Windows on Intel Macs? OS X on PCs? Don't Hold Your Breath

- 2006.01.24 - Tip Jar

The January 10th release of the first Intel-powered Mac models got a lot of people's hopes up that these Macs could boot to run PC operating systems like Windows or Linux. It makes sense, after all - they're using the same Intel processor as Windows PCs from manufacturers like Dell, Sony, HP, or the clone-shop around the corner.

Many Mac users have need, now and again, for a single specialized Windows program that lacks a Mac equivalent; this is the case for many custom-developed business applications, for instance. Others would like to be able to play games that come out first (or often only) for the Windows platform.

Emulators like Microsoft's Virtual PC or Lismore Software's Guest PC (see Guest PC: A More Affordable Way to Put Windows on Your Mac) can be used for occasional Windows use, but they've got a speed penalty and are really no use to game players at all.

The day of the product release, Apple VP Phil Schiller was quoted as saying that Apple wouldn't put any barriers in the way of people wanting to run Windows on the new Macs. But it hasn't proven to be as easy to accomplish as many had hoped.

Within a few days of the first Intel-powered iMacs becoming available, a MacNN forum poster reported the results of trying to boot with a range of bootable CDs, including Windows XP, Solaris, and Ubuntu and SuSE Linux. None could be used to boot the iMac.

There are a couple of levels to the problem. Virtually all standard-issue PCs start booting using a tiny program burned into ROM known as the BIOS; these are all related to the boot software used in 1983's IBM-AT, letting the computer know about the connected hard drive (and some other drives), video card, and other standard hardware. Even modern BIOSs are pretty primitive and tend not to know about many of the sorts of modern hardware connected to computers.

EFI Is the Issue

Several years ago, Intel proposed a new, "extensible firmware interface" (EFI) to replace BIOS, but it hasn't been widely adopted. Windows XP doesn't support EFI, though the next version, Windows Vista (promised for sometime in 2006) will. (Typical Linux distributions also don't include EFI support at this time). The Intel Macs use EFI rather than BIOS, making it difficult to simply boot to a PC operating system CD.

It shouldn't be impossible, however. Gateway, for instance, has marketed an EFI-based Windows Media Center system since 2003, writing a custom compatibility module to enable Windows XP to run. And Intel has released ELILO, a Linux boot-loader for EFI. Linux distributions supporting ELILO should be popping up soon, and (fingers crossed) these should be able to boot the Intel Macs.

(Microsoft's current 64-bit Windows versions include EFI support, but the current Intel-powered Macs are 32-bit systems. So far, I haven't heard any reports of anyone trying to use Windows Vista beta to boot an Intel-Mac).

There are other issues as well; while it may be possible to boot the new Macs using an external FireWire drive, most people booting to multiple operating systems prefer to partition their computer's internal hard drive, dedicating a partition to each operating system. If there's any software allowing users to mix and match Windows and Mac-native partitions on a single physical hard drive, I'm not aware of it.

None of this is insurmountable. There are almost certainly a number of pretty smart programmers working on these issues right now. But at the moment, if anyone has managed to boot up an Intel Mac to any version of Windows (or Linux), they're keeping pretty quiet about it.


What about emulators? Microsoft, makers of Virtual PC, are said to be working to support the Intel Macs in the next version of that product. There are some suggestions that, while not impossible, it may be an uphill struggle; VPC was built using Metrowerks' CodeWarrior compiler. It's reportedly harder to convert such programs to support Intel processors than programs made with Apple's Objective C compiler.

Lismore Software, developers of Guest PC, also said they're working towards Intel support, but put it relatively far down the list of features that they're working on. Other emulators may offer support sooner; iEmulator is promising an Intel-native version by the end of February. And one product, OpenOSX WinTel boasts that it already "runs native on Intel". I'll be looking at OpenOSX WinTel and iEmulator and will report back ASAP.

OS X on Windows PCs

With a version of OS X running on the Intel Macs, many users are also salivating at the possibility of running OS X on standard PC hardware. There are issues of legality - Apple's retail OS X boxes are all licensed for upgrading a system from another Mac OS version, not for installation on a non-Mac system.

There are also, most likely, technical reasons why the OS X disc that ships with, say, an Intel iMac won't be usable on a Dell or HP PC clone.

Apple's Phil Schiller told eWeek, "We will not allow running Mac OS X on anything other than an Apple Mac." eWeek said that Apple hadn't gone into any specifics, but they suspected that the software looks for a TPM (trusted protection module) as an authentication mechanism during startup. LEM

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Alan Zisman is Mac-using teacher and technology writer based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Many of his articles are available on his website, If you find Alan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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