How To Bridge the Gap Between Mac and Windows

By Matthew Braga

Mac and PC, sworn enemies in the computing world. But it doesn't have to be that way. There are a few ways to make OS X and Windows play nice, and it truly is the best of both worlds.

 I've got a Macbook Pro. It runs Windows 7. People stare. That's not a good thing. It's the sort of stare usually reserved for those who eat pudding with a fork, or deep fried Mars bars, or talk at the movies. And it's made me something of a social pariah amongst my peers. I'm derided by Mac fans for soiling their holy hardware, and frowned upon by Windows lovers for throwing too much cash at a pretty machine. There's really no way I can win.

But see, I've got something they don't — the best of both worlds. Everything I like about Mac and Windows is rolled into one big package. And it's not as hard as you think. Making both systems play nice is simple to do, and it can actually be pretty fun. It's a tale of two cities, but without all the murderous revolution — just a Mac, a PC, and all the ways you can make them work together.
Editor's Note: We originally ran this story in May, but are bumping it up to include in this week's posts spotlighting Windows vs. Mac OS. 

Virtualizing, Bootcamping, and everything in between 

Your Mac isn't just a computer — sometimes, it's your only computer. Maybe you've been a Windows user for years, or you're just looking to dabble with the dark side. Either way, setting Windows up alongside your OS X install is a pretty simple affair. The method you choose all depends on what you want to do.

That's not right. Windows in OS X? Luckily, it's just Parallel's Coherence mode. 
Parallel's Virtual Desktop and VMWare Fusion (both commercial), or VirtualBox (free) will each help you set up a self-contained Windows environment, great for casual use or testing. The OS is installed to a virtual hard disk image, allowing Windows-only apps to be run side-by-side with your OS X install. But the big draw is integration. Each piece of software has an easy method of moving files from one environment to the other, via drag-and-drop in Parallels and VMWare, or with a shared folders setup. Clipboard contents can even be shared as well. And if you want to hide the Windows desktop, but leave the applications behind, that's possible too. 

So how does Bootcamp differ? Instead of installing Windows to a virtual disk, you're actually slicing up a portion of your hard drive, and placing it there instead. There are a few advantages to this method, namely a speedier system and full hardware access. The only caveat? You'll have to restart — no running alongside OS X. But it's a small price to pay for the added performance. Not everything will run smoothly in virtual machine, so dual booting might be a frequent Windows user's best bet.

There is one added bonus to the Bootcamp method, however — it works in a virtual machine too. In more casual scenarios, you can easily set your virtual machine to boot from a physical partition, and the result will work just the same as a virtual disk. It's a great solution, and one that let's users choose between the performance of a dual boot, or the ease of a virtual install. It's really never been easier to allow Mac and PC to coexist.

Media sharing: Or, how to do the SMB

Setting up SMB sharing in System Preferences 

Using Windows 7's Network and Sharing Center, you simply need to enable file and printer sharing over the local network, via "Advanced sharing settings". The process is similar in both Vista and XP. Afterward, right clicking any folder will enable you to set sharing preferences, and make it available over the network. Mac users can then browse those folders via the Finder's Network pane (Shift + Command + K), while Windows user can do likewise via Network Places. 

My Mac, Bagels, is shared on the network. 
SMB protocol is doing all the work, there's no messy filesystem issues to deal with either. However, it also makes streaming media possible too. Common media centers like XBMC and Boxee support sharing over the SMB protocol, and files can be integrated into your library like any other piece of media. Of course, there's nothing stopping you from simply loading the file up in VLC, either. Regardless, the results can be excellent, and depending on the speed of your network, you can turn your Mac or PC into a capable home media server. 
But what about more casual file sharing? SMB or other network protocols can be great for large files, or even streaming purposes, but aren't always necessary for smaller needs. Dropbox, an application we raved about a few weeks ago, is a good way to sync documents to the cloud, for access on any of your PCs or Macs. Because it's cross platform, it's another great way to keep your systems talking, without all the filesystem hassle.

NTFS, HFS: Making acronyms talk

 The NTFS-3G preference pane on OS X
NTFS-3G driver for OS X, which enables full write access to your NTFS volumes. If you're the type who deals with Windows drives often, or just have Bootcamp installed, the NTFS-3G driver can provide native access within OS X. Speed is reasonable, and there's very few quirks, but best of all, it's free.

Things get a little trickier in the Windows world. If you're running Bootcamp, Apple's drivers include read support for HFS drives, at the very least giving you access to your Mac-bound files. However, if you want full write access, MacDrive is your best bet. And unfortunately, it's the only bet for users seeking their HFS fix. The application works well enough, providing access not only to internal drives, but removable volumes as well; however, all that power comes at a price. It's a shame there aren't more options available - free ones in particular.

In case you forgot, Macs can game too

 Modern Warfare 2 on a Mac? Say it ain't so. This is the magic of Crossover.
Cider — basically a graphics-heavy implementation of Wine — has made it possible for certain Windows games to work near-flawlessly under OS X, retaining full cross-platform play with their PC counterparts. Developers like Blizzard, meanwhile, have long-committed to the Mac platform, going insofar as to develop simultaneous builds of their games for both Mac and Windows. To this day the Diablo, Starcraft and Warcraft series' are all cross-platform, and fully compatible with one another online. In some senses, the gaming community bridged the Mac-PC gap long before anyone else.

However, the most exciting development in Mac gaming these past few years will undoubtedly be the release of Steam for Mac next week. For the Windows crowd, the popular game distribution platform has grown into a veritable juggernaut, offering a huge library of great games for Windows users to download and play. Now, developer Valve is hoping to replicate that success on the Mac platform, beginning with the release of Source-based games like Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead and Portal. Through a feature called SteamPlay, these versions are fully compatible with their Windows counterparts online, making Mac users not different from their PC siblings. 

 Steam! On a Mac!
Crossover Games, another implementation of Wine, can sometimes work wonders, enabling native PC games to work in OS X, without the need for virtualization. It's definitely slower than loading Bootcamp, but it's a great alternative that can be useful in a pinch. Even Modern Warfare 2 runs at a decent speed, just like in Windows, though we didn't say it would look good.

These days, there's no need to choose when you can have both. Mac and PC work well together, and for people like me, it's the best of both worlds. Call me crazy, but I can't imagine my laptop any other way.