Misadventures with Windows 8.1 and BootCamp on a MacBook Pro

This weekend, I put Windows 8.1 Enterprise Edition 64-bit on a 15″ mid-2011 MacBook Pro. It turned out to be much more of a (mis)adventure than I anticipated.

What I Tried and Failed

My goal was to simply burn a USB-stick installer, put Windows 8.1 on it, and then put the Bootcamp 5 software on it and install Windows. That’s where it all went wrong:

  • First, I used the Microsoft Store utility to burn the Windows 8.1 Enterprise x64 ISO to the USB stick – big mistake. It formats the USB stick using a MBR partition table. A Mac cannot be booted off of a USB stick unless it has a GPT partition table. To fix, I ended up using my 15″ Retina MacBook Pro to re-create the USB stick because you can’t create in MacOS a Windows installer stick unless you do so on a Mac without an optical drive.
  • Second, it turns out the Boot Camp Assistant won’t actually partition the drive unless you have a Windows installer disc in the optical drive. To fix, I had to actually burn a copy of the installation media and put it in the optical drive.
  • Third, it turns out there is a bug (either in Apple’s firmware or Windows 8/8.1 setup – my suspicion is its an Apple problem) that will not let you install from a USB stick. The error was totally non-obvious – it said that the hard disk was partitioned as MBR but it needed GPT. To fix, I ended up installing from the recently burned DVD. The problem is definitely isolated to Mac models with an optical drive – as I did not have this issue on my Retina MacBook Pro or MacBook Air without optical drives.
Conclusions
What I was able to conclude from this exercise is that if your Mac has an optical drive, chances are you won’t be able to install from a USB stick. So the correct sequence would have been:
  1. Burn the Windows DVD to a re-writeable optical disc using whatever means are preferred.
  2. Download the BootCamp 5 software from Apple’s site in Windows.
  3. Copy the folder structure to the just-burned optical disc.
  4. Run Boot Camp Assistant and install Windows.
  5. Install the supplementary BootCamp software afterwards.
If on a Mac without an optical drive, simply use the Boot Camp Assistant to create a USB stick with everything on it, install Windows from it, and then install the supplementary software.
Lastly, after finally getting everything working – I had to go into Power Settings / Advanced Power settings and disable Adaptive Brightness in order to get the screen brightness to function properly. Once all that was done, Windows 8.1 on a Mac has been fantastic.
Hope this helps!
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