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XP on the PowerPC

by Derrick Story

Even though many PC power-users still prefer Windows 2000, XP is making its mark in the computing world. But Windows XP is not a casual upgrade. Older machines have a difficult time running the new operating system, and not all Windows applications are certified to run on XP. So often the move to XP comes at a time when folks are considering buying a new computer and upgrading their applications.

Some Windows users have been looking at the new iMac and iBook alongside traditional PC hardware offerings. Why not? Mac OS X is appealing to those who like a less intrusive OS, and one that is based on Unix.

Tradeoffs exist with either platform. Mac OS X is young and still maturing. Windows XP is a dominating OS that doesn't play nice with the other kids. Wouldn't it be great to have the best of both?

One way to go, especially for home computers or personal-use laptops, is to purchase PowerPC-based hardware (such as an iMac), use Mac OS X as your default operating system, and when you need Windows, run XP over the top of OS X using Connectix's Virtual PC. You'll enjoy the benefit of having the latest operating system for both platforms on one machine. Unless you're in a Windows-centric environment that requires intense processing on Windows-only applications, this system should meet all of your computing needs.

Ten Benefits to Running Mac OS X and Windows XP on One Computer

Web professionals, as much as anyone, understand that it's a multi-platform universe out there. Having just one operating system to do your work is much like plumbing with a single wrench. You can do it, but it's ugly.

Consider these reasons for setting up Mac OS X and Windows XP on a PowerPC computer:

  1. Multiple platforms on one computer. Mac OS X, Linux, and the various flavors of Windows all run on the PowerPC.
  2. Easy wireless networking. Say what you want, but AirPort is still the easiest 802.11b network to set up and use. In Mac OS X, you simply turn on your computer and it will find available 802.11b networks. And if you're running XP via Virtual PC, XP accepts the network connection you've established in Mac OS X.
  3. Fun hardware. Now you can buy that top-of-the-line iMac, iBook, or TiBook instead of another Dell laptop. Time and time again I've heard people say that their iBook is the best-built computer they've ever owned.
  4. Microsoft Word docs. Some people just don't want to use Microsoft Word. But there are times when you must read or edit a .doc file. As part of its standard installation, Windows XP includes WordPad that allows you to open, read, and edit .doc files. For casual use, there's no need to buy MS Word for either platform, just enable XP and use WordPad.
Word Doc on a Mac
Standard Microsoft Word document in Word X for the Mac.
Word Pad in XP on a Mac
Same document opened in WordPad on Windows XP running in Virtual PC on a Mac.
  1. Access to all applications. Windows offers more applications than the Mac. But Apple has created some killer apps of its own. Why not have access to all programs out there, regardless of the platform they use?
  2. Web-page testing. It might look good in IE on your Mac, but not so hot in Windows. You can test the various platform/browser combinations on one machine. If you use Virtual PC, you can even put the Mac and Windows versions side by side on the same screen. Similar benefits for script testing too.
  3. Synchronize all mobile devices. Trying to synchronize a Pocket PC to Mac OS X is a waste of time. By running both platforms on your computer, you can sync all Palms and Pocket PCs.
  4. CD playback and testing. If you're authoring CDs for friends and clients, then why not take care of all your cross-platform testing on one machine? Plus, many freebie commercial CDs (some of them are even cool) are usually set up for Windows computers. If you don't like the way it looks on the Mac, boot XP and take a look.
  5. Cost. You essentially have two computers for the price of one.
  6. Share documents between platforms. Simply designate a share folder on your hard drive that you can access from both Mac OS X and Windows XP. Many of the files we work with these days, such as .jpg, .html, .txt, .gif, .doc, and .xml, work equally well on either platform. You can use a Windows app to do some work, then send it over to a Mac-specific app to do other things.

Sharing XP and Mac on one drive

The Share Folder for Virtual PC allows you to move files back and forth between platforms.


If you are a speed demon who cares that Internet Explorer loads a page in 4.2 seconds on native Windows, but takes an eternal 5.5 seconds on Mac OS X, then you might not like running Virtual PC on Mac OS X. In my testing, Mac OS X is still slower than Windows XP when both operating systems are running on their native platforms. Using XP over the top of Mac OS X slows things down even more.

Related Reading

Windows XP Home Edition: The Missing Manual
By David Pogue

In a recent Macworld Review, the author remarked, "... the program's performance [XP] was comparable to that of the IBM ThinkPad." That hasn't been the case for me. I tested Virtual PC running Windows XP on a TiBook (667 MHz, 512MB RAM) and compared it to running XP on an IBM ThinkPad 600x (500 MHz, 128MB RAM); XP was definitely faster on the ThinkPad. Here are a few informal comparisons:

  XP on PowerPC XP on Intel
Initial Launch of Internet Explorer 12 seconds 4 seconds
Insert CD and Wait for Window to Auto Open 33 seconds 15 seconds
Initial Launch of QuickTime Application 26 seconds 8 seconds

XP running on an Intel machine has the best performance. But there's one important exception. Virtual PC enables a function called "Save PC State." The Mac simply remembers your PC environment exactly as you left it (even with applications open), saves it, and when you relaunch Virtual PC, it quickly restores the state. The key to this speed gain is that Virtual PC doesn't have to reboot XP or the applications that were open when you "saved its state." All you have to do is relaunch Virtual PC itself, which takes only seconds.

  XP on PowerPC XP on Intel
Relaunching Windows XP and opening QuickTime and IE 15 seconds 1 minute 41 seconds

When it comes to performance, the issue is how much work do you have to do in Windows, and is the speed tradeoff worth the added versatility of having Mac OS X and other operating systems on one piece of hardware?

Speaking of performance, don't even think about playing PC games, watching DVDs, or video editing on Windows XP in Virtual PC. Stick with games for the Mac and use iMovie for your video editing. Sure, over time Mac OS X is going to get faster, as well as Virtual PC. But that doesn't do you any good right now. So make sure you factor the value of performance into your overall decision.


Windows XP running on top of the Mac OS X foundation is rock solid. Over the few months I've been testing this combination, I've had very few XP crashes and none for Mac OS X. Even when XP does implode, I simply restart it and go about my business. The rest of my computer is untouched and as solid as ever.

Windows applications ran flawlessly on the Mac via Virtual PC. Side-by-side Web-page comparisons with IE on the ThinkPad were the same as on the TiBook. Ironically, running Windows applications on the Mac was more stable than using them on the ThinkPad.

Comment on this articleWhen it comes to running Windows XP on a Mac, your mileage will vary depending on your daily tasks. What have your experiences been?
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I particularly liked minimizing the entire Windows XP environment to the Mac's Dock when I wanted to switch platforms and work in OS X. Then when necessary, maximize XP and it's instantly ready to roll.

Bottom Line

Virtual PC with Windows XP Home costs $199, the same price as the OS alone that runs on Windows hardware. Once you have the base version of Virtual PC, you can buy additional OS packs for different operating systems such as Windows 98, 2000, and even Linux.

Currently I have Mac OS X, Mac OS 9.1, Windows 98, and Windows XP Home Edition available on a TiBook 667. Each environment runs smoothly and provides options I find invaluable.

If you're considering upgrading to Windows XP Home or Mac OS X (or both at the same time), David Pogue's Windows XP Home Edition: The Missing Manual and Mac OS X: The Missing Manual (published by O'Reilly and Pogue Press) are excellent guides to mastering these new operating systems. Also, in a previous article, Windows XP from a Mac Perspective, I compare some of the major features from both platforms.

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit

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