Virtual PC for Windows
Let's get one thing straight: Virtual PC (VPC) uses software to emulate, or imitate, a PC's hardware--the processor, the hard drive, and the video card--not Windows. (Familiar with Connectix's Virtual PC for the Mac OS? This is essentially the same program built to run OSs on other PC OSs.) In essence, VPC encapsulates faux PCs within windows on your real desktop, then gives each a pseudo hard drive that you can populate with your choice of operating systems, applications, and document files. Running Windows 2000, for instance, you can install Windows 95 and apps that run only under that OS.
Hefty system requirements
Unfortunately, Virtual PC for PC isn't worry-free. To get VPC ready for action, you may have to struggle to figure out whether it will work on your computer. To run a Windows 98 virtual machine (VM) on a Windows 2000 PC, for instance, you'll need an extra 500MB of disk space for the Windows 98 OS and a total of 196MB of memory to run both simultaneously. (For a full workup of VPC's complex system requirements, check out the chart at the bottom of this Connectix page.) Each additional VM you create takes more disk space, and if you plan to run two at the same time, more memory. Finally, you'll have to run Virtual PC on Windows Me, NT, or 2000; Connectix doesn't support Windows 98. (We tried it and were successful, though.) You can use any computer running on the Intel (x86) platform as a guest on Virtual PC (that is, DOS, Windows 3.11/95/98/Me/NT/2000, and any flavor of Linux that works on an Intel Pentium PC), but Connectix does not plan to offer support for the Mac OS.
Once you figure out your setup, however, installing VPC and creating new VMs is a cinch, thanks to the program's slick wizards. Once you've installed VPC, you can create a VM in less than five minutes by choosing the operating system you intend to install, the amount of RAM to surrender to the VM, and the location of the file for the VM. Install an OS to the empty VM, then install the applications you'd like to use.
Each VM you build isn't an island. VPC lets you drag and drop files from one virtual machine to another and lets you share entire folders on the host with any VM (the VM displays the shared folders as a new drive). Both techniques are terrific for sharing files such as Word documents or digital photos. Plus, you can hijack the host's modem and printer for any VM and use the host's existing network configuration to communicate over a company LAN. We had trouble figuring out how to use the host's modem so that our VMs could dial out to the Net, however. Neither the online nor the print documentation was comprehensive enough to shed light on the situation, and we had to puzzle through the problem on our own.
Don't skimp on RAM
VPC performs only as well as its host hardware allows. The faster your CPU and the more memory in your PC, the closer the VM's speed comes to that of the real thing. Although one test machine with just 128MB of RAM and an 800MHz Pentium III admittedly lacked the recommended memory to run Windows Me and Windows 98 simultaneously, we noticed only the slightest slowdown. But when we replaced Windows 98 with Windows XP Home, the system ground to a near halt (compared to XP's performance on a comparable machine running it natively). Even on a 900MHz Pentium III with 256MB of memory, Windows XP Pro dragged during some screen redraws and especially during disk-intensive chores such as file searching. Of course, Windows XP is still in beta and isn't fully supported yet, so we hope that the final version will run faster on VPC. Connectix plans to release an updated version once XP hits the streets.
Before you slap down $200 for VPC, you'd better be skilled enough at managing multiple OSs to solve any VM problems yourself. Any question for Connectix support costs a whopping $99. (You get one incident free when you register VPC, but that's all, folks.) Would we pay more to call for support than for a high-priced dinner for two? No way.
A magic show
Virtual PC for Windows is a magic act, no question. But what, exactly, is it good for? We heartily endorse this pricey app for businesses that must run and/or support multiple operating systems--technical support at a company running several flavors of Windows, say, or a firm tied down to ancient DOS software. VPC is also a $200 insurance policy for anyone who wants to test-drive new operating systems, and it beats the pants off partitioning in terms of the speed involved with switching between OSs. Home or small-business users, however, should think twice, especially since VPC's slowpoke 4MB video card emulation makes playing fast-action games a drag. Besides, how many operating systems do you need, anyway?