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Making Macbook Air with 128GB SSD usable with Bootcamp

I recently got a new Macbook Air 11" (the 2012 version) and loaded it with goodies like 8GB ram and 2GHz Core i7.  What I DIDN'T upgrade was the internal SSD.  My config came with 128GB SSD and I refused to pay $300+ to upgrade it to 256GB.  Yeah I know, some call me cheap, but SSds cost $75-$150 for 240GB, so adding another 128GB for $300 seemed way too steep for me.  I figured "ok, I'm going to make 128G work!"

Here is the story of how that went...
First, my requirements:
  1. VMWare Fusion or VirtualBox or Parallels so that I can run a few oddball windows programs from within Mac OSX
  2. A Bootcamp partition so that I can occasionally boot directly into windows 7 and play some oddball games :)  If you need to take your games with you everywhere, then this tutorial is not for you, and you should go get a job instead of playing games.
  3. Enough room left over for tons of documents, pictures, videos, etc. on my 128GB ssd.
Now that last one doesn't really jive with the first two, which was the big hurdle since a "typical" windows 7 install takes up at least 16-25GB.

Chapter 1: Bootcamp on an External USB Drive? 

I wanted a bootcamp partition for playing games at full speed.  I had read that it is *possible* (read: not easy or commonly achievable) to get bootcamp running on an external drive.  I went down that  path first.  I had already build a swank SATA external RAID enclosure recently which I decided to use.  Cavalry makes some low cost units that have worked well for me.  I bought one and some 1.5TB SATA drives for a sweet USB3 1.5TB redundant RAID1 external drive.  (decent protection so that stuff I put on it is reasonably safe)  If you don't have super SATA RAID whatever, no biggie.  Any usb hard drive will work fine.

(NOTE: This is not a backup tutorial, if that is what you are after, this is not the tutorial you are looking for.  You can go about your business... Move along...)

There is a nifty program for a few buck$ called "winclone."  How this is SUPPOSED to work is like so:
  1. Use bootcamp assistant following instructions, which partitions your internal drive
  2. Boot to Win7 dvd and install, configure, etc..
  3. Boot back into OSX
  4. Run 'Winclone" and save the bootcamp partition to an image file
  5. Setup a new NTFS partition on your external drive
  6. Restore the backup image to the new external drive partition
  7. Remove bootcamp from your internal drive.
  8. Boot windows 7 from external, eat, drink and be merry.
That last step never happened for me.  I got Win7 to START to boot, but I kept getting BSOD and it never successfully booted in 3 completely separate tries.

So maybe some people have gotten it to work.  After so many tries, I decided that it wasn't a stable enough solution to continue to pursue.  I've heard that some people have had limited success with these tips:
  • Use unattended installs directly to the USB drive using NT 6.x fast installer, however those are all based on running it off PC hardware, not a Mac.  Will it work with Bootcamp?  Dunno.  Give it a try if you like.  I didn't.  YMMV.
  • After install, use sysprep /generalize to "prepare" the installation, as if it were being made into a distributable image.  Supposedly this makes it easier for a different system configuration to boot the windows instance.
Chapter 2: Remorse More Research

Ok, after several demoralizing tries and surfing a lot of forums, I determined that for whatever reason, the whole "run bootcamp from usb drive" thing probably wasn't going to work out for me.  Hang your tail low, its time to move on.

I started researching what others have done to deal with a small SSD.  One suggestion was to run Windows XP, which only requires about 1-2GB for the system, where Windows 7 expects around 15-16GB.  Big difference in space usage except that Windows XP is very old.

One of the threads I read had a member who ran "Windows XP Lite" -- and I was like "what the heck is that?"  A few googles later and here I find that it is a scaled down "trim the fat" version of Windows XP that the development community put together.  It runs exceptionally well on old hardware with limited ram, storage, etc. and also runs from a USB drive. (cool!)

My research took me the path of asking if there was a "Windows 7 Lite" -- which lo and behold, there is!  Visiting opened my eyes to what was possible.

Chapter 3: An actual game plan (for a change)

My plans had completely changed.  The first thing I felt I needed to do was build a Windows 7 lite image.  You can follow directions and customize one, or for the lazy pir8tes out there, just find a torrent that meets your requirements. 

NOTE:  Many versions of Windows 7 Lite have so much stuff stripped that windows update doesn't work.  Keep this in mind.  Saving disk space doesn't come without SOME consequences.

Once I had my Windows 7 lite CD (yes, I said "CD" -- it is that small!), I was able to tackle each of my requirements:

  1. VMWare/Parallels/VirtualBox to run my oddball windows stuff

    I created a new VM, and when you go to install, use your Windows 7 lite cd.  In my case, Windows 7 only took up about 4GB, and my apps took up another 2GB.  Total space: 6GB.  All my business critical stuff is still on the internal SSD and runs side by side in OSX.  Not bad.

    I like VMWare Fusion, but to each his own.  I've tried them all.
  2. A Bootcamp partition for playing games

    I used Bootcamp assistant to get all the drivers, etc. and install the OS.  Bootcamp assistant will INSIST that your Bootcamp partition is 20GB.  Just let it do its thing, but DO NOT let it reboot automatically.  If it does, just hold down the "ALT" key and boot back into OSX.

    In OSX, open disk utility, and delete that Bootcamp partition.  Don't be stupid, delete the correct partition.  Now, resize the remaining Mac OSX partition to all but what you want for Bootcamp.  I left 5 GB of unpartitioned space, then created a 5GB partition for Bootcamp, and formatted it Fat32 for no particular reason (windows 7 setup is going to make you reformat anyway)

    Now reboot, hold the ALT key, and select the windows bootcamp partition to boot.  Install windows 7 lite from the CD just like any other Win7 install.  Only this time it will go super fast because its copying less junk.

    When you are done, of course, install the Bootcamp drivers to get all your devices working properly.

    Now, when you want to install new apps, games, etc. instead of installing them to the C: drive, connect up your external USB drive, and install your apps/games there instead.

    This means that when you are home and connected to your big USB drive, you can reboot into windows 7 and play games at full native OS speed with plenty of disk.  The Windows 7 system itself remains on the SSD just the way Apple likes it.
  3. Enough room for various crap.

    The Apple SSD says it is 128GB, but you only get 120GB of free space.  I think the other 8GB is for the backup/restore partition with the copy of OSX installer, etc. on it.  The virtual machine in VMWare or Parellels takes up 6GB, the Bootcamp partition takes up 5GB, OSX takes up 8GB maybe less.  That leaves me with 100-ish GB of space free.

    Out of 120GB workable space, having 100G free for docs, pics, etc. stuff and junk living among three separate OS installs -- I call that a WIN.

Chapter 4: Conclusion

It took breaking a few rules to get all this done, but at the end of the day, two copies of Windows 7 isn't chewing up 1/2 my SSD, I still get access to all the business apps and stuff I need when I'm mobile, and can play games and junk when I'm home connected to USB storage.  Its an effective use of space on the SSD and doesn't feel like a sacrifice.

If this helps you out, let me know!

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