Windows 7 On The MacBook Air: Don't Go There

Windows 7 On The MacBook Air: Don't Go There

Summary: Why would you want to install Windows 7 on a MacBook? It makes Steve Jobs sad.

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But if you do, you'll find me enjoying it to the fullest.

Updated on July 28, 2011. I originally wrote this last year after purchasing the then-new MacBook Air 11. Recently Apple updated their MacBook Air line to include the new Sandy Bridge CPUs, the i5 and the i7, as well as boosting the available RAM and storage capacity. The method for installing Windows 7 on the new MacBook Air models should work just as well as it did for the old models. I should point out that this article was originally published on November 17, 2010, and the Windows 7 installation on my MacBook Air 11" is still as stable and fast as it was when I first installed it.

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Last month--that is, last month being October, 2010--Apple introduced an update to its MacBook Air line. Not just a re-vamped 13-inch model, but an 11-inch model as well. Reviews of both units were mixed; some folks complained about the older CPU and the price, saying that the more powerful MacBook Pro line cost less overall.

Back in 2008, Steve Jobs is quoted as saying “We don’t know how to make a $500 computer that’s not a piece of junk.” I can't entirely agree with that statement; there are perfectly fine netbook computers for that price or less that are solidly built and perform well within the scope of their processor, memory and video limitations. However, this is Apple we're talking about, and Apple isn't known for selling cheap, mediocre hardware.

Last Saturday, I bit the bullet and purchased the high-end MacBook Air 11, with a 1.6GHz Core2Duo CPU, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB NAND flash storage. It really is a stunning piece of hardware, and compared to netbooks and 11-inch ultraportable notebooks, it's probably the highest quality and fastest ultraportable notebook in the field. Instead of re-hashing the reviews that are already available, have a look at this one which pretty closely mirrors my opinion.

I have previously mentioned that I prefer Windows on the desktop--currently Windows 7--and had intended to run Windows 7 on my new Air unit. Most people would simply opt for the Boot Camp option, which allows people to run both OSX and Windows, although not at the same time. I wanted to run only Windows 7; while OSX is a perfectly fine operating system built on the Mach kernel and FreeBSD, it's not my preferred operating system. Thus, my project was to get Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit installed onto the MacBook Air.

The Boot Camp procedure is fairly simple. There's a Boot Camp Assistant in the Applications folder under OSX that prepares a partition for installing Windows. I had done some digging on Google and found that it was a fairly simple procedure to install the Windows OS from a USB stick with the use of rEFIt, an EFI boot menu toolkit. For those of you not familiar with EFI, it is a software interface that replaces BIOS, a standard core hardware management system found on most PC computers. Windows Vista and 7 are both EFI-capable, so this shouldn't be a problem.

Incorrect. It's a huge problem when using a USB stick-based install with the new MacBook Air series. The recommended method for handling this kind of install is to simply use the DVD-based install disk for Windows. Unfortunately, the MacBook Air doesn't have a SuperDrive like the MacBook and MacBook Pro lines. Still, I gamely tried to get it working.

Most recommended instructions online follow this method to install Windows 7. I tried this method at least a dozen times over the weekend, with minor variations, reformats of the USB stick, and attempts to just wipe the entire drive and install just Windows 7 to fill the entire drive. I was not successful. Not once did the Windows 7 installer recognize the NAND storage drive as a viable location for installation.

I had gotten thoroughly frustrated after two days of testing and experimenting, as well as seriously considering just using OSX instead of Windows, but doing so would have been admitting defeat. Finally I decided to just bite the bullet, plug in an external USB-connected DVD drive, and install from disk. One caveat: If you're burning a Windows install ISO, burn it under Windows. For some reason, burning it under OSX with the default burning software results in a non-bootable DVD.

When using a DVD install, you don't need to reboot into rEFIt to get to the Windows install, you can just use the Boot Camp Assistant. When I did, it ran its process and rebooted into the install DVD. And this time it recognized the install drive just fine. At this point, I realized that the EFI-detecting capabilities of the Windows install get broken when you transfer it to a USB stick.

With my newfound knowledge, I rebooted the system to the USB-based system rescue drive that Apple provides and wiped out the drive partitions, creating one new one with a MBR boot sector instead of the Apple GUID one, and formatted it as MSDOS FAT. I then pulled the USB stick, plugged in the external DVD drive and booted the system while holding down the Option key. The Windows install started, it recognized the hard drive, and within a matter of minutes Windows 7 was installed on the MacBook Air with no other operating systems. I installed the Boot Camp additions and everything was good to go.

OK, some of you are saying, "Big deal, why didn't you just do that in the first place?" Well, normally I would have, but I like to tinker, and I liked the idea of doing everything from USB stick. Unfortunately, until Microsoft wakes up to that idea like Apple did, it will be some time before that is viable in this setup. The Windows USB-based install works fine on computers with a standard BIOS.

I know I'll catch some grief for buying a MacBook and then not using OSX. The thing is, I like Windows, but I also like Apple's laptop hardware. It's expensive, true, but it's also rock solid and they have great warranty coverage. The MacBook Air 11 met my needs perfectly: It's slightly larger than a netbook, it's very light, it can run everything I need including some light gaming and the keyboard is comfortable to use. I don't really need more storage since most of my storage is handled by a big Ubuntu server at home.

The most amusing part of all of this is the reaction I get from my co-workers. First comes envy, then "Why would you do that to a MacBook?". Followed by more envy. It's a sweet piece of hardware.

UPDATE

I've received several emails with follow-up questions on this article, so I'd like to share a couple with the readers and answer them here.

"Hello, Scott, thanks for writing such a helpful review for us Windows users.

While I appreciate your analysis of the installation procedure, I have a few questions about your experience of using Windows 7 on the Air:

1. I like the instant-on feature of the Air. Does Windows 7 still provide the same instant-on performance?

2. Is battery life any worse when using Windows 7?

3. Is the Air powerful enough to smoothly operate the MS Office suite with Windows 7? (esp. the snapping the windows into place -- do the windows snap smoothly?)

If you could share any significant analysis of running Windows 7 on your Macbook Air, I would greatly appreciate it before I proceed with the Boot Camp procedure. Thank you!"

1. Instant-on performance is just as good with Windows 7 as it is with OSX. Apple provided very good driver support for Windows through the Boot Camp Support package.

2. Battery life is excellent. I do a lot of battery-draining tasks, such as wifi file transfers, full-screen video, and playing games. Battery life is on par with Apple's stated capabilities.

3. I'm using Office 2010 on my MacBook Air. It runs smoothly and the windows snap into place quickly.

Windows 7 performs much better than I expected on the MacBook Air. I was simply hoping for equivalent performance to the ThinkPad X100e, and it handily beat it in all performance aspects. Windows Experience Index broke down as follows:

Processor: 4.6 Memory (RAM): 4.9 Graphics: 4.9 Gaming graphics: 6.0 Primary hard disk: 6.9

Overall: 4.6 (due to the processor).

"With great interest I read your article. I am considering the purchase of a macbook air for the reasons of work while travel (I liked to travel light and I like my gadgets).

But now I come to the point where I need to use various windwos programs one of them is a circuit layout program. Can these programs be installed on the macbook air when it is running windows or should I be aware of pitfalls etc?"

Your Windows programs will install just fine; it's an Intel-based computer after all, and once Windows is installed the applications really don't care about the hardware.

Finally, I'd like to comment on the picture below. I have an MSDN account with legitimate installs of pretty much every software package Microsoft makes. As for the logon screen, I changed it using the Tweaks.com Logon Changer. I simply copied over the C:\Windows\Web\Wallpaper\Think directory from my ThinkPad X100e to the new computer and used the Tweaks.com app to change the image.

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

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173 comments
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  • RE: Windows 7 On The MacBook Air: Don't Go There

    Got a Mac Air 13# today, installed VMWare Fusion, copied my Win7 64-bit Ultimate over and it works brilliantly.
    gavinreckon
    • RE: Windows 7 On The MacBook Air: Don't Go There

      @gavinreckon That works, too. However, I only needed the one OS; the rest I do on servers through ssh, remote desktop, and drive mappings.
      Scott Raymond
      • RE: Windows 7 On The MacBook Air: Don't Go There

        @Scott Raymond I do a lot of battery-draining tasks, such as wifi file transfers, full-screen video, and playing games. Battery life is on par with Apple???s stated capabilities. [url=http://roofingjacksonvillefla.com]Roofing Jacksonville[/url] l [url=http://roofingjacksonvillefla.com/jacksonville-roof-contractors-service-area/]Jacksonville Roofing[/url]
        empipo
      • RE: Windows 7 On The MacBook Air: Don't Go There

        @Scott Raymond Right one
        lubnapipo
    • Don't you always......

      @gavinreckon

      suffer a performance penalty? You have to share the available resources with OSX do you not?
      Economister
      • RE: Windows 7 On The MacBook Air: Don't Go There

        @Economister No... that was the whole point of the blog post. He wanted to blow away EVERYTHING Mac - and did. So this is a system running Windows 7, with no ability to run Mac OS X...

        Yes, I think that's weird too... Still it's his laptop.

        Though I really don't like the "ThinkPad" login screen - looks like you've "stolen" that copy of Windows (even though this isn't the case).
        Jeremy-UK
      • RE: Windows 7 On The MacBook Air: Don't Go There

        @Economister Yes you do but I have a 8Gig MB Pro with i7 and Window7 (VMWare Fusion 3) runs quite well along side. Not as good as being the only OS , but good enough to have both worlds at my finger tips.
        ItsTheBottomLine
      • RE: Windows 7 On The MacBook Air: Don't Go There

        @Economister I like the instant-on feature of the Air. Does Windows 7 still provide the same instant-on performance? [url=http://roofingtampafla.com]Tampa Roofers[/url] l [url=http://roofingtampafla.com/tampa-roof-contractors-service-area/]Roofing Tampa[/url]
        empipo
    • RE: Windows 7 On The MacBook Air: Don't Go There

      @gavinreckon VMware on Macbook air: don't go there. Yes you have to share ram and processor. I suppose ssd is good for vmware when things get swapped to disk.
      m3kw9
    • RE: Windows 7 On The MacBook Air: Don't Go There

      @gavinreckon

      As I've said before the Macbook Air advert looks brilliant, until you get to the toy OS - seriously how old are Apple designers? 14? Putting Windows 7 on the thing actually makes it look better.

      However, correct me if I'm wrong, but this looks like out of date hardware in a modern chassis at an exorbitant price.
      tonymcs@...
      • RE: Windows 7 On The MacBook Air: Don't Go There

        @tonymcs@... when the RDF is on even the most obvious things do not penetrate it. That is by design. No need to be smart a$$ when we are talking money. Just make sure you have an investement in Apple and you will enjoy good profits for years to come together with Jobs.
        pupkin_z
      • Message has been deleted.

        itguy10
      • In what way is OS X a toy compared to Windows? [nt]

        [nt]
        olePigeon
      • RE: Windows 7 On The MacBook Air: Don't Go There

        @itguy10
        POS?
        LMAO!!!!
        Use them both and far prefer Win7 as it provides me a lot more control.
        If you believe Vista = Win7 I can use that to context your statements. You have no clue or are married to Apple.
        chuckle :D
        rhonin
      • RE: Windows 7 On The MacBook Air: Don't Go There

        @itguy10
        Since we all know the "it.." doesn't stand for Info Tech. However, explain why Lion put in so many features that were in Win7...just saying. And yes I have a MB Pro with Lion, and it is MUCH nice now that it has these features.
        ItsTheBottomLine
      • RE: Windows 7 On The MacBook Air: Don't Go There

        @ItsTheBottomLine
        In this case, "IT" actually stands for Ignorant Troll.

        This sounds like fun though. I wouldn't mind playing around with OSX along with dual booting windows. We'll see how the tax return looks next year.
        Those who hunt Trolls
    • RE: Windows 7 On The MacBook Air: Don't Go There

      @gavinreckon Considered that too, whats your Win7 rating this way ?
      m_a_simons@...
    • RE: Windows 7 On The MacBook Air: Don't Go There

      Cool he is showing how to be a better OS on the air book.
      One that runs todays software from major software companies but that will runs next version as well. Unlike lion
      rparker009
      • RE: Windows 7 On The MacBook Air: Don't Go There

        @rparker009 Lion can run MS Office and there's better out there than MS Office. I definitely wouldn't say that anything that comes out of Redmond is better than what comes out of Infinite Loop unless you're a MS fanboy. Then, that would make sense.
        Apple is all about a better experience for the user. MS has never gotten that and probably never will. They did jump on the bandwagon when they saw how the GUI took off. Maybe I should give them that much credit or, maybe not.
        rpollard@...
      • RE: Windows 7 On The MacBook Air: Don't Go There

        @rpollard <br>You mean Apple is about a controlled perception of a better experience. It's not that their products are bad, they are good but nothing truly exceptional like Apple fanboys make them out to be. <br><br>Let me manipulate one of your statements to put it in perspective, "I definitely wouldn't say that anything that comes out of Cupertino is better than what comes out of Infinite Loop unless you're a Apple fanboy. Then, that would make sense."
        Those who hunt Trolls