Review: Virtual PC 7

It's one of the tradeoffs we make for working on a superior machine (October 2nd, 2004)

MacNN Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Microsoft

Price: $249 (with Windows XP Professional)

The Good

  • Faster performance than previous versions; comes with Windows OS; simple to install; Internet access available without reconfiguration of settings

The Bad

  • Still sluggish in opening many documents; problem with long file renames

Microsoft Virtual PC a solid, if not superb, emulator for business users

One of the biggest "dings" against the Macintosh is its inability to run the thousands of programs designed for Windows-based machines. Yes, Apple will tell you about all the programs that run natively on Mac...but, in fact, there are far more that run on Windows. It's one of the tradeoffs we make for working on what we consider to be a superior computer.

Connectix developed Virtual PC to address this situation, and to try and bridge the gap. Earlier versions did the job, but only up to a point. Slower Mac processors meant slower response time and sluggish performance. Early in 2003, Microsoft bought Virtual PC from Connectix, stating at the time, that the program would allow "seamless integration of Windows on the Macintosh platform, enabling Mac OS customers to run Windows-based applications, access PC networks, use Windows-only Internet applications and share files with PC-based colleagues."

Didn't quite happen that way, though; it turned out that the existing Virtual PC software was not compatible with Apple's new line of G5-based Power Macs. Users would have to wait.

Until now.

Microsoft's Virtual PC version 7.0 is now being released to the market. Let's get one thing very clear right away: if you run the software, do not expect to go blazing down the fast path of Wintel Click to enlargeperformance. You're going to be very, very disappointed. While the new version of the software is speedier than previous versions, Virtual PC is still an emulator at the end of the day. If you're a gamer, and speed is your primary consideration, do yourself a favor...go out and buy a cheap Wintel box.

Having said that, there are a number of people (primarily in the business sector) who can run and benefit from Virtual PC. With that in mind, we put the program through its paces. Installation, including a full version of Windows XP Professional, went very smoothly, thanks to the Microsoft wizard. (You can also drag and drop, but the wizard is just as easy, and it makes things run just a little easier.) Note: "smoothly" does not necessarily mean "quickly." Microsoft warns you, right off the top, that it may take as long as two hours to install all the elements you need to run Virtual PC. Our installation took less than half an hour, on the other hand. YMMV. It also automatically installed an icon in our Mac dock, making launching the program one touch easier.

Once you have Windows "virtual machine" up and running, you'll find many of the same product benefits that Connectix pioneered. For instance, you can drag and drop files between your Mac desktop and the Windows desktop, or you'll find that you can run Internet Explorer in the Virtual PC window and access the Internet, without having to configure a different group of settings; the ones you have on your Mac side will do just fine.

For our test, Microsoft included a copy of Visio Professional, a program that is not available on the Mac side. It installed far more slowly than it would if you were using a Wintel box, and the files opened somewhat sluggishly. But they opened, and that's the point. It's something you can't really do if your business colleague sends you a Microsoft Access database file. (Yes, I know: they can always save it as an Excel spreadsheet and import it into FileMaker. But this stuff is supposed to be easy, remember? Having the other guy go through two additional steps is not conducive to cross-platform ease of use.)

Simple MS Word documents made the transition without a problem between the Mac and Windows desktops. A draft of this article opened promptly using Virtual PC's Windows desktop, using the Notepad application that's part of the Windows OS. We also created an RTF file with the same application, and then dragged it across to the Mac desktop. It opened automatically with Text Edit, but we also opened it manually with Microsoft Word. A Mac Word file with graphics, however, will not make the transition.

A couple of quirks we noted during testing: Long file names are not always going to make the transition in either direction. We renamed a Visio file on the Windows desktop, calling it "This is a really long file name to test capabilities." When we dragged it to the Mac desktop, it renamed itself "This is a really ~0260.vsd." When we dragged it back to the Windows side, we called it "This is a really long file name to see if it works.vsd;" It showed up on the Windows desktop as "This is a really lon#529403." That can make for version incompatibilities problems, if you're sharing a file between Wintel and Mac users.

Remember, if you install this software, it can take up several gigabytes of space on your hard drive, and you'll need to shell out the extra money to buy the Windows-based applications. Plus, at a $249 price point, Virtual PC is not an impulse buy. You may find you don't need it at all; you may say the Mac applications you have on your machine are more than enough to do your job. But for those who need these kinds of capabilities, and who clearly understand that this is an emulator and not a native operating system, Microsoft has done a commendable job in upgrading and making Virtual PC a solid tool.

NOTE: Microsoft has confirmed some problems with VPC 7.0 running on G5 Macs with more than 2GB of RAM--with errors ranging from Mac OS X kernel panics to various errors in Windows or VPC freezes. Microsoft said it is already working on an update to fix the probem, but notes that the only (current) workaround is to reduce the amount of RAM in the Mac.

by Steve Friedberg


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