Basilisk II Puts a Mac on a Windows Computer

- 2002.05.01 - Tip Jar

Emulation, using software to make one kind of computer act is if it was a completely different piece of hardware, is older than personal computing itself.

For instance, when Bill Gates and Paul Allen first read of the pioneering MITS Altair personal computer in the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics, they set out to write a BASIC language compiler for it. The problem was that they didn't have an Altair - but they did have access to a Harvard computer lab and information about the Altair's Intel 8080 processor.

So they wrote an 8080 emulator, and used it to write the code for their BASIC. By March, Paul Allen was offered the title of director of software for MITS, and Gates and Allen's partnership, then known as Micro-Soft had its first sale.

More recently, emulation software such as Connectix's Virtual PC has allowed Mac users to boot a PC on their Apple hardware, running any of a wide range of PC operating systems and application software.

But what about the opposite, emulating a Mac on PC hardware? It turns out to be a much more difficult task. The problem? At the heart of every computer is a relatively small amount of code which runs in between the operating system and the processor's hardware.

On PCs, this is relatively simple and simple-minded. By the early 1980s, companies like Compaq and Phoenix had successfully reverse-engineered the BIOS used in IBM's original PC, making possible the wide range of PC-clones that dominate that market today. When Virtual PC boots up, it runs a licensed PC ROM BIOS as one step in creating a genuine fantasy PC.

Macs have much more complex ROMs, containing (among other things), the Mac Toolbox and QuickDraw, sets of software routines that define basic ways the computer is going to work. Apple owns that code and doesn't allow it to be shared. As a result, it's not as easy to make PC think it's a Mac.

Basilisk II is one of several programs that try to emulate a Mac on PC hardware. All are 680x0 emulators; no one has released emulation software for a PowerPC CPU. Like the commercial SoftMac, Basilisk II requires Mac ROMs to work, either installed on a US$200 card sold by the SoftMac people or (more commonly) with ROM image files captured with SoftMac's CopyROM utility (and transferred from a Mac-floppy to a PC hard drive using SoftMac's free GemXplor file transfer utility).

Where SoftMac is marketed commercially, Basilisk II is an open source project, originally written by Christian Bauer, and distributed under the GNU General Public License. In other words, it's freely available and not crippled.

Like many open source projects, versions have been developed for a variety of operating systems. In this case, Basilisk II is available for BeOS R4 (both PowerPC and x86), x86 Unix (tested with Linux, Solaris 2.5, FreeBSD 3.x, and IRIX 6.5), AmigaOS 3.x, and Windows NT/2000/XP/9x. Source code is available for downloading.

The Windows versions are maintained by Lauri Pesonen. While you're on her site, be sure to scroll down the page to the link for Marc Hoffman's unofficial manual.

Unlike commercial products for the Mac like Virtual PC, getting Basilisk II up and running is a bit of a project. Hoffman's manual is a big help here,

The first step is getting access to a genuine Mac ROMs - either on a permanent basis, installed into SoftMac's hardware card, or long enough to capture to a disk image file. (Legally, you should own the Mac you're using in this way). You'll be limited by the version of the Mac ROMs you're using; don't expect colour support if you've started off with the ROMs from a black and white-only Mac Plus, for example.

Once you've installed Basilisk II and copied the ROM image file over, you're ready to create a hard drive image, configure Basilisk II, and install the Mac OS from a bootable CD or set of floppies. (Don't expect to be able to download a Mac OS on your PC and install it from there. Trust me, it won't work).

Basilisk II preferences

Basilisk II has a reasonably friendly graphical configuration utility. It can be used to set the display options, to choose what specific 680x0 processor to emulate, and to dedicate a portion of your PC's RAM for the Mac's use. Your fantasy Mac can be told that your PC's CD drive, floppy drive, keyboard, and mouse are Mac-equivalents, and that the hard drive and ROM image files are the real things.

Basilisk II preferences

CD and ethernet setup varies between Win9x and NT/2000/XP systems. Again, Hoffman's manual is invaluable at walking users through the necessary steps.

An especially nice option is the ability to make the PC's "My Computer" show up on the Mac desktop, making it possible to copy files back and forth between the virtual Mac and the main PC drives. Also nicely implemented is the ability to share the PC's Internet connection.

How well does it work? I currently have Basilisk II installed on a 750 MHz Compaq notebook running Windows 2000. Using ROM images from an old Mac Quadra 610, I have it set to emulate a 68040 CPU and have given it 128 MB to play with. I'm running it in an 800 x 600 pixels window with 16-bit colour. I've given it a 500 MB virtual hard drive.

Mac OS on a PC

At various times I've installed Mac OS 7.5.3, 7.6.1, and 8.0, and I'm currently using 8.1, which was the last version to run on 680x0 hardware. You can't use Mac-emulation to learn about OS X on your PC. Still, OS 8.1 is reasonably modern and has good Internet support.

It boots in under 20 seconds, even when loading a reasonable set of control panels and extensions. I've got Netscape 4.05 and iCab browsers running happily along with older versions of Microsoft Word and Excel, ClarisWorks 5.0, and even an old Photoshop (ver 2.5). I can connect to my iBook via AppleTalk.

(If I ever install an 802.11b wireless PC Card in this PC notebook, I'll see if I can share it for wireless Internet and networking access with this virtual Mac).

Subjectively, performance feels pretty good. Crude benchmark testing measuring CPU whetstones (using the 68k DWhet utility scored 17647 - slower than 60 MHz PowerPC 601-powered Macs (scoring about 22000) and quite a bit faster than 33-MHz 68040 Macs (scoring about 5500). Of course, even with its score close to that of low-end original PowerPCs, this 680x0 emulator can't run PowerPC-native Mac operating system or application software. However, those results jive with my subjective sense that my emulated 68040 is faster than any real 68040 Apple ever sold.

It works, but is it good for anything? Maybe yes, maybe no.

Isn't it enough that you can have that authentic Mac look and feel on your PC desktop? I suppose Web designers forced to work with a PC could use it to test whether their pages will work with Mac browsers - at least with the older versions that will run in emulation.

And if you have a vital (or favourite) piece of older Mac software, this may be a way to continue to use it when dragged, kicking and screaming, over to a Windows system.

Or take it all the way - set your Windows system to autoload Basilisk II at startup so your PC can boot right to a Mac OS. Convert your PC into a superfast virtual 68040 Mac and never have to fuss with Windows again. 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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