Bootcamp 3.1

I am currently a Mac user. In fact, I should say that we are a Mac household. I’d be happy to expand upon the reasons for my/our choice, but that’s for another post.

Anyway, the emphasis in the previous paragraph should be on “currently.” I have used Windows and Linux in the past. I am a big believer in experimentation and, by implication, platform-independence. Actually, this is one of the reasons I like (no, make that love) TeX: it runs pretty much anywhere. Although this, too, deserves a future post.

The bottom line is that I like to keep my options open, and to follow what’s happening on other platforms. Hence, I currently have the evaluation version of Windows 7 installed on both my Macbook Pro and my office iMac (both from early 2008). Bootcamp is, at its core, a set of Windows drivers for the hardware found in Mac computers. You basically install Windows on a partition of your hard disk, and then install the Bootcamp drivers to (supposedly) gain full access to your hardware (e.g. your video and audio cards, your wireless adapter, etc.). Once you do this, Windows and the Mac’s own operating system live separate lives—at any given time, you can run only one of them, and if you want to switch, you need to shut down and reboot. When you are running Windows, your Mac is, for all intents and purposes, just like a run-of-the-mill PC.

The latest version of the Mac OS, Snow Leopard, shipped with a version of Bootcamp (3.0) that only officially supported Windows XP and Vista, although the drivers did install and work on Win7, with some glitches. But the main issue with the previous Bootcamp drivers was the fact that touchpads were not well supported at all, on my oldish Macbook Pro as well as on more recent machines. In addition to the fact that “two-finger tap to click” (which I consider part of the hardware’s basic functionality) was only introduced in Bootcamp 3.0, the touchpad was extremely sensitive, to the point of being nearly unusable. This thread from the Apple discussion forums is indicative of the wide range of problems people encountered.

Well, the new drivers (32bit and 64bit) largely solve the sensitivity issue. I would say the trackpad is now usable under Windows 7 (and, I expect, other versions of Windows). That’s the good news.

The bad news is that overall support for the many special hardware features of my Macbook Pro is scarce. For instance:

  • the screen brightness does not automatically adjust based on ambient lighting, the way it does under OSX
  • the keyboard is illuminated under low-light conditions, but it’s a zero/one thing: either the backlighting is on, or it is off.
  • Touchpad gestures such as three-finger swiping, rotating, etc. are not supported at all.
  • Battery life is 3hrs under very light use, vs. 4 1/2 of normal use under OSX. This does not compare especially favorably with similarly outfitted laptops. By “very light use” I mean browsing mainly non-Flash sites, editing files but not typesetting too frequently, and occasionally checking email. By “normal use” I mean my usual productivity workflow, which for instance involves typesetting files and checking email as needed (a computationally intensive task) and not purposely avoiding Flash sites [sadly comprising 90% of sites these days].

Battery life actually deserves a qualification. While Win7 apparently improves upon Vista in this department, it is still worse than XP, for instance, on netbooks. That said, premium manufacturers such as Lenovo do manage to squeeze a fair bit of productive life out of Win7 on comparable machines (Dell not so much, based on my very unscientific survey of reviews). If Lenovo can, why can’t Apple?

This points to a deeper, and perhaps strategically interesting problem. Apple clearly realizes that allowing users to run Windows as needed is an important ingredient of their value proposition. Now, for things like running the odd, in-house application, or even the Windows version of MS Office if needed, virtual-machine software such as Fusion, Parallels or even the free VirtualBox are enough. In fact, several of my colleagues who now own a Mac still run Scientific Word in a virtual machine. This is, in many ways, the best of both worlds: you don’t give up the software you depend upon and are used to, but you can still enjoy many of the benefits of the Mac.

In this day and age, it would seem that you really only need to run Bootcamp if you have a computationally-intensive application that you just need to use—or, of course, if you want to play PC-only games. For such uses, one can probably argue that access to fancy features such as, say, advanced multitouch gestures, is not so important. Also, rather than minimize battery life, you probably want to maximize performance. Bottom line: the basic level of support provided by the Bootcamp drivers is consistent with the intended use of this technology.

But is this the whole story? Judging from posts in the Apple discussion forums, I am not the only person who likes to occasionally try out other operating systems. Indeed, some people apparently run Windows as their main (or sole) OS on Macs. Now the question is, why should Apple spend time and money to provide a high-quality Windows experience for people such as me?

Surely Apple does not want to turn into just another PC manufacturer. They very much want to sell you “the whole package”: their machines, their OS, their applications, and their services. There is surely a lot of value in this package (more about this in a future post), for most consumers. Therefore, it would not make sense for Apple to work very hard to make Windows look good on a Mac.

Yet, I do think Apple is treading a fine line here. While on the all-in-one desktop side I do not see any serious challenger to the iMac line (surely not in terms of price), I have seen and used pretty decent PC laptops that shared many (albeit not all) of the “premium” features of Macbooks and Macbook Pros, and cost considerably less. For instance, multitouch is gaining popularity in the PC world, and battery life is steadily improving. A consumer who has owned PC laptops in the recent past, or is comparing, say, a Macbook with a PC laptop, likely expects to not just be able to “run Windows,” but to run it well—just as well as with the competition. This is surely not the case right now, at least not for laptops. So, while Apple’s claim that you can “run Window on your Mac” may be literally true, it is arguably a bit misleading in spirit.

The implication is that Apple is leaving at least some of its customers with a bad taste in their mouths; this is surely the case for me! The question is, is this the “right” thing to do? Of course, there are probably very few “platform hoppers.” On the other hand, many “techies,” early adopters, evangelists, “family IT folks” etc. probably fall into this category, so it may not be in Apple’s best interest to disappoint them. I, for one, am currently a somewhat less enthusiastic Mac evangelist than I used to be [although there are other reasons for this: again, material for a later post].

What do you think? Anyway, Apple, thanks for at least partially fixing the issues with Bootcamp 🙂

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One response to “Bootcamp 3.1

  1. Pingback: Windows 7 experiments « Tech, TeX and Theory

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