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Best of Both Worlds: Windows on a Mac in Five Variations

Advice for STEM students looking to run Windows programs on a Mac.

May 17, 2015

Michelle Lavery is a graduate student in Biology at the University of New Brunswick. You can often find her fighting with various and sundry statistical and mapping programs while cursing the computer gods. Follow the struggle on Twitter @JMichelleLavery.

Walk into the coffee shop on any university campus and what do you see? Crowded tables covered in journal articles, textbooks, and that quintessential collegiate accessory—the MacBook. Given that over the past 10 years, Apple’s gross profit has increased by 17.5 times, one could extrapolate that more grad students are probably purchasing and using their products. From personal observation and assumption, Mac use by STEM students has increased considerably in the past few years. However, as students of the sciences, we often rely on highly specialized software written by our good friends and PC-lovers, the computer programmers. So how do we reconcile our love of brushed aluminum and intuitive user interfaces with our need for ArcGIS, SigmaPlot, or Statistica?

It turns out that there are a variety of options. Most require a Windows license (so be prepared to shell out for that); however, each has its own unique advantages. The most mainstream options I investigated during my own unsavvy tech-struggle are roughly outlined below.


Already installed on most MacBooks, Bootcamp allows you to install and use Windows at its full capacity when OS X isn’t running.  

Pros: Performs well with demanding tasks or big datasets that require the full power of your computer (e.g. ArcGIS, or other graphically intensive programs).

Cons: You must shut down and restart your computer to switch between operating systems, so you cannot run Windows and Mac programs simultaneously. This can be very frustrating if you, like me, are impatient in the slightest.

Virtual Windows Machines
There are a few programs that can create “virtual Windows machines” on your MacBook—the most popular being Parallels and VMWare Fusion. You can purchase both online for about $70, or check your campus bookstore for student discounts.

Pros: The virtual machine approach allows you to run both Windows and Mac programs simultaneously, making some tasks a lot less frustrating.

Cons: Your computer may run a little slower, so patience is still important. Also, these options actually cost money.

Remote Desktops

Not originally intended for the specific task of running Windows programs on a Mac, remote desktop software such as TeamViewer and VNC allow you to access a PC running the Windows programs you require.

Pros: If you already have a PC running your favorite Windows programs, but have recently switched to Mac, you can access your old computer through your new one.

Cons: If you don’t already have a PC, this could be the most financially unattractive option. Also, connecting remotely means relying on wireless reliability, which is not ideal for graphically intensive tasks or big datasets.

CrossOver Mac

The CrossOver app is a polished build using the user-unfriendly yet open-source Wine code and lets you run some Windows programs without a license. You can start with a free trial; however, a full version costs about $40.

Pros: No Windows license required, so if you only need to run one of the supported apps this could be a financially attractive option. Also, paying into this program helps the Wine program, since all improvements made by CodeWeavers are fed back into the programming of Wine.

Cons: You may run into a lot more bugs with this option, since support for certain programs is inconsistent. However, CodeWeavers seems to really care about improving their programs, so contacting them is a viable option when programs are buggy.


A slightly less user-friendly option, WineBottler is an app that also uses Wine code. It works in a similar fashion to CrossOver Mac, with less of the polish.

Pros: Financially attractive, this program is a free download with an optional donation to the programmer. He needs his coffee just like the rest of us.

Cons: You will encounter similar bugs to those in CrossOver, and the information you can get from those may never reach the Wine programmers. And while it may be free, you have to balance that benefit with its limited functionality.

So which one did I end up with? After a long and confusing conversation with myself, Google, and my labmates, I chose to create a virtual Windows machine with Parallels Desktop 10 (complete with a campus bookstore discount). I’m not a patient or particularly organized person, so waiting for my computer to boot up every time I needed to alter my scatterbrained spreadsheets was driving me up the wall. Now, I have to be patient moving from program to program, but for some reason that seems more bearable. However, this option wouldn’t be perfect for everyone, so take your needs and your personality into account when committing to one of these options. Good luck!

Do you have tips or stories about bringing Mac and Windows together? If so, please let us know in the comments below! Your technical struggles are worth sharing.

[Photo by Flickr user Yutaka Tsutano, used under Creative Commons Licensing]



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