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Macs and Windows software

Most recent discussion

A conversation about software for using Toolbox on Mac computers took place on the RNLD discussion list over several weeks in December 2011. Tom Honeyman provided the following helpful summary on 9 December.

For those that might be a little lost about what this thread is about, essentially Toolbox and many other Linguistics oriented programs run only Windows (XP, 7 etc), and there are people out there on Apple computers or running a Linux based operating system who would like to be able to run these programs. However, if you're running a linux based operating system, I suspect you're technically savvy enough not to need to read this email.

If you're on a Mac, and you're confused about the options then read on.

To run Toolbox and potentially other Windows only programs, broadly speaking there are 3 possible solutions:

(1) get a separate computer running a Windows based operating system (or use Boot Camp if you're on an Intel based Mac (i.e. relatively recent Mac)).
(2) run a "virtual" computer inside your computer and install Windows on this.
(3) emulate Windows and run your applications through that, using Crossover or Wine.

Solution (1) requires that you buy or find a separate computer, but this is at least reasonably straight forward. If you're not tech savvy but you're okay using a Windows PC then this is often the easiest solution. But the cost of this solution is the cost of the new computer (or find a second hand one - Toolbox does not need the latest and greatest computer). Consider getting a cheap netbook if this solution appeals. A major disadvantage for this solution is that your files will be spread across two computers. But you could always store them on a USB flash drive and then plug that into the computer you want to use.

Solution (1a) is Boot Camp. Boot Camp is an alternative for the moderately tech savvy Mac users. It allows you to install Windows straight onto your Mac, but will mean you have to restart your computer every time you want to use Toolbox, and you cannot simultaneously use Toolbox with your regular Apple programs. The costs associated with this solution are the purchase a of Windows license. There are academic versions available, and some academic institutions may have a site license which means you don't have to pay at all.

Solution (2) is technically harder than solution (1). There are three possible contenders: Parallels and VMWare Fusion, and VirtualBox. The first two are commercial products with various degrees of technical support available, the third is free, with community based support. Again if you are not tech savvy, I would lean towards the commercial solutions. And so the costs would be both the cost of the software and a Windows license. Advantages to this solution are that you can run Mac and (any) Windows programs side by side. Some confusing points can be locating your files, cutting a pasting between programs, and managing a "virtual" computer inside your actual computer. But the advantages are many - everything is (pretty much) in the one location, the Windows programs run very robustly, and especially with the commercial software, the tightness of integration means you may not even be aware of the difference between Toolbox and any other application on your Mac.

Solution (3) is also technically harder than (1), and while Toolbox runs reasonably well, I have failed to run many other SIL Linguistics programs. The cost is lower however - you only need to purchase Codeweaver's Crossover, and there are academic versions available. The software is updated frequently, but their business model is to make you pay for support (and major updates) on an ongoing basis (but you don't have to update if everything works!). Integration between regular Mac programs and Windows programs is reasonably tight, but at times confusing - for instance when it comes to closing/quitting Toolbox. Keyman does not work, and I have yet to come up with a reasonable solution to typing in non-standard characters. Key combinations can also be a little confusing. Cutting and pasting between documents can be a little buggy. The major advantage is that this is the cheapest solution to get Toolbox running on your Mac.

Crossover is actually a commercial repackaging of the freely available and open source Wine software. If you know how to install Wine then this email is not for you. But FYI it is the only legal free solution that does not require the purchase of a Windows license (actually, technically in some cases you are required to own a Windows license but you don't need to use it).

So here is how I would break it down based on different user's scenarios:

"Argh, it's all too hard... I want an easy solution!": use a separate Windows PC computer with a thumb drive to store your files. Of course lugging around two computers may actually be harder in some cases!

"I'm not afraid to try something trickier. I want to run Toolbox only and I want the cheapest (legal) solution": run Wine, or if you don't know how to do that, run Codeweaver's Crossover. VirtualBox is potentially a better cheap option if you can get ahold of a Windows license for free (i.e. through work etc).

"I'm not afraid to try something trickier. I want convenience. I don't care what it costs": run Parallels or VMWare Fusion (where the integration is more transparent), or if on a budget, run VirtualBox. Of course, VirtualBox will be the cheapest if you can get hold of a Windows license for free.

None of these solutions are perfect. So in addition, consider writing a friendly email to the SIL Toolbox/Fieldworks team praising them on their excellent software (a bargain at that price too if I may say so!), and saying how nice it would be if they could produce a genuine cross-platform solution.


Discussion 2

A discussion about using Windows software on a Mac occurred in May 2010 on the RNLD list, and is summarised below. The software discussed and compared by contributors includes:



I am currently contemplating switching to a MacBook for my field laptop for various reasons (viruses, reliability, speed, video-editing capabilities, etc.), but quite honestly cannot imagine a world without Toolbox. I was wondering whether anyone on the list has used recent versions of Toolbox (post-1.5) with CrossOverMac or Wine (Windows emulators) extensively, and if so what your experiences have been like. If anyone has any similar experiences with Ubuntu 9 or 10, I'd be grateful for any information on that as well, although less urgently.


I use Toolbox all the time on my MacBook Pro but with Parallels and a Windows system.

I use Macbook Pro with Sun's VirtualBox (free, unlike Parallels) but you could also try Darwine (Mac port for wine).  I'm also proficient in Ubuntu up to 9.10 (haven't tried 10.4 yet). Again, you can run VirtualBox in Ubuntu if you like or just use Wine.

I have been using Toolbox on Ubuntu with Wine and it works fairly well - some issues at times, but when talking about Toolbox, it's difficult to separate issues involving Wine from those involving Toolbox itself.
On a Mac, one linguist shoehorned Toolbox on his Mac using CrossOver, and another used Parallels, each swears by his method. The difference is that Parallels is running a virtual machine (that integrates nicely with the Mac OS), so you have to have a copy of Windows (but with an institutional affiliation, you should be able to get it for free); CrossOver is a Windows emulator, but I find setting it up to be prohibitively difficult.
I might also suggest using VirtualBox, by Sun Microsystems. It's just a virtual machine again, but it's free and open source, but doesn't quite integrate with the host as much as Parallels does - I have had some trouble defining shared folders, for instance, so I can't pass files from the host to the virtual machine and vice versa. However I can map a network drive, so you could potentially configure your Mac to share itself over the network, and then mount it in the virtual machine as a samba drive... (I'm only considering this as an option now - never tried it, but it could work - I may give it a go in my spare time today and report back).

I also use Toolbox on a Mac with Parallels. It is a bit slow and clunky but works fine. What doesn't work (and is frustrating) is Lexique Pro. It appears to work but I can never get a decently formatted file out of it.

I have both used Parallels and CrossOver. I have also used just the plain Wine installation on OS X, and if you're handy with a command line, this will save you having to pay for CrossOver. Make sure you have a later version of X11 if you do this.

  • PC Emulator: Parallels, VMWare Fusion (haven't tried others, QEMU-based ones horribly slow and buggy)
    Pros: you can install not just Toolbox, but also other PC software.
    Cons: Bigger hit on your processor, more expensive, especially if you have to purchase a Windows license.
  • Windows Emulator: Wine+X11 or CrossOver (also Wine based)
    Pros: less of a processor hit
    Cons: Occasionally buggy, limited to Toolbox. I have been unable to get other SIL software to work, thanks to heavy use of .NET framework.

In the end, I've always been used to Toolbox crashing, and so I save regularly, and I'm happier with the lower processor hit. Sometimes I find the key combo changes a bit annoying. If you see yourself migrating to newer SIL software in the future, you may prefer the flexibility of a PC emulator. I have used Toolbox in Wine on Ubuntu 9, but not extensively. I didn't have any problems (beyond the usual) when I did though.

Sharing folders in VirtualBox is easy enough. You simply choose (in Mac) Devices>Shared FOlders> CLick on the + and then input the path of any folder you want on the Mac/.Nix side: e.g. /users/username/Foldername. Then give the user full (read/write) permissions and you're set. In fact, VirtualBox then handles it pretty much the way you suggest: It creates a mapped drive by UNC Path, such as \\vboxsvr\foldername in the Windows VM. If you can't leave WIndows, VirtualBox is the way to go - it will do anything you want and if it doesn't, you've not lost anything as it's free.
Darwine or CrossOver? The arguments will be the same; Darwine's free and open-source, CrossOver is commercial, not-free (quite costly) and closed-source. On the flip-side, Darwine is not maintained very well so there's fewer updates, CrossOver is updated regularly. The only questions at the end of the day are of preference and freedom to use the software you own.

Does anyone know whether it would be feasible to just go ahead and open the Toolbox .db file (created on a Mac) in a PC running Lexique Pro? Since most people seem to only use Lexique Pro for last-stage formatting, rather than data-input, it seems like this arrangement would work fine. Or are there some sort of compatibility problems with .db files created on a Mac being opened on a PC running Lexique Pro (or, for that matter, native-PC Toolbox)?

I don't know if this is of any help on the Lexique-Pro question (and I don't use a Mac, and am not a teckie by any stretch of the imagination) - but I have found that for my Maasai dictionary, an OLDER (2.8.6) version of Lexique-Pro works. The newer version (3....) is superbly slow and/or has some other issue to the point that I am not able to generate a formatted file using it.
My Maa lexicography database is (I think) reasonably complicated because I am trying to handle cross-dialect information in it. It is also over 6MB (generating a formatted output file of approximately 1200 pages), and perhaps the size has something to do with the problems? In any case, the older version works! The newer one does not. I don't know wherein the problems lie (my database, or the newer program).

All of that said, I am supremely impressed with what the (older) Lexique-Pro version does with my non-standard set of field tags and do not wish to let that fact go un-noted.


Discussion 3

An earlier discussion about using Transcriber with Fusion on a Mac was held in April 2009 on the RNLD email list.



Thanks to contributors Mark Post, Frances Kofod, Xavier Barker, Aiden Wilson, Felicity Meakins, Tom Honeyman and Doris Payne.