Love OS X but have that one stubborn app you can only run on Windows? With the right tools and setup, you can run individual Windows apps seamlessly on your Mac desktop, as though they were always meant to be there.
Over the years, we’ve covered virtualisation, virtual machines — that is, running full-blown operating systems inside your main OS — quite a bit. What we’re going to detail here, however, is not so much the setting up of one operating system (Windows) inside another (Mac OS X), but a setup that makes running one or a handful of must-have Windows applications on a Mac simple and seamless. It makes things much easier for non-expert computer users who just need access to an app that there isn’t a Mac version for, and it makes the user experience feel less disjointed and cobbled together. When you’re done here, you should be able to run that must-have Windows app on your Mac as though it’s just another Mac application.
We’ll highlight two methods for achieving this kind of setup. One is with Parallels, which is easy to set up, offers great OS X integration, and isn’t entirely cheap. The other is with VirtualBox, an app that’s free on any platform, but requires a good bit more fiddling and doesn’t offer all the just-works options of Parallels. (Skip straight to the Parallels or VirtualBox sections.)
At about $US80 for a license, Parallels (Desktop 5 for Mac, in this case) is not exactly free, we know. Parallels is, however, a really smart, attractive and powerful virtualisation tool built for one purpose: making Windows applications accessible on a Mac. If you have a Windows disc and licence handy — especially Windows 7 — it makes Microsoft’s operating system feel like it was made to fit inside a Mac.
The shortlist pitch for why you should consider Parallels for your Mac:
- Windows app icons on your Dock: Not everybody uses the Dock, but those who do will find it very helpful to have both individual application icons on it, rather than having to hunt them out in a virtual Windows desktop.
- Virtual Windows folder: If you need access to a few Windows apps and components on a regular basis, Parallels keeps a Windows-badged folder stocked with everything stashed inside your virtual Windows installation.
- File type associations: If you need to open Microsoft Word .doc files inside an actual Word app inside Windows, and not with Mac’s own TextEdit app, Parallels can make that happen. If the Mac has no idea what the file is, but a Windows app might, Parallels is on top of that too.
- Look and feel: It’s not an essential tool to getting work done, but having your desktop feel integrated, and your applications feel like they belong on your computer, can matter more than you’d think. Parallels does a pretty great job of forming the windows, buttons and frame of Windows applications so that they feel right on a Mac.
I’m going to run through the installation of WordPerfect, an application some engineers, lawyers and folks working in offices with IT policies that refuse to die must sometimes rely on. I’m setting it up on a MacBook so that the user — who may, in fact, be married to me — has the easiest possible access to it. When a WordPerfect file arrives via email, double-clicking it opens up WordPerfect. WordPerfect is added to the Dock, it looks (mostly) like a Mac app when it runs, and the virtual machine that supports it in the background disappears when it’s closed down. Here’s how to get there.
Install Parallels and Your Windows Application
Installing Parallels itself is fairly easy — grab the download from Parallels’ site, double-click the resulting file, and enter your Mac administrator password to proceed. When it’s finished installing, if it doesn’t happen automatically, go ahead and run Parallels Desktop yourself for the first time — head to the Spotlight menu in the upper-right corner, type in Parallels, and hit the result.
If you’re looking to install from an executable package you can download, the easy solution is to open Internet Explorer from the Windows frame (or the Windows-badged folder that just showed up on your Dock), head to the software’s website, then download and run the installer right from the web. If that doesn’t fly, you can always just drop the .exe file or installation folder onto a USB drive from your Mac OS, then un-plug it and plug it back in. By default, Parallels should automatically pick up the device and offer it to Windows. If it doesn’t, right-click on the glowing Windows-like icon on your dock, hover over the Devices menu, and then select the drive you’ve dropped it on.
Got your application installed? Let’s make it so it runs like any other Mac application.
Fine-Tuning Your Parallels Setup
Once your virtual Windows is launched, Parallels adds a Start-Menu-style Windows icon to your dock. Right-click on it. Head up to the View menu that pops out of the Start button and select “Coherence” in the top-most section, if it’s not already selected. If you don’t see it, your Windows machine has already paused or suspended, but you can start it back up by hitting “Resume” from the Actions menu. This sets Parallels to hide away the bulk of Windows — the desktop, the taskbars, nearly everything — so that the only evidence of Windows you see is the window for the application you’re using, along with one or two Dock icons. From the same right-click menu, under the “View” section, choose “Use MacLook”. This applies a theme to Windows that makes it a good bit less incongruous when its applications are running on your Mac screen.
File Associations, Shared Folders, Auto-Suspending
We’re now going to configure our Windows virtual machine for a little smoother integration. Open up Parallels Desktop from Spotlight, hit the Virtual Machines menu, and select “Configure”. If you’re using a Dock, you can also right-click on the glowing Windows orb and select “Configure”.
Hit the Shared Applications category on the left, select your crucial Windows application, then click the SmartSelect button in the resulting panel.
Now, in the Shared Folders category, you can choose to keep your Mac home folder — containing Documents, Music, Pictures, and all your stuff, really — shared with Windows, which makes it fairly easy to trade files back and forth to an application like WordPerfect. You can go one further, though, by “sharing” your Desktop or Documents folder with Windows. Check off the options if they’re there, or hit the + button and set up the synchronisation between your Mac and Windows desktops and documents. Now, when you’ve got an app like WordPerfect running, you don’t have to dig into your Mac home folder to find a place to save. Save a file to what Windows considers its own Desktop, and it’ll show up on your Mac Desktop.
Finally, in the Startup/Shutdown category, I recommend the setup pictured above. Your virtualised Windows suspends itself when nothing is happening with any Windows application, which saves you memory and battery power, but makes it fairly quick to pull applications back up when you need them. Setting the startup view to Coherence also eliminates having to watch a glitchy Windows desktop appear and disappear as it boots up. On the Mac’s shutdown, I like to quit out of Parallels, so it’s a clean slate when starting up again, but you can set Parallels to suspend its machine instead when you power things down.
That’s how I set up WordPerfect to run on a MacBook in such a way as to be nearly invisible as a Windows application. There are many, many more settings you can explore, including those that set up the keyboard shortcut equivalents between Windows and Mac applications, but those are best discovered and configured to one’s own tastes.
Not quite sold on the utility of Parallels over a DIY solution? Here’s how you can achieve nearly the same end result, though with, admittedly, less convenience and cohesion.
VirtualBox requires a bit more hands-on operation to get Windows 7 installed. Luckily, we’ve run down those operations before. Consult our beginners guide to creating virtual machines in VirtualBox for help getting Windows installed. If you’d been considering a Boot Camp installation, or already have Windows installed in a Boot Camp partition, you can still benefit from VirtualBox. Blogger and entrepreneur Anil Dash has written up a guide to running Windows 7 under Mac OS X 10.6 for free, which makes your Boot Camp installation VirtualBox-friendly and then links the two up for the best of both worlds.
You’ll notice that Windows basically disappears — except for your toolbar/taskbar, which hovers over your Dock, or at the bottom of your screen, if you don’t use a Dock. That’s, well, ugly. Right-click on the Windows taskbar, select Properties, and look for the option to auto-hide the taskbar.
Now it’s out of the way, but what about when you need to get to something? VirtualBox lets you assign a key, or key combination, on your Mac to represent the Start menu. It’s Ctrl+Esc by default, but you can change it in your VirtualBox preferences. Given the power of the Start Search feature in Windows Vista and 7, it’s easy to launch applications by typing out the first few letters — kind of like Spotlight. When applications launch, they get a Mac-like window frame, and closing them means Windows basically disappears.
Be sure to head into the settings of your Virtual Machine for Windows and set up the Shared Folders. It’s not that much harder than Parallels, really, but the way they show up — as network drives — is a bit different. You can connect your Windows and Mac desktops and document folders for easy file saving and retrieval.
To finish up making your VirtualBox a bit more convenient than just running a Virtual Machine, learn the keyboard shortcuts for pausing the machine when not in use (Left Command + P), and be sure to choose the “Save Machine State” option when shutting down VirtualBox. That way, when you fire up Windows 7 again, it will resume in its Seamless state, waiting for your to launch the Start menu and get at what you need.
Those are two options for running Windows applications inside a Mac with minimum disruption. Got a setup that’s better than ours? We’re not ashamed to admit our newcomer status. Tell us about it in the comments, and we’ll link you up and include your tips in an updated post.