How to install Windows on your Mac

Boot Camp provides the best performance for Windows on your Mac. It takes a little work to install, so here's some help.

If you need to install Windows on your Mac, you have a few options: software like VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop can help you get the job done so you don't have to reboot each time you want to use it, but if you want truly native performance — important for gamers and others looking to eke every last drop out of their Mac — Boot Camp is the way to go. Here's a step by step guide to make it happen.

What you'll need to install Windows on your Mac

To install Windows on your Mac via Boot Camp, you'll need:

  • A copy of Windows either on CD/DVD (if your Mac has a SuperDrive) or an ISO disc image.
  • The Boot Camp Assistant app, found in the Utilities folder of your Mac.
  • 8 GB USB storage device or external drive (thumbdrive, hard drive, etc) formatted as MS-DOS (FAT) to install Windows drivers. (You can use Disk Utility to format your thumbdrive accordingly.)
  • Enough space on your hard drive to get Windows to work and do what you want it to.

Will any version of Windows do? In short, no.

Boot Camp has very specific system requirements depending on which Mac model you're installing. Older Macs will only work with Boot Camp 4, newer ones work with Boot Camp 5.

That, in turn, determines which version of Windows can be installed on your Mac (Vista, Windows 7 or Windows 8, 32-bit or 64-bit). It's confusing, I realize. The best thing to do is to consult Apple's Boot Camp system requirements web page for details before you get started.

Bear in mind also that Boot Camp needs to work from your Mac's boot volume, so you'll need to decide how much space you really can afford to lose. The good news is that both OS X and Windows easily work with external hard drives, so you can always add more storage space later.

If you don't want to be saddled with all this hassle, Parallels Desktop and VMware Fusion for the most part just work. They just don't work quite as fast as running Windows natively.

Please backup your hard drive before continuing.

How to install Windows using Boot Camp

  1. Quit all open applications.
  2. Connect your MS-DOS (FAT) formatted USB thumbstick or drive.
  3. Insert or mount your copy of Windows.
  4. Open the Utilities folder.
  5. Double-click on Boot Camp Assistant.
  6. Click Continue.
  7. It's usually safest just to leave all options on. Click Continue.
  8. Boot Camp Assistant will try to connect to Apple's servers to download the latest Windows drivers onto your USB thumbstick. If it runs into problems, you can manually download the drivers yourself from this web page.
  9. Boot Camp Assistant will repartition your hard disk with a Boot Camp partition (this will not delete the existing data on your drive). Specify how much space you'd like to use for the update.
  10. Once the partition is configured, your Mac will reboot to continue the Windows installation process. Follow the prompts. You will need to do a new Windows installation, and you will likely have to reformat your new Boot Camp partition to get Windows to install. Make sure you've selected your Boot Camp partition, not your OS X partition.
  11. Once the installation is done and Windows is operating, run the setup app on your USB thumbdrive. This will install other drivers Windows needs to run optimally on the Mac, including graphics and sound drivers, networking and Bluetooth drivers, and more.
  12. Enjoy!

Your Mac should continue to boot by default into the Mac partition. If you'd like to change this, you can select the Windows partition using the Startup Disk system preference. The next time you reboot you'll be running Windows.

Any time you want to switch back, simply reboot the Mac with the option key held down. The Mac will show you your OS X and Windows-formatted partitions. Select the one you want and hit the return key.

There you have it. You can get up and running with Windows on your Mac as long as you do some prep work; an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And make sure once you're running Windows to install anti-malware software right away. I've had good luck with Microsoft's Security Essentials software, which is free.

Have you installed Windows on your Mac? Are you going to? What sort of issues did you run into? Let me know.