How to install Windows with Boot Camp on new Retina iMac

November 02, 2014

I got a new Retina iMac recently. It is every bit as fantastic machine as the hype says. Since I use it for both work and play, I did not hesitate to splurge a ridiculous amount of money on it and max it out in all the tech specs, as I will be heavily using it for the next several years. I guess I might write more posts about different aspects of the machine.

The one thing I do want to write about today is how to get Windows to work with Boot Camp. My main (well, the only) use case is Windows games with Steam.

TL;DR summary: don’t bother with Windows 7. The installation doesn’t work correctly and the whole system is aging. Just buy the new Windows 8 from Microsoft (Windows 8.1 is the current version as of this writing) and live happily ever after.

Here’s a bit more detail about how I got to that conclusion.

I have a legal box copy of Windows 7 Home Premium that has been serving me well over the years. Windows 8 caused a big fuss with its Metro interface and did not sound like a good idea on desktop, so I’ve been avoiding it until recently.

So, my first step was to try to get Windows 7 installed on Mac Bootcamp partition. The way to do it these days is to run Boot Camp Assistant on Mac, that prompts you for the location of Windows ISO image, and then prepares a bootable USB stick containing both the ISO image and the extra needed drivers.

So first I had to convert the DVD into an ISO image. No biggie, plenty of ways to do that. And then ran the Assistant that prepared the USB stick, Windows partition, and rebooted into Windows installation.

That’s where trouble started, and I had to revise yet another piece of my hardware knowledge. I had a USB keyboard and mouse available, that I thought I could just plug in to the computer, and they would be backwards compatible with the ports and software and would work under any conditions, including Windows installation. Apparently, this is no longer the case. The USB3 ports on recent Macs are apparently not supported without drivers in Windows at all, and so what the Boot Camp Assistant does, is augment the Windows installation image with these drivers. And it sort of worked, I could see the mouse cursor. Sometimes. But then, installation froze at 65%, which is supposedly another artifact of the USB system (remember, the installation media is also on a USB drive that is plugged in to the USB port). When I rebooted straight into Windows installation, there often would not be any mouse cursor and keyboard access at all.

All in all, Windows 7 just wouldn’t install for me correctly at all. Fair enough, let’s give Windows 8 a shot.

I was prepared for many hours of ordeal and wasted money, trying to sort through Microsoft’s different Windows versions and licensing options. If it is an “upgrade” version, do I need to have previous versions around as well? What if there are similar driver troubles and I find myself having wasted money on a license, but still unable to install?

Fortunately, none of this happened, and all went fine. First, you head to Microsoft Store and buy a Windows license. Windows 8.1 comes in regular and Pro versions. You don’t need any Pro features for gaming, so I just got the regular one for 119 EUR. This gives you the license key. Very important. Write it down and hold on to it.

Next, you need the install media. You can click the “Download” link on your order page in the store, or you can go to this page. You can’t just download an ISO image: you need access to another Windows machine to run the installer that downloads the image. If you do not currently have access to Windows, I don’t know what to recommend you. Luckily enough, I had a Parallels Windows VM around in my Mac, so I could just run that downloader. It first prompts you for the license key, and makes it look like you are about to install Windows, but don’t be scared and just follow the prompts carefully. At one point, it offers you to save an ISO image and that is what you want.

So, now I had the ISO image of Windows 8.1, as well as a license key. I could run the Boot Camp Assistant that again prepared me install media, booted into Windows installation … and from there on, everything was smooth. Apparently Windows 8.1 has better USB3 drivers, so mouse and keyboard worked, as did the rest of the installation. Only at one point, it tells you “Almost done, do not turn off your computer” and seems like it is stuck on this screen, I think it was like 15 minutes for me. Eventually, though, it goes on, and the installation finishes fine.

8.1 is also much friendlier than 8 on the desktop. There is still some Metro interface around, and some dialogs talk about “Tap here”, but overall, it’s fine and you can stay in the regular desktop environment for most of the time.