Windows 7 on a Mac: my Boot Camp survival guide

Windows 7 on a Mac: my Boot Camp survival guide

Summary: Apple's Boot Camp software is essential to running Windows on a Mac. But after many installations and much research, I've concluded that Boot Camp is second only to iTunes in its ability to inflict pain on Windows users. Here are five gotchas to avoid.


I have a Mac and a PC side by side on my desktop. In a multi-platform world, being able to switch back and forth between the two platforms is a crucial part of what I do.

For some comparisons, I find it useful to run Windows directly, without the interference of a virtualization layer. For that, the only alternative is to run Apple’s Boot Camp software.

After multiple Windows installations on Apple hardware and much research (including a thorough reading of the Boot Camp Installation and Setup Guide [PDF] and hours on Apple’s Boot Camp Installation and Storage forum), I’ve concluded that Boot Camp is second only to iTunes in its ability to inflict pain on Windows users. It has some unexpected limitations, and setup is more complex than it needs to be. (Why, it’s almost as if Apple is trying to make this process difficult.)

I have no illusions that Apple will pay any attention to my complaints and improve Boot Camp. But I decided to share my experiences here anyway, in the expectation that I can save you a few hours of banging your head against the wall if you need to use Boot Camp.

In this post, I assume you’re trying to install Windows 7 on an Intel-based Mac and that you’re following the official instructions. Here are the gotchas you need to know about.

You must install from a Windows 7 DVD.

My 2009-vintage Mac Mini has a defective DVD drive. It will play most audio CDs, but it spits out just about any data disc I try to feed it. If I try to burn an ISO image to a blank DVD, I get an error message like this one.

If this were a plain old PC, I would have lots of options. I could run setup from a USB flash drive, or use an external DVD drive, or even copy the setup files to a local hard drive and start the installer from that drive.

None of those options are available on a Mac. You must have an internal optical drive (the only exception is the MacBook Air). The makers of the superb rEFIt toolkit offer this confirmation:

Booting Windows or Linux from an external disk is not well-supported by Apple’s firmware. It may work for you, but if it does not work, there is nothing rEFIt can do about it.

Be prepared for a silly formatting error.

The Boot Camp Assistant creates a new partition and labels it as BOOTCAMP. But it doesn’t format the partition using NTFS, which is required for a Windows 7 installation. During the early stages of Windows Setup, when you choose the partition on which to install the OS, you have to click Drive Options (Advanced) and format the partition as NTFS. This awkward extra step is documented on page 8 of the setup guide, but you might miss it if you decided not to RTFM.

Update: In the TalkBack section, Joe Raby adds some context for this incompatibility:

The reason why you have to format the partition yourself is because Apple didn't license NTFS from Microsoft (that's why you can't write to NTFS in OS X) , and Apple's OS requires that every volume has a file system, which is why they format it FAT32.

You’ll need a USB keyboard and mouse to get started.

My Mac came with a Bluetooth keyboard. It works fine out of the box with the Mac, but it goes AWOL during the Windows setup process. The solution? Have a USB keyboard and mouse handy and use them to get through the initial installation. Once you get the Boot Camp drivers installed, you’ll be able to set up your Bluetooth hardware and you can put the USB hardware back on the shelf.

Topics: Operating Systems, Apple, Hardware, Microsoft, Software, Windows

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  • Um, there's this thing called the cloud ...

    you have a Mac and a PC,
    trust me on this, they can both access it
    and any file you choose to put there.
    Forgive us if we don't see the "problem".
    Clockwork Computer
    • Did you actually read the post?

      @Clockwork Computer

      I recommend the use of two CLOUD-BASED SERVICES to sync files: Windows Live Mesh or Dropbox.

      Ed Bott
      • I have iTunes on my Windows 7 and feel no pain from it

        @Ed Bott: ... what I am doing wrong? It is definitely not the speediest application out there, but, besides that, no pain.<br><br>As to speed, .NET framework is a true hell for applications performance.<br><br>Just look at Catalyst Control Centre by AMD (ATI), done with .NET framework. Despite this being just an utility for configuring a videocard, It takes long seconds to load, and then it crawls.<br><br><b>What amazes me even more is that ATI (and AMD, as successor), is long time prime partner with Microsoft and it is already 10th version.</b> And .NET platform that I have is the latest version available, it has all ten years of refinement in it.<br><br>So we have both CCC application from ATI (AMD) and .NET framework that can not have any more tuning and optimization than they have, and yet even this best possible collaboration Between Microsoft and ATI/AMD is unbelievably slow in everything it does much slower than similar ATIs utility from before 2002, when no .NET framework was and I had zillion ways slower hardware.
      • I have no idea what you're doing wrong with CCC...


        On my main Windows desktop, CCC loads in about 1.5 seconds and it responds with no lag or delay.

        I'm also not sure what it has to do with this post.
        Ed Bott
      • RE: Windows 7 on a Mac: my Boot Camp survival guide

        @Edward Bott: if it is "just" 1.5 seconds for you, then you are lucky. It takes much longer for me (and for many more who hate the slowdog CCC), and then every move takes like a second (for example, clicking to "performance", "AMD overdrive", et cetera).

        And this theme is related since you mentioned iTunes being "pain". And I would say that comparably to .NET applications, iTunes is much faster.
      • RE: Windows 7 on a Mac: my Boot Camp survival guide

        @Ed Bott
        To all complaining about ATI Catalyst Control Center...
        When was the last time you saw any decent piece of software written by OEM? I have never seen it. It is always crap. If you get decent drivers be happy. OEMs just do not care about utilities they provide. Be it printer utility, digital camera utility, video card or sound card utility.. anything is unrefined and slow. Just tried to change a bit more "advanced" audio settings on my machine. Guess what, I have a karaoke option and all kinds of sound effects but no way to select the output or use an equalizer.
      • RE: Windows 7 on a Mac: my Boot Camp survival guide


        iTunes is a complete cow-turd of an application. It offers you no control over your collection and just plonks everything whereever it sees fit. It also doesn't work on x64 without hacking the msi package. A couple of years ago, my stock answer to virtually all reported instability in Windows XP was "Do you have iTunes installed?"

        Incidentally, iTunes is probably second only to Quicktime in terms of rubbishy-ness. Yes, on no less than an Intel integrated GFX I need to disable DirectX acceleration and switch to GDI? Even better! I need to apply this setting PER USER as there is no global override!! Class software... just class. Really shows everyone else how things are done!
      • RE: Windows 7 on a Mac: my Boot Camp survival guide


        You've obviously got something loaded wrong. CCC loads up on my system in a second flat. And it's not a fast system. Besides, what do you need with CCC anyway? ATI cards just work, without tweaking and twiddling like nVidia cards REQUIRE.
      • RE: Windows 7 on a Mac: my Boot Camp survival guide

        @Ed Bott Truly nice as well as precious stuff to watch for one and all. I as well propose you the
  • RE: Windows 7 on a Mac: my Boot Camp survival guide

    I ran Windows virtually with Virtual PC on the G5. Now that was slow. So, Parallels and VMWare's Fusion were massive improvements. I like Parallels better for Windows and VMWF for the Linux/*BSD oses.

    I just need to run a Windows application or two. I have no doubt that when Mr. Bott needs to break out of the virtualization box, it's because he is the power user I'm not. Mileage does vary.
    • The biggest reason...


      The biggest reason is to make use of all system resources, especially memory. In a virtual machine, the host has a lot of overhead. On a 2GB system, virtualization is painful. It's acceptable on a 4GB system but not optimal. And of course you're using virtualized storage and display drivers in a VM, which means benchmarks are skewed.
      Ed Bott
      • Ed, you're talking out of of your

        @Ed Bott <br><br>er, hat here. VMWare Fusion DOES NOT add a lot a over head to the the VM machine running in its virtual environment. Modern hypervisors DO NOT take that much over head in memory, CPU cycles or graphics capabilities.<br><br>This is your opinion and likely guided by your own and paid for agenda. I have run Win 7 Pro x64 on my MBP with 8 GB RAM for over 6 months now.<br><br>My system runs much better than trying to load Win & on an older piece of hardware. The only thing that may cause a slight reduction in performance is the routine that indexes the the Mac file system to allow Spotlight to give expedient search results. The other factor that may impair Win 7 VM performance is your Norton Antivirus resource hog. Thankfully I don't use that garbage.<br><br>If you don't don't like the the BootCamp approach then pay some of the cash you get by spewing FUD about OS X malware and buy a separate Win 7 box.<br><br>But the host, when properly configured, DOES NOT use a lot of system resources. Only a someone with an obvious agenda would ever postulate such a ridiculous claim with no evidence to back it up.<br><br>Thanks for the "fair and balanced" assessment ED.
      • RE: Windows 7 on a Mac: my Boot Camp survival guide


        And try and run VMWare Fusion with Linux or Windows guest on a 2006 iMac with 2GB RAM. It is painful. That said, Snow Leopard on a 2006 iMac is also slow, compared to Tiger...

        Loading applications etc. in Windows under VMWare on the iMac takes an age and thrashes the disk no end, even if I give it 1GB memory and don't have anything other than Firefox running on the OS X side.

        Booting to Vista in BootCamp on the same machine is a totally different kettle of fish.

        Don't forget, your MBP has a much faster processor and 4 times the RAM. That last part makes a huge difference.

        Running Ubuntu in a virtual machine on my Windows laptop, with 8 core processor (hyperthreading) and 8GB RAM is fine, running it on a dual core iMac with 2GB RAM makes you want to fling the 24" monstrosity out of the window!
      • The overhead is from the host OS


        I did not say the hypervisor adds overhead. But the host OS MUST be running for the hypervisor to be available. So on 1 4GB machine, you have to subtract the resources used by OS X and the virtualization software. At best, you get around 2GB of RAM and a virtualized display driver, whereas if you boot directly you get 4GB of RAM and direct access to the video hardware for acceleration, etc.

        See the difference?
        Ed Bott
      • RE: Windows 7 on a Mac: my Boot Camp survival guide

        @Ed Bott

        Agree completely with the RAM requirements and virtualization performance limitations, but I have been successfully running Sun Miicrosystem's (now Oracle) Virtual Box on my Mac for years.

        I made the tradeoff that rebooting into Bootcamp (and the associated installation obstacles you identify) are more painful than the small performance hit of virtualization.

        YMMV, but I'm OK with this tradeoff.
      • RE: Windows 7 on a Mac: my Boot Camp survival guide

        @wright_is, Use Parallels instead of VMWare. VMWare is great for servers, (lousy for workstations on the Mac at least.)

        I use parallels every day and never have issues. Boot Camp was just too kludgy for me.
    • RE: Windows 7 on a Mac: my Boot Camp survival guide


      Eek! I shutter to think of running Windows in a VM at all. Windows just isn't meant to be run in that kind of environment.
      The one and only, Cylon Centurion
      • Not true,....

        @Cylon Centurion .... we have 50+ vitural machines here with windows server and 7 in them. These work great and we couldnt live without them in their VM worlds. So much better than the physical alternatives.
      • RE: Windows 7 on a Mac: my Boot Camp survival guide

        @Cylon Centurion I have a Macbook Pro 2011 8 Gig of RAM and the i7 and run it using VMWare Fusion. Works great.
      • RE: Windows 7 on a Mac: my Boot Camp survival guide

        @Cylon Centurion I've got an $80 AMD Athlon II X3 unlocked to four cores and slightly overclocked to 3.3GHz. I've got 2GB of DDR3. I've switched to running openSUSE as my main OS and I can tell you Windows XP runs just fine in a 512MB Virtualbox VM. Surprisingly, when I wanted to see what Windows 7 looked like, it could also boot fine into a 512MB VM. I'll go even further - because it's doesn't work with linux's WINE Windows compatibility libraries, I've been playing The Sims 1 full-screen in a 512MB WinXP VBox VM lately!! Granted, much of the Sims 1 is just pseudo-3D, but still... I was quite surprised. If I run the XP VM full screen, you'd never know I was even in a VM at all in regards to performance.

        Download a free copy of Virtualbox yourself and give it a try. The only hitch is if you have certain older Intel processors that don't support the virtualization extensions that allow VMs to run at nearly-native speed. I know all AMD processors have had them for ages, and I'm fairly certain all of the Intel i-whatevers do to.