Hands On: Virtual PC 5.0

- 2002.01.04 - Tip Jar

Many Mac users need to either run the occasional PC program or connect to a Windows network to share files or printers. But when they upgraded to OS X, they were out of luck - popular programs that provided these functions (such as Connectix's Virtual PC and Thursby's Dave) simply did not work under OS X.

Until now.

This winter, new versions of both Virtual PC and Dave have been released, each providing support for both classic Mac OS's and OS X in the same box.

We'll take a close look at VPC in this article and cover Dave on Monday.

Virtual PC 5.0

Over the past few years, Connectix's Virtual PC (VPC) has been one of the more popular pieces of Mac software, allowing Mac owners (admittedly Mac owners with fast CPUs, big hard drives, and lots of RAM) to boot up, as the name suggests, a virtual PC, running the PC operating system of their choice - anything from DOS to Windows to Linux. Once the PC is booted up, users can install and run PC programs.

VPC fills the niche for Mac users who need to run a few PC programs such as Microsoft Outlook (Mac Office's new Entourage doesn't connect to business Outlook servers) or a proprietary database or niche-market program.

Users can copy and paste between Mac and VPC clipboards, connect to a PC home or office network for file and printer sharing, connect to the Internet, and run business and game software that may only exist in versions for PCs.

Recently, Connectix released Virtual PC 5.0. The big news is that the new version includes versions for both OS X and classic OS 9.1 (or later). The two versions can share the big files that act as virtual PC hard drives and can share settings (though only with a bit of a trick, outlined in the brief printed documentation - really, Connectix, couldn't this have been made a default feature?).

Earlier versions of VPC don't work under OS X at all - not even in the classic mode. Connectix made a beta OS X version freely available to registered VPC 4.0 owners over the summer and fall, but it lacked any PC networking support. The new release's OS X version offers all the features of the classic version. The OS X version also offers a couple of features not available to OS 9 users: multiprocessor support (of course, you need a multiprocessor Mac) and a neat Virtual Switch, letting users run more than one VPC session at a time - and run a network connecting them. While cool, you will need lots of RAM to make use of this feature - enough for OS X plus a reasonable amount for each virtual PC's operating system and applications.

Both OS 9 and OS X users will welcome snappier performance and the ability to map PC keys to Mac keyboard key combinations, giving me back the Home and End keys that are missing on my iBook, for instance.

DVD data discs are supported, though not DVD movies - but does anyone really need to watch a movie within an emulator? There's more support for removable media devices. An especially nice new feature is the option to set a virtual drive image as "undoable." When you do that, changes to the drive are written to a separate file, rather than to the drive image itself. At the end of the VPC session, you can choose to merge the changes into the main drive image, toss it, or continue working with the temporary file.

This is especially handy for computer fiddlers - add a questionable program or driver update, and if it doesn't work as advertised, get rid of the changes, going back to your pre-installation setup.

Inevitably, the question comes up: How fast is a virtual PC? How does it compare to running a real PC? It's hard to get a firm answer on this - VPC performance is affected by your CPU speed (and it is G4-optimized) and (like real PCs) by how much RAM you can afford to throw at it. It's also affected by what you're trying to run on the virtual PC. Connectix does not attempt to emulate 3D graphics instructions in VPC, so high-end game performance is especially slow. If that's your goal, I'd recommend not bothering with VPC.

I installed VPC 5.0 on my iBook 500, installing two PC operating systems: Windows 98SE (with 128 MB RAM) and Windows XP (with 196 MB RAM). Frankly, Windows XP on this system felt glacially slow - too slow for me to want to use it in real life. Gossip in Windows circles is that the OS X-wannabee interface changes can bog down real PCs as well; turning off all these interface options makes for a much faster, if plainer-looking, experience.

I found working within the Windows 98 session much more pleasant; not like using a top of the line PC or Mac, but certainly perkier than many PCs or Macs that I've worked with over the years. To try to get some (more or less) objective data, I downloaded and installed the free SiSoft Sandra reporting and benchmarking tool and ran its CPU Benchmarks in this VPC session. (Yes, I'm aware of all the limitations of benchmarking programs. Take all results with a grain [or more] of salt). On my system the benchmark's Dhrystone and Whetstone scores were 604 MIPS and 420 MFlops respectively. (For comparison, a Compaq PIII/750 scores 2025 and 1000). Sandra includes a collection of realistic-seeming scores from typical real systems. The VPC session's scores were closest to the scores of a Celeron 266 system - no barn-burner, by any stretch of the imagination, but a system that still can do some useful work.

You'll get better performance it you buy a real, low-end PC and put it on your desk, but even with low prices, VPC is cheaper, and doesn't take a bunch of desk space.

Pricing depends on the operating system you get bundled with your copy of VPC - like computer manufacturers, Connectix has to pay Microsoft to include a Windows license. If you already have a copy of a PC operating system that you want to install, you can buy a copy of VPC with a minimalist DOS version for US$99. Copies bundled with Windows 98 or Windows 2000 cost US$199 and US$249 respectively. Connectix is promising a Windows XP bundle soon. The company also sells OS Packs (operating system drive images) for Windows 98, Me, and 2000, with more versions promised. Current users of VPC 3.0 or 4.0 can upgrade to the new version (no OS included, but it will support your currently installed OS) for US$79.

The big advantage of getting VPC bundled with an operating system (or getting an OS Pack) is a quick and easy installation - each includes a drive image with the operating system preconfigured for VPC's virtual hardware. You can simply copy the drive image to your hard drive, which is much quicker and easier than installing the operating system of your choice from CD.

I've run VPC with Microsoft's Windows for Workgroups, Windows 95 and 98, 2000 and XP, along with IBM's OS/2 Warp 4 and Red Hat Linux 6.2. I have not been able to get Corel Linux or BeOS to install.

If you love your Mac but really need a special-purpose PC application or two, Virtual PC may keep that big ugly beige box off your desk. LEM

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Alan Zisman is Mac-using teacher and technology writer based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Many of his articles are available on his website, If you find Alan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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