If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

boot camp laptop macbook macbook pro retina technology windows 8

I have finally succumbed to the world of running Windows on Apple hardware as far as PCs go. Despite a lifelong opposition to Apple products I finally relented and bought myself a shiny new MacBook Pro with Retina display to run Windows 8.

For a while I was looking for a good quality laptop that was going to perform well and was also ‘solid’ in design and not too heavy. The MacBook Pro ticks these boxes for me – 15” laptop that only weights 2.02 kilograms and with 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD it surely flies. The appeal of the Retina display also swayed me – even if I hate the sales term ‘Retina’, you can’t dispute that it’s a brilliant display.

Getting started with OS X was pretty straight forward enough and to be honest using it seems OK for a Windows guy like me. I’ve been an MS-DOS, Windows guy since the days of DOS 6 when my family first got a PC. Trying to get comfortable with OS X now will be a bit like switching from being right handed to left handed. I’m not going to wipe it, I’m going to leave it there and occasionally boot into it.

But my daily OS is a fresh install of Windows 8 Enterprise RTM. Getting this installed with Boot Camp was pretty straight forward thanks to this step-by-step guide. The slowest part for me was where OS X copies the contents of the Windows ISO to your USB flash drive. I used an 8GB flash drive I had kicking around which has always had pretty poor write performance. Ironically I got it at a Microsoft event.

With Windows 8 installed and defaulting to my primary OS I can go from a cold boot to the logon screen in 24 seconds. I know they have improved the boot time in Windows 8 but that’s ridiculous. A fair amount of that time is the MacBook checking itself out and trying to decide which partition to boot from.

I’ve partitioned the HDD equally and inside Windows and OS X I can easily see the contents of either partition so I don’t really feel I have lost too much space. I would make the OS X partition smaller if I had my time again though.

Odd quirks?

After you install Windows there is some additional drivers and software to install from your flash drive that OS X provides. Once installed you have a Windows utility called Boot Camp Control Panel. You can use this to change how the keyboard and trackpad behave. This was critical because by default I couldn’t work out how to right-click which is essential in Windows. Maybe there was a way, but I needed to enable the ‘bottom right corner’ of the trackpad as right-click for me. However Boot Camp Control Panel wouldn’t start, complaining about permissions.

Turns out that Boot Camp Control Panel cannot run if the user is an Administrator. Now the first user into Windows 8 is an Administrator so trying to run this kept causing problems. The workaround is to create a second user, also an Administrator. Because the settings in Boot Camp Control Panel are user specific you cannot just log on as that user and change the settings you want. You have to log on as the second Admin, demote your first user (assuming you want it to be your primary account), log back in as the first account and run the Boot Camp Control Panel. After this you can leave your account as a normal user, or use the second account to promote it back.

Keyboard Mapping

I’ve gotten used to the Command key being the Windows key, but I was missing not having a right hand side Control key for the old ‘Ctrl + Enter’ shortcut to send email in Outlook. There is a tool called SharpKeys that can be used to reprogram your keyboard in Windows. I simply ran this tool and remapped this key so now my right hand Command button is a right-side Control key.

Keyboard Backlight

The Keyboard backlight appears to always stay on, and at maximum brightness under Windows. Apparently this is a known issue and there is some software called Power Plan 7 that can help you configure this simply via the mouse each time you log on. I installed it, it didn’t seem to run or do anything – maybe it’s a Windows 8 incompatibility though. In the meantime I just use the Fn key + F5 to dim the keyboard after logging on each time.

The Display

Windows just worked with the Retina display after install, and defaulted to the maximum resolution of 2880 by 1800 pixels. That’s about 5 megapixels if you had a camera. It’s sharp and of course everything looks ridiculously small. I quickly turned up the DPI for text to 150% so I can read most UI labels and things, but some apps don’t handle this very well and either have their UI labels wrapping in odd places, or don’t scale up at all leaving you with a tiny menu bar for example. As I write this in Windows Live Writer 2012 it appears to be guilty of this exact problem.

Under this resolution Chrome looked all fuzzy. I quickly found out you can exempt programs from high DPI settings – doing this, and then defaulting the zoom level of the web content to be higher than normal makes Chrome a beautiful thing. A beautiful thing with tiny little tabs at the top.

I’m going to persist with the resolution for a while and see if I need to scale it down. It’d ridiculous that my 24 inch monitor only supports 1920 by 1080 in comparison.

That annoying startup sound

Of course the annoying Apple startup sound is present, there’s no muting it or disabling it to my knowledge. I’ve read about holding the mute button during startup – doesn’t work. Headphones plugged in makes no difference. The only thing left to try is to mute the sound under OS X and shut down, I will report back on that.

Sleep

Shutting the lid, reopening the lid just works and works well. It takes about 2 seconds to resume from a sleep and I’ve never had any problems with it. My old work laptop always had problems and would end up in various states of distress. Thanks to a mechanical hard drive and corporate encryption it was a lengthy recovery process to turn off and boot from scratch. Therefore this feature working well with the MacBook Pro is a big win for me.

Conclusion

So far I am really pleased with this laptop. It’s a pretty jarring change for me both in terms of hardware (hey moving just one or two keys can have a big impact!) and also the massive change that is Windows 8, but so far I’m loving it. Future posts will be on Windows 8 impressions and any other tidbits I find with the MacBook under Windows.

I will not be using the Apple stickers that came in the box with the MacBook, let me know if you want them. The conversion to Apple fan is going to be a long journey for me.