“If I can get Tiberian Sun running this well, I can get anything to run with Virtual PC,” Matt told me.
Ah, the (over) confidence of youth. He could be right (he spent two hours “optimizing” Tiberian Sun’s performance), but probably not.
Connectix, the makers of VPC, will be the first ones to tell you that not every non-Mac app, especially games, are suited for VPC. Though games now run faster under Virtual PC, it’s still not geared for this sort of thing, as it doesn’t do emulation of 3D video cards. The latest Wintel games and high-end CAD packages can be problematic.
Still, version 4.x is a vast improvement over previous versions. To test drive it, I borrowed some Windows apps from my brother — a, forgive me, Gateway user — since I personally only have Mac software at home.
If you’re not familiar with the product, Virtual PC allows Mac users to run PC applications, access Windows networks, and share files with Windows users. It isn’t actually a Windows emulator, but is a PC emulator — this means it runs almost any Pentium-ready operating system, including Windows and Linux, right on your Mac. For instance, you can run Mac and Windows operating systems side-by-side. You can drag and drop text and data between Windows and Mac applications and you can use the same disk drives, printers, and Internet connections.
Version 4.1 offers a big performance boost, expandable disk images, an enhanced user interface, and the ability to run multiple operating systems. Connectix says that Virtual PC 4.0 runs up to twice as fast as previous versions. I didn’t see that much improvement myself, but enhanced support for the Velocity Engine makes for noticeably better performance on G4s.
VPC 4.0 allows the allocation of additional memory (up to 512 MB of RAM) to the operating system inside Virtual PC without quitting the application. The Windows disk image — a “virtual hard disk” on the Mac hard drive — expands as needed and uses only the space it actually requires, rather than a preset amount.
Previously, Virtual PC had a large image file and a fixed size. For example, if you were running Windows 2000 in VPC and it had a 2GB disk image, it would occupy 2GB of space on your Mac’s hard drive no matter how full it was. Now Connectix has made the disk images “growable” so they only occupy as much space as the content they contain. With Virtual PC 4.0, the hard disk space required is down by a factor of 2, Connectix says. Again, I’m not sure I see quite that much improvement — but it’s darn close.
But let’s be realistic. Virtual PC doesn’t run as fast as a new, soupled-up PC. However, for the most part, it doesn’t seem slow because Connectix has optimized the speed of basic system functions such as drop-down menus and application launches.
Just as nifty, Virtual PC now runs multiple PC operating systems concurrently. For instance, Windows 98 and Windows 2000, or even two copies of Windows 98, can all run on a Mac at the same time. The only limitation is available RAM and disk space. The guest operating system desktops can be viewed as dynamic thumbnail images on the Mac desktop.
There’s also support for Virtual PC OS Packs, which means that you can add a new operating system as easily as copying a file to the Mac hard drive. In other words, VPC is now expandable; you can have one version of the Connectix application running all the operating systems the company supports.
You can drag items from the Mac Finder to the window of any open operating system and vice versa. Plus, you can resize those windows, which you couldn’t do before. The user interface is somewhat improved, as well. It’s cleaner, has scrollable windows, and support for three-button mice and scroll mice.
The Help section is beefed up and now sports an integrated Virtual Disk Assistant, Setup Assistant, and a built-in help system. The Virtual Disk Assistant is designed to help you make reasonable choices for your disk since there are various formatting options in the PC world. Now you can tell the Virtual Disk Assistant which operating system you’re installing and it will default all the right choices for the format of the disk.
As I write this, there’s one known compatibility issue between Virtual PC 4.x and Mac OS 9.1: Users who attempt to print using a direct serial printer and Epson emulation may find black and white bands across the page.
But, overall, VPC 4.x offers a relatively seamless way of running a “PC” within the Mac environment. It’s fantastic for running Internet surfing and running business productivity software. But not for doing things like running the Wintel version of Photoshop (though why would you want to?) and games. And on the latter point, my son disagrees.
System requirements for Virtual PC 4.0 are a Power Mac G3 or G4, Mac OS 8.5 or later, 50MB of RAM (64 MB is recommended) available to the emulator, and a CD-ROM drive. It’s available with Windows 98, Windows Me, or PC DOS pre-installed. OS Packs support other operating systems, including Windows 95, Windows 2000, and Linux. (By the way, Windows 98 seems somewhat faster than with 3.0, and Windows 2000 seems much faster).
Virtual PC with Windows 98 and Virtual PC Upgrade have estimated street prices of US$199 and $79 respectively. Both are available from the Connectix online store and will be available soon at retail stores, mail order stores, and online stores that sell Mac products. If you bought Virtual PC 3.0 after Nov. 1, 2000, you’re eligible for a free upgrade to Virtual PC 4.0.