Boot Camp? I Was Ready to Punt.

This is going to be my Jerry Pournelle column. Not that it’s about Jerry, but it falls into the genre he created, or at least became the master of. For those of you not familiar with Jerry, he used to have a column in Byte magazine, which ceased publication several years ago. Jerry’s column had pretty much the same basic outline each month. Under the guise of reviewing new hardware and software, it chronicled his latest misadventures with computer technology, problems he had encountered just in his daily work as a writer and in setting up and connecting components.

I was a Mac user, and he mainly dealt with PCs, so there wasn’t much overlap of my experience with his, though for a time it was amusing to follow his monthly tours (long, meandering tours usually) through troubleshooting land: first I did this, but then that caused this other problem, so I had try this other procedure, and so on. I had the feeling that life couldn’t be that hard for all PC users, so that maybe Jerry was deliberately trying things that would stress the systems just to see if he could encounter the problem that would become next month’s column.

I recently discovered that Jerry is still at it, writing about computer experiences at, only now he is mainly using Macs. I read an episode a few weeks ago, and sure enough Jerry had gotten into a bind doing something unusual: copying all 55,000 Windows PC files from an external hard drive connected to his Mac to the Mac’s trash folder in order to clean off the drive, instead of just reformatting it, which he was going to need to do anyway. He ran into problems trying to empty the trash (which took many paragraphs to relate) until someone told him to disconnect the drive. See what I mean? Jerry could definitely make a little extra income as a software and hardware tester. It’s fool proof, but is it Jerry proof? Just joking, Jerry. I’ve had problems too, as I shall now relate.

I have been needing a Windows Vista machine to test my software (OnScreen DNA and OnScreen Particle Physics) on. The Dell box I developed the Windows versions on runs XP fine, but is not up to running Vista. Ever since Apple announced Boot Camp as a way to install Windows on an Intel Mac, I’ve been planning to use it to make my MacBook Pro function as a Vista test machine, just as soon as Boot Camp was out of beta.

That happened when the latest version of Mac OS X, Leopard (aka 10.5), was released a few months ago with Boot Camp as a component. But still, I was a little leery of version 10.5.0, and indeed a number of problems were encountered by some early adopters. I didn’t actually install Leopard until the second update 10.5.2 appeared, which by some accounts was the first truly non-beta version.

As an aside, let me say that the last upgrade to 10.4, the oddly numbered 10.4.11, had caused me more trouble than any other Mac OS upgrade I’d ever installed. Safari wouldn’t run at all, at least until I upgraded QuickTime as well, which shouldn’t have been necessary. Meanwhile I learned that Firefox is not that bad, and I now use both. I was glad to have obtained the experience with Firefox, having recently discovered that it’s impossible to edit a page for a blog in WordPress using the latest version of Safari. Don’t try it; it will make you want to pull your hair out when all your paragraphing disappears! Firefox works fine with WordPress.

I purchased an OEM version of Vista Home Premium for a little over $100, thus saving quite a bit of money though restricting myself to never installing from that disk to another computer, which seemed a reasonable sacrifice. I had done a good bit of online research from which I had concluded that it was all right to install the OEM version on your own computer, so long as you realized you would not be able to get any tech support from Microsoft. I was after all making a custom computer assembly of a sort, just not one I planned to sell.

After installing 10.5.2 and waiting for things to equilibrate for a few days, I decided to take the Boot Camp Vista plunge. The first step in Boot Camp installation is to partition your Mac hard drive into separate Mac and Windows partitions. You are supposed to be able to do this “in place” without erasing your hard drive. A program called Boot Camp Assistant is provided by Apple to move files around to clear space for the Windows partition and then to do the partitioning.

I launched Boot Camp Assistant, instructed it to make a 15-gigabyte partition for Windows, and then took a break, assuming this would not be a rapid procedure. When I came back to the computer, I was not happy to see the ominous white text on a black background that signifies “Kernel Panic,” even without the words. Nothing to do be done but to restart and try again, hoping it was some freak glitch.

I was relieved to see that the MacBook Pro appeared to boot normally if a bit slowly, indicating (I thought) that the interrupted partitioning had not harmed the disk or its directory etc. Then I noticed that the total gigabytes for the disk had been reduced by the fifteen I had tried to give to the Windows partition. Disk Utility didn’t see the Windows partition, so it was as though the space had just disappeared from the hard drive.

I have AppleCare (Apple’s extended warranty plan), so I gave them a call and got through in a reasonably short time. The fellow I talked to had not encountered the problem, and the few things he suggested didn’t do any good. He put me on hold for a long time and then came back to suggest wiping the drive clean and reinstalling everything.

That was not something I wanted to do, as it seemed both time-consuming and risky. I thought I’d check the Apple support forums to see if anyone else had run into the problem. Indeed I found several people had had experiences essentially identical to mine that very same day, and all had been running the brand-new version 10.5.2. A couple had already reported that rebooting from the system installation disk and then using Disk Utility to repair the shrunken drive would restore it to apparent health, gigabytes recovered. This was encouraging at least; and I was able to obtain the same result. But I still didn’t have Windows Vista installed on my MacBook Pro.

I was not tempted to try the partitioning procedure again, since I felt lucky to have escaped with my data intact. There were a few hard-headed optimists in the forum that had gone through the whole procedure, Sisyphus-like, several times. I kept checking back in the Apple Boot Camp forum, for news of a solution. Finally a couple of distasteful workarounds appeared. One guy had just done what Apple Care had suggested I do, and he could verify that after restoring the contents of his hard drive from a backup drive, he had been able to partition it with Boot Camp Assistant and then install Windows. Another had achieved success after defragmenting his hard drive. This was more appealing to me. I paid for a program called iDefrag online ($35) and downloaded it. First I had to use the software’s special program for creating a bootable DVD with iDefrag on it, since it can’t defragment the startup disk.

Defragmenting is a slow procedure, but the software’s colorful visual representation of moving files and fragments around and filling in holes in the disk was rather fascinating, in the way watching clothes wash through the window of a front-loading washer can be, so I watched it for a while. It was slow though, and I eventually took a break. When I returned I found that a disk-reading error had occurred, and the software had quit, though it had been kind enough to tell me the name of the file it had encountered the problem with. The same file had failed to copy during my earlier backup to an external disk, so I wasn’t surprised to see its obscure name appearing again.

I deleted the file from the hard drive and started the defragmentation again. I was sorry to see that the program didn’t go back to where it had left off but was starting all over again. Even though the first part of the disk it was working on (as seen in its graphical display of the process) was almost solidly colored in with defragmented files, there were a few bubbles now present due to my having deleted that one file. It took a long time just to scoot blocks over to fill those bubbles. I left it to do its work again, and when I returned saw the same dismaying message about a problem file. Delete file and start over.

The same thing happened two more times. I was now worried that my hard drive might have some physical damage or that the original partitioning attempt had left a lot of files in a messed up state. Since the last couple of problem files had been in the same folder, I decided to try replacing the whole folder from the backup I had earlier made. Having done that, I crossed my fingers and started iDefrag again.

This time it worked, and the Boot Camp partitioning went through without another hitch. Now I was ready for the actual Vista installation. Then I read on the Vista box insert that the OEM version of Vista might require, according to Microsoft, installation by something called the OEM Preinstallation Kit or OPK. Going to the OPK web page, I saw that there was a license Microsoft wanted you to obtain (online application form, of course) in order to get the OPK. This was looking like a lot more trouble than I had anticipated. Some online searching about installing Windows with Boot Camp led me to assurances that the OPK was not really necessary.

I have to admit that, while I can interpret Microsoft’s fine print on use of the OEM version in a way that justifies my use of it (as a “system builder” that just doesn’t intend to redistribute this particular system, thus not needing to use the OPK), my main justification is my belief that, given the widespread availability of the OEM versions of Vista (I got mine from Amazon, and I’ve seen it listed at Walmart), Microsoft does not really care about individuals installing on their own machines, so long as they don’t expect any technical support.

I proceeded with my Vista installation, following Apple’s directions. As far as I could tell, my OEM version disk was just the same as a regular one, and it installed Vista without ever demanding I use the OPK instead. Sure enough I had Vista installed and running on my Mac! But something that should have taken around an hour had stretched over two days and required lots of online research and the purchase of a third-party program.

Whew! I don’t know how Jerry Pournelle does it. Writing this has been like pulling teeth after a sleepless night. That’s more than enough for a single post. Having gotten this far, I’ll relate my so far none-too-happy experience with Vista on the MacBook Pro in a later entry.

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