The Intel Macs released by Apple in 2006 support the operation of a Windows XP SP2 or Vista workstation running virtually, or as an alternate boot-up operating system through Boot Camp (which now ships with OSX 10.5). Parallels and VMWare Fusion are two virtualization software packages that are designed for OSX and are generally reliable for running Windows software packages like Microsoft Office (which does run more quickly natively in Windows than in the versions for Mac). Both Parallels and VMWare Fusion create a separate Windows partition on your Mac’s hard drive in the free space, and then install from your Windows XP SP2 disk. Note that you may need to create a bootable SP2 disk if you are an owner of the original Windows XP disk. There are several software packages that will allow you to integrate the original XP source files with the service pack files, and then burn the final collection to a bootable CD for the XP install.
I’ve personally been using Parallels (version 2 and then version 3) for about two years. Parallels performs reasonably well on the Mac – you should allocate at least 512 MB of RAM to Parallels when operating your virtual Windows PC. This generally means that you should get at least 2 gigabytes of RAM for your Mac (the newer Macs support up to 4 gigabytes) so you can still switch back to OSX for programs that work better natively in Mac (for example, Firefox still works better for Mac than Windows, as does itunes).
Parallels also allows you to share your virtual Windows installation’s hard drive to your Mac, which makes it easy to move files between the two packages. A word of caution: just because you have a virtual Windows computer on a Mac, don’t think that the virtual computer doesn’t need anti-virus software. It is, for all intents and purposes, a “real” Windows computer with the same security problems as all those physical installations of Windows. Note, however, that you can save yourself from horrible screams of agony by using the Parallels snapshotting feature, which allows you to roll your virtual machine back to a safe point in time and be back up and running again in a few minutes (I’ve had to use it a few times because of installing software that caused problems with my virtual machine). Once you have your virtual machine up and running, and configured to be useful (with the appropriate software and applications, patches, etc installed) be sure to make a snapshot with the snapshot manager.
Snapshotting’s drawback is that your virtual disk will grow with changes made to the virtual machine after the snapshot was made. You can manage this by periodically deleting your old snapshot and making a new one (if you are certain that your virtual PC is currently operating ok). Snapshots are not a substitute for regularly backing up your data to a separate disk or media. However, what’s nice is that you can back your entire virtual machine file (which is stored in a single directory on your Mac’s hard drive) and restore that file to another installation of OSX/Parallels all together. This is also a simple way of implementing identical virtual machines across several Macs, should you run into such a thing.
Overall, I would recommend that you use the virtual PC software for Mac, especially if you are thinking about getting a new laptop and aren’t sure you want to get a new PC.