How to make Windows and Mac OS play nicely together

All of the PCs in my house run Windows, but I carry a Macbook Air on the road. Here's how you can mesh the worlds of Microsoft and Apple.

About nine months ago, I acquired a 13-inch MacBook Air. At that point, the first Ultrabooks had been announced but were not yet shipping. Even so, I might have waited, except that the Ultrabooks I'd previewed to that point seemed uninspired--with clunkier hardware than the Air offered and various odd compromises. Some missed the boat on the trackpad; others had lower-quality displays. So I bought a 13-inch MacBook Air configured with a 256GB solid-state drive.

Originally, I had intended to load most of my Windows applications onto the new laptop, using the Parallels virtual machine software. But at some point shortly after installing the Parallels/Windows 7 combo, I stopped using the VM, opting instead to integrate Mac OS into my existing, Microsoft-based environment. Adopting this setup does mean enduring a few hassles, but overall the two operating systems play nicely together, if you set them up properly. What follows are the details of how I did that, and how well the arrangement has worked.

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Understanding Your PC Needs

Different people have different needs. When I take a laptop on the road, I need it to do several specific things:

  • Write and edit articles like this one.
  • Process and edit photographs. And since I shoot all of my photos in RAW format, using a DSLR, the ability to process raw images is important.
  • Maintain cross-compatibility between Mac OS apps and Windows software. I'm not talking here about data files alone, but also about usability: Basically, I didn't want to have to relearn applications. That said, I remained open to the idea of using native Mac OS apps, but my use of any such apps would be in addition to applications I used for daily work.
  • Integrate the Mac OS and Windows environments to make moving files back and forth easy.

Those requirements define the goals I had in mind in setting up my MacBook Air. Let's start by looking at the applications mix I went with, and my reasons for choosing those apps.

Applications

Microsoft Office 11 for Mac OS

First up is a no-brainer if you need to get work done. Other word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation programs do exist for the Mac; and some are probably easier to use or more streamlined than Office. But I know Word pretty intimately, and I use Excel pretty regularly. Transferring files is, for the most part, straightforward. Some spreadsheets that use macros in the Windows version of Excel won't run on the Mac version, but I rarely use those.

I rarely use PowerPoint, and I'm tempted to experiment with some of the cool presentation tools I've seen for Mac OS.

Finally, there's Outlook for the Mac. It works well enough and has some neat mail management capabilities, but its interface in Mac OS differs more from the Windows version than the other Mac Office apps do. Most notably it lacks a few enterprise-centric features that are of little use to me. Still, overall, its behavior echoes that of the Windows version.

One application absent from both Windows and Mac versions of Office 2010 is Visio 2010, which I occasionally use for diagramming. Though no Mac OS version of Visio exists, I could install it in Windows 7 running under Parallels if the need arose. But since I use my MacBook Air primarily as an on-the-road machine, I probably don't need to have a copy of Visio 2010 on it.

Photoshop CS 5.5

Photoshop is a key aspect of my photographic workflow--Camera Raw in particular. Photoshop on the Mac and under Windows behave quite similarly, so switching between versions is pretty simple. Also installed are a number of Photoshop plugins, including Nik Software's Dfine noise reduction and Viveza image enhancement tools, as well as Imagenomic's Portraiture.

Photoshop behaves surprisingly well on the MacBook Air. My desktop system runs Photoshop for Windows on a six-core Core i7-3830K system with 16GB of RAM, so I was a little worried that large raw files might bog down the 4GB MacBook Air; but it seems to work fine, as long as I limit myself to keeping one or two images open. The noise reduction plugin runs noticeably slower under these conditions, however.

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