in turn Windows has
Thumbs.db. On their native OS, these system files are hidden: you won't see them in the Finder or Explorer, unless you have "Show hidden files" enabled. But once you start moving them over to a foreign OS, you will see them. Here's more on how to turn off
Thumbs.db. Alternately, you can exclude them from your file sync job, or scrub them from your system manually after the fact.
Printer and Fax Sharing
A printer hooked up to one Mac or one PC on your home network can be printed to from any other system as well. Using Bonjour for Windows (free), your PC can print to your Mac's printer. Here are the details on sharing your Mac's printer with Windows using Bonjour.
To go in the other direction, simply share your Windows printer as usual and use the Mac's printer browser to find it.
Running Windows on your Mactel
If you want to use both Windows and Mac OS X but you don't want to have all that extra hardware lying around, you can have your cake and eat it too on a single, Intel-based Mac. Here are your options:
- Dual boot Windows on your Mac using Boot Camp—forces you to partition your hard drive into two sections and choose which OS to start when you turn on your computer, but runs Windows natively (read:fast)
- Run Windows inside OS X with not-free virtualisation software like Parallels or VMware—lets you move files back and forth between each OS's drives and open any file on either system using a Mac or Windows app. (You can even set a Mac or Windows app to open for a filetype by default from either system.)
- Virtualise your Boot Camp partition to get the best of both worlds—make your choice every time whether you want to start Windows natively or within OS X, based on the task at hand
A few things to keep in mind when you set up Windows on your Mac: If you choose Boot Camp, you'll have a choice to format your Windows partition as FAT (which has a 32GB size limit for Boot Camp) or NTFS. NTFS is more secure and has no size limit, but OS X cannot write to NTFS drives, only read them. That means that you cannot save files to your Windows partition while you're booted up into OS X, just like you can't write to your Mac drive in Windows. (If you do opt for FAT, you can write to your Boot Camp Windows partition in OS X.)
If you go the virtualisation route, when Windows is running inside OS X, you can easily copy files between your Mac and Windows drives. In fact, Parallels mounts your Windows hard drive and displays it in Finder like any writable external drive (pictured.)
Remote Server Access
Both Macs and PCs can act as an FTP or SSH server, which gives you the option to use a huge range of cross-platform FTP and SSH clients like WinSCP, FireFTP or FileZilla to transfer data between them over the internet or on your local network. Here's how to set up a Windows FTP server and a Windows SSH server. On the Mac, it's literally as simple as checking off either "FTP access" or "Remote login" in the System Preferences Sharing panel.
Most commercial remote login services like LogMeIn are Windows-only, but the cross-platform VNC lets you remote control your Mac or PC from either OS. Likewise, the free VPN software and network which lets you stream your iTunes library over the internet and access shared drives, Hamachi, is also available for Mac with HamachiX.
Instant Messenger, Email and Outlook/Entourage
The Mac's built-in iChat isn't available for Windows but it connects to the AIM network so it automatically loads your AIM buddy list and is completely interoperable with any AIM client on Windows. (However, iChat is limited to just AIM update: and Jabber and Bonjour by default, tx sgodun, so new Mac users, you're better off installing the free Adium for tabbed, multi-protocol chat that works with Yahoo, MSN and ICQ out of the box.)
There's no Microsoft Outlook for Mac, but Entourage (included in Office for Mac) can talk to your Microsoft Exchange server. Mac's Mail.app is also not available for PC but supports your standard email fetching and sending protocols, like POP/IMAP and SMTP, so it can download and send mail from Gmail or your ISP just the way Outlook Express can on your PC. Update: Mail.app can also work with Exchange server. Thanks, Byslexic!
iTunes, your iPod, and Other Incompatibilities
The one major area of Mac/PC incompatibility is the iPod and iTunes. While iTunes comes in both Windows and Mac flavors, iTunes' internal library files themselves are different for Mac and Windows, so you can't copy your entire library between operating systems and preserve play counts and ratings. Update: this is due to the differences in how Mac OS and Windows address file paths. If you must move your library from Mac to PC, here's how you can massage iTunes' internal XML file to do just that.
You can, of course, share a library on a Mac or PC and listen to it in iTunes on any other machine regardless of OS.
Likewise, you've got to choose between formatting your iPod for Mac or Windows. An iPod formatted for one will not work with the other. Update: Two readers report that a Windows-formatted iPod WILL work on a Mac, but not the other way around.
Along those same lines, an external hard drive formatted "Mac OS Extended" can't be plugged into Windows and just work. However, USB drives formatted "MS-DOS" (for Windows, that is) can be recognized, read and written to by both Windows and Mac OS. So a thumb drive sneaker net will work between Mac and PC.
Making the Switch
If you're a new Mac user or you're considering becoming one now that you know Mac OS and Windows can live together in harmony, be sure to check out Adam's comprehensive guide to switching to a Mac.
How do you negotiate Windows and Mac OS in your computing life? Let us know in the comments.