Testing Windows 7 on a MacBook Pro

I had some time to spare during the weekend, so I decided to have some fun with my MacBook Pro. Now, I've been more or less full-time Mac user for the past year (I use Ubuntu Linux from time to time, though) ever since I could afford getting a Mac. Yes, Macs are expensive, but totally worth every dollar, in my humble opinion. But I digress.

In any case, I also stopped using Windows because of all the issues surrounding Vista. While there have been people who say that there's nothing wrong with the operating system, in the time I've used it I found it extremely slow on a computer with more-than-decent hardware and experienced constant lock-ups and crashes. It might work fine for some people, but it never was the case for me.

Lately, I've been hearing more and more about Microsoft's next operating system release, dubbed Windows 7. In a totally welcome change of pace for the company, Microsoft has allowed any user, not just developers or OEMs, to be able to download and test beta versions of the operating system. Everywhere I go on the Internet, people have only great things to say about it - essentially that it's faster and more stable, even in its pre-release state.

As always, the curiosity is killing me, so I decided to take the latest release for a spin. I have plenty of free space on my MacBook Pro, so I decided to use Apple Bootcamp to test this out. Here's an outline of the steps I took to successfully install Windows 7:

1) You can start off my downloading WIndows 7. At the time of this writing, Microsoft is offering users to test out the first Release Candidate for Windows 7 (stated for official release on October, 2009). When downloading, you have the opportunity to choose to download Windows for 32-bit architectures or 64-bit architectures. Since this post is for installing Windows 7 on a MacBook Pro, I chose to download the 64-bit version, although the 32-bit version should work just fine. Keep in mind that you'll need a high-speed connection and a DVD burner, since the DVD image is approximately 3.05 GB.

By the way, when you download the DVD image, there will be a product key for Windows 7. Write this down, because you'll be asked to enter it to activate Windows during the final steps of the installation process. Don't worry if you forget - You'll still be able to install Windows properly and activate it at a later date. But it's just easier to do it from the beginning. Also, make sure you have your Mac OS X Installation Disc on hand. When Windows is installed, you'll need to install the proper drivers for your hardware, and the Mac installation disc has them readily available.

2) Once you get the image downloaded and burned onto a blank DVD, you'll need to partition your hard drive and create some space for Windows. I explained this in an earlier post, but I'll just post it here since it's slightly different. If you have Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) installed, you can use the Boot Camp Assistant to create a partition. Unfortunately, at this time, you won’t be able to use Boot Camp if your Mac is running Mac OS X 10.4 or an older version.

When starting the Boot Camp Assistant, you will be asked to specify the size for your new partition. For the 64-bit version of Windows 7, the minimum requirements are to have at least 20 GB of free hard drive space. I recomment using at least 30 GB of free hard drive space, since you'll most likely want to install and test out some Windows software. Once the partitioning is completed, the Boot Camp Assistant will ask if you would like to restart to begin installing your new operating system. Before clicking on the 'Start Installation' button, insert your newly-burned DVD of Windows 7. Once the DVD has been detected on your Mac (the DVD icon of the mounted drive should appear on your desktop), click on the 'Start Installation' button. The Mac will restart, and will boot from the DVD and start the installation process.

3) Installation is a fairly easy process. Over the years, Windows has streamlined the installation process of their operating systems, and it seems Windows 7 is the easiest one yet. The only small issue you need to look out for is that while the hard drive was partitioned properly, it wasn't formatted for Windows 7 (specifically, NTFS). It's fairly easy to correct this, though.

When you get to the section where all your computer's drives are displayed, you'll notice one labeled 'BOOTCAMP'. This is the one the Boot Camp Assistant conveniently created for you. When you click on this drive, you'll notice a message saying that Windows can't be installed on that drive, before of the aforementioned issue. To correct this, click on 'Drive Options' after selecting the partition. There will be multiple options for you. Simply click on 'Format' to format the disk properly. Once this step is done, you can click 'Next' to install the operating system to the partition.

4) Please note that during the Windows installation process, your computer will be rebooted a few times. When your computer reboots, it won't boot back to Windows automatically. Instead, it will boot back into Mac OS X. To be able to choose which partition you want to boot from, you need to press and hold the Option key before the Apple boot screen appears. This will them display all bootable partitions on your Mac. You should have one for your Mac OS X installation, and another for WIndows. Choose the Windows partition and hit the 'Return' key to boot back into Windows. Remember to keep an eye out while Windows is installing, or else you'll find yourself rebooting from Mac OS X constantly.

5) Once Windows is installed, you'll notice that the resolution is pretty crappy. This is because you have to install the drivers for the video card and other hardware in your Mac. This is where the Mac OS X installation disc comes in handy. Eject the Windows 7 DVD from your drive. In my MacBook Pro, I couldn't get the DVD to eject by pressing on the Eject button on the keyboard. I was able to eject the disc by going to 'Computer' from the Windows menu, clicking once on the DVD, and then selecting 'Eject' from the toolbar.

Insert the Mac OS X installation disc into your computer. You should get a message asking to auto-run the setup program from the disc. Do not run this, as it will install the 32-bit drivers. Instead, go to the Windows menu, select 'Run', and enter D:\Boot Camp\Apple in the field and click 'OK'. There should be an executable file called Bootcamp64.msi in the directory. Double-click this file, and the drivers installation process should start automatically. After they're installed and your computer reboots, you'll have a fully-functional Windows 7 installation on your MacBook Pro!

This might seem to be a long process, but I think I'm just being too verbose in writing. It really is a short, straight-forward process. As I mentioned above, the installation process is fairly easy. Although I'm guessing that most Windows users won't go through this process, as they'll most likely already have it installed on any new computers they purchase. But for those who actually have some fun doing the whole installation thing, it really couldn't get easier than the Windows 7 installation.

As far as the actual operating system goes, it does seem faster and much more stable than its predecessor. In the couple of hours I spent today using the operating system (and typing this blog post, as well), I didn't encounter a single problem. I also installed quite a lot of software, and they all ran without a hitch. So far, so good.

I don't have any official numbers here, but I'm willing to bet that while Microsoft still has the dominant share of the operating system market, it has lost more than a few percentage points. Although that didn't happen solely because of Vista, I know more than a fair share of people who have dumped Vista for alternatives, with many more downgrading to Windows XP. Windows 7 feels like it's a step in the right direction for Microsoft. I just wonder if Apple will be able to continue to run those snarky ads for long.

Written by

Dennis Martinez

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