15 Reasons to Use Virtualization Software on a Mac

Monday Jan 21st 2008 by Joe Kissell
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Believe it or not, there are still some uses for which it helps to have Windows access on your Mac. Plus, you might want to run Linux.

Conventional wisdom once held that it made more sense for the average person to buy a Windows PC rather than a Mac because there was so much more software available on Windows. Today, although the sheer number of Windows apps is still higher (of which, to be fair, quite a few are viruses!), Macs have a wide selection of excellent software in virtually every category.

Of course, most of the big, heavy-duty apps (like Photoshop and Microsoft Office) have been cross-platform for years. Plus, ever since the advent of Mac OS X, Mac users have had access to a massive volume of Unix software. So the occasions when a Mac is out of the question because it can’t run some piece of software are getting rarer and rarer.

But there are still some situations in which only Windows will do. Luckily, Mac users now have three great ways (and a few less great ways) to run Windows without switching computers: Boot Camp (built into Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard), Parallels Desktop, and Vmware Fusion. The latter two, the most popular virtualization environments for the Mac, let you run other operating systems side-by-side with Mac OS X, without rebooting, and offer such a high level of integration that you might forget which OS you’re using at any moment.

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The interesting thing about virtualization is that it changes the equation completely: instead of Macs having the fewest programs available, they have the most, because every Intel-based Mac can run Mac software, Windows software, and Unix software. Here, then, in (a sort of) alphabetical order, is my list of the top 15 things Mac users finally have access to that previously required a PC. (Shameless plug: this list was inspired by a section of my ebook Take Control of Running Windows on a Mac.)

1. Custom software: Countless businesses have custom-written applications for internal use that run only on Windows. Almost all of them should run nicely in Parallels or Fusion.

2. Dragon Naturally Speaking: MacSpeech recently announced a new Mac product called Dictate that uses the same technology as Dragon Naturally Speaking; it’ll replace their current speech recognition product, iListen. I have high hopes for Dictate, but in the meantime, if you depend on Dragon Naturally Speaking for dictation, you’ll need to run it under Windows.

3. DVDs: Sure, DVD movies play just fine on Macs. But some come with special enhanced features that rely on Windows-only software. To get at all those Easter eggs and other goodies, you’ll need a PC—or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

4. FrameMaker: Ah, FrameMaker. Back in the day (that is, the day when I made a living doing graphic design and the two leading DTP programs were PageMaker and QuarkXPress), I always found it a special treat to work on a project where I could use FrameMaker. It was vastly more flexible, had wonderful table support, and was (still is, really) the best tool for extremely long yet extremely complex documents. Even though there was a Mac OS 9 version, Adobe never ported it to Mac OS X, so it is now available only for Windows and Solaris.

5. Games: I must confess that I myself am not a gamer. (OK, I’ll spend the occasional hour playing Bejeweled or solitaire, but that’s about it.) However, I am reliably informed that a rather large portion of the world’s PC-using population takes gaming pretty seriously—and quite a few of those games don’t have Mac versions. Now, finally, popular Windows-only games like Grand Theft Auto, Microsoft Flight Simulator, Rail Sim, and Crysis can run on a Mac, too.

There are a few catches, though. First, Parallels and Fusion have only limited, preliminary support for DirectX, so some Windows games may require Boot Camp. Second, depending on the game you’re playing, your machine’s specs, and whether you’re using XP or Vista, you may find that game performance suffers a bit in virtualization. And to get serious graphics performance, you’ll want a serious Mac; obviously, an 8-core Mac Pro with 32 GB of RAM and an NVIDIA Quadro FX 5600 card will crank out the frames an awful lot faster than a Mac mini.

6. Legal software: Nolo, the well-known publisher of do-it-yourself legal books and forms, has a number of software packages (for things like getting a patent or starting a small business) that run only on Windows.

7. Linux: Virtualization software on the Mac isn’t just for Windows. Feel free to run Ubuntu, Red Hat, SUSE, or any of the dozens of other Linux distributions in a virtual machine—in fact, you can run several at the same time! For testing, administration, or simply to run your favorite Linux software, Parallels or Fusion on the Mac is a great choice.

8. Microsoft Access: You can find lots of excellent, high-power databases on the Mac—everything from MySQL to Panorama to FileMaker Pro. But Access itself has no Mac equivalent, and if you have a database of any complexity, the mere thought of having to rewrite it in another system could (rightly) give you the willies.

9. Microsoft Groove: Microsoft’s new Groove collaboration software is, unsurprisingly, Windows-only.

10. Microsoft Internet Explorer: Safari is a fine Web browser, and of course Macs can also run Firefox, Opera, and about a dozen others. Sadly though, some Web designers still make pages that work correctly only in the Windows version of Internet Explorer. Although most Mac browsers can masquerade as another browser by changing the user-agent, that doesn’t always work—for example, sites that rely on ActiveX just won’t work under Mac OS X.

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11. Microsoft Outlook: The new Entourage 2008 has better support for Exchange servers than Entourage 2004 did, but neither one really comes close to what Outlook itself offers, particularly in the realm of scheduling. If you work in a corporate environment that depends heavily on Outlook, running the real thing is your best bet—and now you can.

12. Microsoft Project: As with database software, there’s no shortage of capable project management tools that run under Mac OS X, most of which can use Project files transparently. But if you need a feature that only Project has, or are just too reluctant to learn a new UI, go right ahead and run Project in a virtual machine.

13. Online video providers: Apple’s iTunes Store is great, but it may not have all the video content you want, or in the form you’d like to view it. Amazon Unbox provides downloadable movies, while Netflix Watch Now offers streaming video content. Both, however, currently work only in Windows. If one of these providers (or another source) has the video you want to see, you no longer have to look for a PC to view it on.

14. QuickBooks: The Mac version of QuickBooks hasn’t kept up with the Windows version, particularly in terms of payroll processing. You could opt to use the Mac OS X-native MYOB AccountEdge instead, but if you prefer QuickBooks, you’re better off using the Windows version.

15. Stock charting software: If you’re a day trader, an investment banker, or a financial analyst, chances are you depend on one or more of the numerous stock charting packages that run only on Windows.

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