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Mac Users and Radio Programs (Updated June 2015)

The question about Mac software for the scanners and other radios comes up often here at ScannerMaster. The vast majority of radio programming software is made for Windows so the trick is to find a way to run Windows. Although many Mac users view Windows as a virus, it is kind of a necessary evil to do what you need or want to do. There are a few Mac radio programs out there but they are few and far between. If you spend any real time with a radio you will eventually need to run Windows applications. That last sentence is hard to say for this die-hard Mac guy but it is reality.

There are cheap Windows machines out there that will work fine for most radio programming. Netbooks and tablets running some version of Windows 7 or 8 can be had for under $300 all in. Just add a USB cable for your radio or a USB-Serial adapter and your favorite program and off you go. Be careful not to get a system running Windows RT or Windows Mobile. RT and Mobile will not work with most “regular” Windows applications.

You can also get a cheap desktop system for not much more than a netbook, but that takes up more room and adds complexity. You could probably share a Mac monitor if the Windows box has a compatible connector and you may be able to use your existing Mac keyboard and mouse. You could use a KVM (Keyboard-Mouse-Video) switch or one of the applications like Synergy to share the monitor, mouse and keyboard between the Mac and your Windows box. MacBooks and iMacs however do not have outboard monitors, so unless you have a second monitor you are out of luck for this.

Check your local tag sales, pawnshops or thrift stores. You can find working Windows machines or laptops cheaply there, usually already set up with Windows XP or even Windows 7. (Most Windows people tend to avoid Vista...) Be careful, Windows Mobile and Windows RT, while they look a lot like other versions of Windows, won’t work for most scanner applications. Make sure you are running real Windows XP, Vista, 7 or 8.

Be sure to run a good anti-virus program. Mac people have been lucky not to really need to worry about this for decades but it is a way of life in Windows. AVG and MS Security Essentials are good, free virus programs. Install, update and run the virus checker before doing anything else on any used Windows computer.

Running Windows on a Mac
On the Mac itself you can use one of several methods to run Windows applications and Windows itself. This is especially easy if you have a recent Intel powered Mac. There are 3 popular ways to do this:

Apple's own free BootCamp allows you to boot into Windows or the Mac OS (but not at the same time) and this allows most applications to work just as if the computer was made for Windows. You still need a licensed copy of Windows, but BootCamp itself is free, just download it from Apple if it isn’t already on your computer. Once installed you can start your computer up in BootCamp, and have a system that looks, feels and works just like any other Windows computer. To go back to the Mac environment you then need to restart the computer.

Parallels and Fusion
You can also use Parallels or VMWare's Fusion, these allow you to run almost any other OS, including Windows' several versions alongside your Mac programs. It can be set up so that the Windows part is almost transparent, your radio program just kind of runs and you don't even know that it is a Windows application if you don't look too closely. These applications are very similar in look, feel and feature set as well as cost (about $70 for the program). Again, you need to supply your own copy of Windows.

If you have already installed BootCamp and Windows you can use that same installation when you install Parallels or Fusion. This allows you to use either BootCamp or the other application depending on which works best for you for that task. Some Windows programs might require more resources, thus work better in BootCamp, some work fine in Fusion or Parallels, so that way will save you from having to restart your computer.

When running Parallels or Fusion the application will ask you if you want USB devices to work in the Mac or Windows environment when you plug in a device like a programming cable or thumb drive. Choose wisely, if you set a cable to work in the MacOS then Windows won’t see it and it will not work.

Parallels OR Fusion?
This is a toss-up. The wife and I have used both and they both work just fine for everything we have thrown at them. I stuck with Parallels since it seemed more Mac-like to me, the wife preferred Fusion’s look and feel. In reality they both do pretty much the same thing and it is like deciding between a Ford and Chevy or between a Uniden and GRE scanner. Look at the feature sets for both and make a decision. See if one is on sale this week. Flip a coin.

Windows License
BootCamp, Parallels and Fusion all require that you obtain a licensed copy of Windows, you will need the install CD/DVD and a valid install key. Look at discount places like Costco or computer warehouses for copies of Windows but be sure that you get a Full Install disk.

USB vs. Serial
If your radio already has a USB cable then you are all set. If it only has a Serial cable then you will need a USB-Serial adapter that will work in whatever version of Windows you use. Some USB-serial adapters don't work in 64-bit Windows 7 or 8 or need updated drivers, make sure yours does, it will say so on the packaging. Some scanners (such as the older Unidens) come with serial cables but have an optional USB cable. Get the USB cable. While it is really just a USB to Serial adaptor built-in to the cable, it is well supported by most scanner programs. Most current model scanners come with USB connections built-in.

Wine originally stood for “Windows Emulator” but now is understood to mean “Wine Is Not an Emulator”. It basically allows users of Unix based operating systems (which includes MacOS 10.x) to run Windows based applications. If you know how to use Wine then you don’t need to read this article. It might be worth researching but most creators of commercial scanner programs will not support issues with Wine so if it doesn’t work you are on your own.

Windows 7, 8 or XP?
Once you find your Windows computer, be it a Mac, netbook or otherwise, you may have to decide what version of Windows to install. If you have an older Windows machine already with Windows XP on it then you might as well stay with that. XP was available for a long time and works well with almost all radio applications. There are a few older applications that are written for DOS that might have some issues but you can usually work around that in XP.

If you buy new however you might not be able to chose between XP and Windows 7. New computers come with Windows 8 these days, it is next to impossible to find new equipment with XP anymore. Windows 7 computers are still common on store shelves and works great with most radio programs.

Windows 8 is a bit tricky sometimes but many of the issues that befell radio users with Windows 8 have been fixed in Windows 8.1. 8.1 is a free update to Windows 8, do it and you will have less problems with drivers etc.

32 or 64 Bit
While the Mac has been 64-bit for a long time, most Windows computers had been 32-bit until the last few years. This basically affects things like how much memory can be recognized and how memory is managed among other more technical stuff. 32-bit computers are limited to using about 3 ½ GB of RAM, 64-bit computers can utilize much more. While there is a 64-bit version of Windows XP, chances are you would never have seen it at home or work. Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8 have embraced 64-bit computing much more than XP ever did, The Pro and Home Premium 64-bit versions are pretty easy to obtain on recently made computers.

If you are running a 64-bit version of Windows 7 or 8 make sure that your radio or programming cable has 64-bit capable drivers or you will have to monkey around with settings to make it work. This is true whether you are running Windows on a dedicated machine or with a virtualization program.

Running older programs in Windows 7/8
Most Windows programs that work in Windows XP will work in Windows 7 or 8, either already or with an upgrade. Most problems are actually hardware or driver based. You may need to update the application, drivers or even your programming cable to make it work in Windows 7 or 8, even the 32-bit versions.

If you need to use an application that just will not work in your Windows 7 computer (usually an older program that can’t run in a 64 bit environment) then you could try to run it in “XP Mode”, a type of virtual environment that works in Windows 7 Pro and Ultimate. This will allow you to run programs that otherwise won’t work in Windows7 to work as if they are on an XP machine. You don’t need an additional Windows license to use this method.

Running Windows XP mode within Windows 7, itself within a Mac environment within Fusion or Parallels adds layers of complexity and introduces more places for problems to crop up. At this point it might be worth it to bite the bullet and buy a cheap Windows machine to program your radio.

Scanner program behavior in the MacOS
I have used many radio programming applications on my Mac, and have had few problems doing so. ARC products from Butel and Scanner Master work great on a Mac, in BootCamp, Parallels and Fusion. Just open the Windows environment and install the application, install the cable (and drivers as needed) and off you go. In Parallels on my MacBook Pro and my iMac it runs just like any Mac application.

Some applications need to hog all the resources they can grab from your computer, you might have better luck with these using BootCamp. Since BootCamp runs outside the MacOS (actually in place of the MacOS) all of the computer’s memory and processing oomph is dedicated to Windows. Parallels and Fusion have to share the memory and resources with the MacOS and you are running both Mac and Windows at the same time. This might choke on some poorly written programs or programs that require more memory. Remember: Too much RAM is never enough. Make sure you allocate plenty of RAM to the virtual environment!