Connectix program turns one computer into several

Originally published in Business in Vancouver, September 4, 2001, Issue #619 The high-tech office column

by ALAN ZISMAN (c) 2001

Have you ever wanted a different computer than the one you were using? I don't mean the faster, more powerful, more expensive model that some of us dream about, but another computer running some other operating system.

Few of us have the desk space or income to indulge our fantasies, but Connectix's $300 Virtual PC for Windows may help. The company's previous version has let Macintosh owners run Windows (or Linux) software, a handy feature especially in a business context where some applications are only available in PC versions.

The new version won't let PC owners run Mac software; if that's your need, check out the open source Basilisk II, which does a good job of turning a PC into an older-generation Mac. Instead, VPC-Win turns your PC into a different PC.

It's not as pointless as it sounds. Perhaps you need to run a piece of software that won't run on your current system. Or perhaps you want to try something out, but are afraid it will wreck your setup. Or you need to help someone with a different setup than yours.

VPC-Win allows you to create virtual hard drives on your existing system. On each, you can install the operating system and software of your choice. When you start the program, it lets you boot up the virtual drive of your choice. As far as it knows, it's running on a separate computer; in reality, it's just another program running in a window or full-screen. It can access the Internet or your network along with many (though not all) devices attached to your computer.

Running multiple PCs on the same piece of hardware takes some reasonably hefty system resources. You'll need enough RAM for your host operating system as well as for the additional one you're running, and for any software you want to run under that system. Realistically, count on needing 128 MB or more. And you'll need to set aside a lot of drive space as well, often a gigabyte or more for each virtual computer. Luckily both RAM and big hard drives are cheaper than ever.

It's hard to accurately measure performance, but a virtual computer will inevitably run slower. Performance on my 700-MHz notebook seemed reasonable, however. At the moment, while on my real computer using Windows 2000, I've installed virtual systems running Windows 3.11, OS/2, Red Hat Linux, Windows 98SE and a prerelease version of Microsoft's next generation Windows XP. (I couldn't get either Corel Linux or BeOS to work.)

More than I need, I suspect, but unlike real computers, it's not traumatic to get rid of one or more. Simply delete the single file that is its virtual hard drive and it's gone.

While Virtual PC is clearly not for everyone, it means I can test out Microsoft's beta operating system without any risk of messing up my working system. For helpdesk personnel, it's a way to support multiple setups on a single system. For software or Web page developers, it's a way to test their work under multiple environments. For techno-hobbyists it's a fascinating plaything.

Previously, users wanting to run multiple systems might divide their drives up, then install and boot to the system of their choice. This offers faster performance and requires less RAM than VPC, but is more complex to get up and running. And with VPC, I can switch back to my host operating system in seconds and leave software running in the background while I'm working in a different environment.

VPC-Win comes with PC-DOS. You can install the operating system of your choice or you can order (at added cost) OS Packs from Connectix: CDs with operating systems pre-installed. Just drag a (large) file to your hard drive and you've got another computer ready to boot up.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan