PC emulators such as Connectix's Virtual PC have long let you keep your Mac and run Windows, too. But that's the easy part. Lately, discerning Mac users have been demanding both OS X support and speedier performance. Virtual PC 5.0 delivers both, but not at the same time. Under OS 9, Virtual PC 5.0.2 runs like the wind, but under OS X, it barely crawls along. Virtual PC remains the best way to run Windows on a Macintosh, but if you work solely on OS X, hold out for a faster version. PC emulators such as Connectix's Virtual PC have long let you keep your Mac and run Windows, too. But that's the easy part. Lately, discerning Mac users have been demanding both OS X support and speedier performance. Virtual PC 5.0 delivers both, but not at the same time. Under OS 9, Virtual PC 5.0.2 runs like the wind, but under OS X, it barely crawls along. Virtual PC remains the best way to run Windows on a Macintosh, but if you work solely on OS X, hold out for a faster version.
Windows, Windows, everywhere
Virtual PC mimics PC hardware, making Windows operating systems think they're running on a PC. It even ships with copies of Windows to install on your Mac. Prices vary, but for the right amount, you can run any Windows OS on Virtual PC, from Windows 95 to XP. You can even add more operating systems with Connectix OS Packs. These are preinstalled versions of Windows on disk images (files that contain everything on an OS installation CD or floppy) that take only 10 minutes to install. Or you can buy Virtual PC with PC-DOS and install your own copies of Windows or Linux. (It's much easier, however, to install Virtual PC with Windows preinstalled.)
As with version 4.0, Virtual PC 5.0 lets you run several versions of Windows simultaneously, but this time it has a new trick: you can run multiple Windows versions on multiple Mac OS versions. Confused? Here's an example: We installed Virtual PC 5.0.2 with Windows 98 on OS X. Then, we booted back into OS 9 and installed a Windows 2000 OS Pack. We were then able to use both Windows operating systems from either Mac OS 9 or OS X without a hitch. One particularly nice touch is that when you switch between OS 9 and OS X, your copy of Windows remains exactly as it was before you shut down.
Virtual PC 5.0's skillful multi-OS juggling also lets you perform some tricks that you can't manage on a real PC. When you shut down Windows with the new Undo Drives feature turned on, Virtual PC gives you the option of undoing every action in that session--installation, interface tweaks, everything--providing an easy escape for Mac users who accidentally mess up Windows configurations. Virtual PC 5.0.2 also lets you instantly change the screen resolution of Windows by simply dragging the Virtual PC window to a different size. And as in previous versions, you can run a Windows environment in full-screen mode or within a Macintosh window.
Of course, none of these features matters if Windows runs too slowly to be useful. Unfortunately, while Virtual PC 5.0 performs faster than the previous version on OS 9, its OS X performance lags. On a 400MHz Mac G4 running OS X with 896MB of RAM, Windows 98 tasks took anywhere from 34 to 118 percent longer than on Mac OS 9. Windows 2000 tasks tallied a smaller OS X penalty: 17 to 56 percent slower. And on OS 9 or OS X, the jobs ran twice as fast as they did on Windows 98. Connectix admits that Windows 2000 runs faster in Virtual PC than any other version. Evidently, the company is working on the speed problems. Its minor 5.0.2 upgrade ran 14 percent faster in OS X than version 5.0 did.
For speed and other reasons, Connectix stresses that Virtual PC is not intended as a gaming platform. Few games will run correctly, and Virtual PC doesn't support hardware graphics acceleration, such as DirectX. Nonetheless, we were able to run the Windows 2000 3D pinball game in OS 9. On the other hand, in OS X, we encountered too many gaps in the sound and animation to enjoy the game.
Pricey, quality tech support
Sadly, Connectix's expensive tech support also emulates that of Microsoft. After the first call or e-mail, support costs a whopping $35 per incident. Connectix also provides plentiful free help at its Web site, which includes a knowledge base and a user forum frequented by Connectix staff.
Overall, Virtual PC 5.0 is a worth the upgrade price for the owners of version 4.0--as long as you're willing to reboot into Mac OS 9 to run it. If you must run Virtual PC in OS X, be sure that you use Windows 2000 and have at least version 5.0.2. Otherwise, wait for a faster version.