Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac is lets you seamlessly run Windows and Mac applications side-by-side

Choosing a Windows 8 version for your Mac

By John Rizzo

If you're installing Windows 8 on your Mac, you need to make sure you have the right version. The wrong version of Windows 8 may not install in Apple's Boot Camp or in virtualization software such as Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion. Or you may be buying a version that is more than you need.

With Windows 8, Microsoft changed the way it sells its OS, and made more changes with Windows 8.1, the current version. For one, Microsott reduced the number of retail versions to two main types: regular and Professional. But there are actually four versions of Windows 8.1, because regular and Professional each come in two flavors: "Windows 8.1 Full Version" and something called "Windows 8.1 System Builder OEM." Here are the four versions, with pricing from Amazon:

There are also two additional versions of the older Windows 8.0 still available that you can use for upgrading from Windows 7, which comes in Pro and regular flavors (again with links to Amazon):

So that's six possibilities in all. So which one for your Mac? For most Mac users, Windows 8.1 System Builder OEM is will fill the bill. But for some, other versions will be better.

The most important choice you have to make is between System Builder and Full Version.

The Full Versions are typically between $30 to $60 more than the OEM version. For your Mac, more expensive does not mean better. The Windows 8.1 System Builder OEM version is for you if you're creating a brand new installation of Windows 8.1 in Boot Camp, or are creating new virtual machine with Parallels Desktop, VMWare Fusion, or Oracle VirtualBox. The term "System Builder" refers to people who build their own PC from parts. Creating a new virtual machine or a Boot Camp partition is the equivalent of building your own system. The acronym "OEM" stands for "original equipment manufacturer," which in this case is you.

One more factor: the System Builder OEM editions come in 32-bit or 64-bit versions. For your Mac, you'll want the 64-bit.

Upgrading from Windows 7 or 8.0

If you want to upgrade from Windows 7, and want Microsoft's latest and greatest, you can shell out the extra money for one of the Windows 8.1 Full Versions. This is certainly the easiest way to go from Win 7 to Win 8.1. But if the idea of paying more for an upgrade than a clean install irks you, you can spent some extra time and work and get the less-expensive Windows 8.0 Upgrade version. Then you can upgrade to Windows 8.1 with Microsoft's free updater.

Windows 8.0 Upgrade is about $50 or so less expensive than Windows 8.1 System Builder, and up to $80 cheaper than 8.1 Full Version. The 8.0 Upgrade and installs on an existing version of Windows 7, Vista, or Windows XP. (It will also install on top of the old Windows 8 Preview, which expired in December 2012.) If you upgrade from Windows 7, Windows 8 retains the software applications you have. Upgrading XP to Windows 8 only saves your files; upgrading from Vista saves files and settings.

To upgrade from Windows 8.0 to 8.1, from within the Metro interface, go to the Store tile and select the free Windows 8.1 Upgrade.

But even if you already have a Windows 7 virtual machine, you may not want to convert it to Windows 8. Consider using System Builder to create a new Windows 8 virtual machine while retaining your old Windows 7 VM. You'll have to reinstall any applications and files you might need. But having multiple OS's installed at the same time is one advantage of virtual machines over Boot Camp.

One thing you ought not do is make a copy of a Windows 7 virtual machine and run the less expensive Windows 8 Upgrade on one of the copies. The problem with this is that copying a virtual machine (VM) can cause Windows in the copied VM to ask you to activate it--which you may not be able to do if you've already activated this copy of Windows. Windows will do this because copying a virtual machine creates gives the copy a new MAC address, which is a unique identifier to a computer's (or virtual machine's) Ethernet connection. It's safer to bite the bullet and create a new VM with Windows 8.1 System Builder OEM.

Regular vs. Pro

Finally, you need to decide between the regular and Professional versions of Windows 8.1. The Professional version has more power user features, Windows 8.1 Pro can also be controlled by Remote Desktop, includes an encrypted file system (called BitLocker), and can run virtual machines (called Hyper-V).

Windows 8.1 Pro also adds features for enterprise networks, including the ability to be part of a Windows Active Directory domain and be controlled by group policies. If you need any of these features, or need to have your copy of Windows managed by your company's IT department, then a Windows Pro edition is for you.

There are two other versions you don't have to worry about. Windows 8 RT is a version specially made for tablets with an ARM processor, including Microsoft's Surface Pro. Windows RT won't run on your Mac. Windows 8 Enterprise is for organizations that have Microsoft Software Assurance agreements, not individuals.