PC 7 Puts a (Sluggish) Windows PC on Your Mac
by Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First
published in Low
11, 2004 Mac2Windows
Shortly after Microsoft bought out the Virtual PC franchise from
longtime Mac developer Connectix in 2003, it hit a stumbling block --
VPC 6.x didn't work on Apple's new high-end G5-powered hardware.
Just as English is written from left to right while Hebrew and Arabic
go from right to left, Mac and PC processors read bytes of data in
opposite directions. G3 and G4s support a "pseudo little-endian mode"
feature that increased performance when emulating a Pentium-style CPU.
While faster and more powerful overall, the G5 lacked that mode, making
earlier versions of VPC-Mac unusable on Apple's flagship systems.
Rewriting the program to provide G5 support, VPC 7 was pretty much
ready this past summer, but Microsoft chose to hold off its release
while awaiting Windows XP Service Pack 2, preferring to give its
customers the security features built-into that Windows update. The
September release proved to be well timed, coming out at about the same
time as Apple's release of the iMac G5 that brought the G5 processor to
a wider market.
VPC 7 is being released on its own in a variety of versions and as part
of Microsoft Office Professional 2004 -- the part of MS Office Pro that
differentiates it from the previously released Office Standard. VPC
pricing depends on the Windows version that is bundled along with it:
With Windows XP Pro or Windows 2000 Pro, it lists for US$249; with XP
Home, its US$219. If you want to roll your own operating system, it's
US$129. And owners of VPC versions 5 or 6 can upgrade for US$99.
Hardware requirements are relatively steep: Microsoft suggests at least
a 700 MHz G3 or better, OS X 10.2.8 or 10.3.x, 3 GB
drive space, and at least 512 MB of memory. More is better -- that's
because VPC is trying to emulate a complete Windows PC on your Mac.
You'll need enough RAM to keep your Mac's operating system happy plus
enough memory for the emulated PC, and modern versions of both
OS X and Windows can never have too much memory.
I tested VPC 7 on an iBook G4/800 with 640 MB of memory, a system
relatively close to Microsoft's minimum requirements.
While it's an interesting technical achievement to make your Mac
pretend to be a PC and good fun to watch Windows boot up in a window on
your OS X desktop, why bother?
Microsoft's polling suggests that more than half of surveyed Mac users
expressed a need to access Windows-only software, at least some of the
time. Many businesses use Microsoft's Access database, for instance,
included in the Windows Office Professional product and not available
in a Mac version.
Web developers need to be able to see how their output will look on a
PC running the Windows Internet Explorer; viewing it in the Mac version
isn't good enough. (And sadly, too many bank and e-commerce sites will
only work with Windows Internet Explorer. My daughter was unable to
register for her college courses from her Mac; she had to move to a PC
to sign up for this term's classes.)
I moderate an online discussion group hosted on FidoNet running on
several hundred old-style BBSs worldwide. While I can log on and view
messages using telnet on OS X's Terminal, it's more convenient to
download entire packets of messages and read and respond offline. I've
found software to do that in Windows, but not for the Mac.
Sure, you could buy a low-end PC for only a couple of hundred dollars
more than the cost of a copy of VPC, and it would offer better
performance than VPC (at least on my iBook!), but it wouldn't allow
access to the Mac clipboard or easy access to files on the Mac. And it
would take up a lot more desk space.
Assuming you've got powerful enough hardware with enough memory and
free drive space, creating a Windows PC using VPC is pretty
straightforward. If you've got a copy with a bundled operating system,
it's a matter of installing VPC, then choosing the menu option to
create a new virtual PC. Because the copy of Windows bundled with VPC
is preconfigured for your virtual hardware, it's faster than installing
Windows on a real PC.
Alternatively, you can create a new PC and install the operating system
of your choice, including older versions of Windows and some versions
of Linux (some Linux distributions will not work, and Microsoft's
support for Linux is, not surprisingly, limited). Installation with the
new version has been improved with automated wizards taking much of the
guesswork out of the process -- at least when installing
Microsoft-supported operating systems.
Also new and improved is support for Mac printers. OS X 10.3
will find that their system printers are automatically used by VPC,
meaning there's no longer a need to set up printing separately.
Running Windows applications can optionally show up in the
Dock. Clicking the red close button on the OS X window now
defaults to Fast Save, putting VPC to sleep, enabling a quick restart
Microsoft promises, along with G5 support, better performance with this
version: 10 to 30% faster startup, refresh, and response times, along
with taking advantage of Mac OS X's OpenGL graphics routines for more
responsive graphics handling.
Comparing the new version to the older VPC 6.01 on my iBook, however,
the improvements weren't dramatically noticeable. As with previous
versions, if the only-on-Windows software you want to run is games, get
a PC -- you won't find VPC's graphics performance (or rather, lack of
And at least on my hardware, Microsoft's latest Windows XP was pretty
sluggish -- so sluggish that I much preferred using the older Windows
98. Designed for an older generation of (real) PCs, it was much happier
with the virtual PC that I could offer it.
Still, if you're one of Microsoft's estimated half of Mac-owners who
need to run a Windows-only application now and then and you don't have
a real PC handy, VPC is probably worthwhile, especially if you want to
use a Mac at work where the company requires you to use a custom-built
corporate Windows application.
If you've got a G5 Mac, such as the new iMac, Virtual PC 7 is
only choice. But if you've already running a recent VPC version, I'm
not sure there's enough new and improved in version 7 to justify the
US$100 upgrade cost.