Putting a Windows 10 Insider Build on a Mac?

Trying out Windows 10 Insider builds from the fast ring is always a little like leaping into a huge pile of autumnal leaves.  It seems like great fun, but you can never be sure if this will be the occasion you find a stinky landmine secreted amongst the golds, yellows and, er, browns.  And to stretch the metaphor just a bit further, having to hose down your PC to remove the thing is never fun.

Having a sacrificial PC is one approach.  Another is to use Virtual Machines.  Since I have a Mac connected to a large screen (my Dell XPS spends much of its time in my bag, sleeping soundly in the way that the Surface Pro doesn’t) I was keen to check out my options for running Windows on a Mac.  Anyone who has received something shiny with an Apple logo on it over the festive season and realised that the majority of their day to day applications aren’t available may find this of interest.

Putting the boot into BootCamp

Macs are (at time of writing) exclusively Intel-based PC’s, which makes them ideal targets for a Windows installation.  Indeed, for a good few years, the industry faced the irony that Apple made the best Windows laptops.

In 2006, Apple introduced an unsupported utility to allow a Mac disk to be partitioned to allow the hardware to boot into Windows rather than OSX.  This utility, known as Bootcamp, was then included as part of OSX 10.5 and by the time it had reached v2, left its beta status behind.The Bootcamp utility included with the current OSX (10.12 Sierra) represents the current state of the art, containing a wizard to install Windows and all the drivers required by Windows for the Mac hardware.

It is, without doubt, one of the most unintuitive pieces of software found in the OSX suite, and well hidden within the utilities folder.  Apple’s support forum includes step by step instructions, but even following these can produce some unexpected results: one attempt left my Mac so badly broken that I was forced to wipe and reinstall.  An unkind person might wonder if Apple have deliberately made the experience an unpleasant one.

As well as Bootcamp, you need a Windows 10 image.  In my case, I downloaded the latest Windows 10 ISO from Microsoft and let Bootcamp make an image for me on a USB memory stick (I wouldn’t recommend trying it on anything less than a 32gb drive).

If all goes well, at the end of the Bootcamp process your Mac will be in the position where it can boot into OSX or Windows.  Switching between environments requires a restart.  It works and, perhaps most importantly, is free (other than the cost of the Windows licence) but isn’t particularly convenient to use.

The alternative is Virtualisation.

Virtual Insanity

Windows users (in the Pro editions since Windows 8) have had Hyper-V technology built into the OS to allow virtual machines to be run on the desktop, which is a boon to the developer.   At present, this type of functionality is not in OSX and so a third party application is needed.  I selected one of the commercial offerings – Parallels.

There are a number of varieties of the Parallels product available.  For my proof-of-concept I chose the Parallels Desktop Lite incarnation found in the OSX App Store since my only interest was seeing if I could get the latest Windows 10 Insider build running on my Mac in a window.  Other editions of Parallels allow the running of Windows applications on the OSX desktop amongst other things, but for my purpose a simple Windows VM was all I needed.

Compared to the pain of getting Bootcamp working, Parallels was a breeze.  A simple case of installing from the App Store, and then pointing the New Virtual Machine wizard at the ISO of Windows 10 I’d previously downloaded for my Bootcamp install.  It is possible to migrate a Bootcamp installation but on this occasion, I wanted to started with a clean install.  Other operating systems are also supported – check back in a few weeks for a more detailed review of the Parallels Desktop product.Within a few minutes I was up and running with a fresh version of Windows 10 to sacrifice on the altar of the Windows Insider Fast Ring, running in a VM windows on my OSX desktop.  The VM itself can of course be backed up, allowing me to get back to a clean state whenever things go horribly wrong (such is the wild lifestyle of Fast Ring Windows Insiders) and setting up any number of VM’s for different Windows configurations is as trivial as it was when using Hyper-V.

I have also been pleasantly surprised by the performance – I have a late 2012 Mac Mini, with an i7 CPU, SSD and 16gb of RAM and must confess to not noticing much in the way of a performance difference between Windows 10 on Bootcamp and running in Parallels when using normal productivity application such as Office 2016.  This is purely a subjective observation, of course, and the amount of RAM you choose to allocate to the VM will also have a bearing here.

Finally, I tried out some games and was surprised to see them not only work, but also run at an acceptable frame rate.  Obviously, support only up to DirectX10 means the latest and greatest games are unlikely to work well but as an option this is interesting.  One point worth noting is that firing up a game in a Windows 10 VM was enough to make the fan in the Mac very audible.

Conclusion

Bootcamp gives a native Windows experience on a Mac and is free.  However, the pain of setting it up coupled with the sheer inconvenience of having to reboot every time one wants to switch between Windows and OSX rules it out for me.

The VM approach is far more elegant and flexible, with very little sacrifice in terms of performance (certainly as far as Parallels 12 is concerned.)  However, cost is a factor, and with the Lite product starting at £44, going up to £62 for the Pro version, this is not particularly cheap.  But, if you need to run Windows on your Mac, it is the approach I would recommend.

In all instances, you will need a Windows 10 product key, so be sure to factor that into all calculations

About the author Richard Speed:
Spaceflight enthusiast and tech hobbyist.
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