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Virtual PC 4.0

Sunday 28th January, 2001

In those heated discussions between Mac and PC users there’s one trump card Mac users can rely on; a Mac does a pretty good impression of a PC when it really has to. Sure, you can emulate a Mac Plus on a PC, but who needs to run Habadex these days? Connectix’s Virtual PC 4.0 is its latest, much improved, PC emulator. Put the average argumentative PC user in front of an iMac running Virtual PC in full screen mode, and they’d have a hard time telling the difference.

Unfortunately, you need at least a G3 processor to run it, so users with older Macs will have to stick with version 3.0. That said, for those with enough horsepower under the bonnet, Connectix has done a remarkable job in terms of speed improvements. Claims of up to a 100% speed increase are believable and rough tests using some FileMaker scripts on a 400MHz G3 iMac DV showed a 60%-70% speed improvement over version 3.0. If you’re using a G4 then Virtual PC now supports the AltiVec instruction set so your mileage should be even better. Whatever the exact figures, version 4.0 is definitely no slouch.

There are more fundamental improvements to the application as well. The way in which Virtual PC makes use of disk and memory space has changed. Disk space for your virtual PC is now stored in a flexible disk image; the file containing the disk image for a PC expands as needed - you simply set an upper limit.

The functionality of the Hard Drive Expander utility is available within the Virtual PC application itself and renamed Virtual Disk Assistant. You can now create new virtual disks without leaving the application. The same goes for memory. You no longer assign memory to your virtual PC by setting the applications memory allocation in the Finder’s Get Info window. Instead, you can assign memory to your PC from within Virtual PC itself.

Running multiple PCs

These changes are not simply to make the application easier to use, although they do, Virtual PC now supports multiple virtual machines running at once. So, you can have two different virtual PC’s, one running an accounts package in Windows 98 and one running DOOM in DOS at the same time, without having to run two copies of the application.

Each virtual machine will need its own hard disk image, as well as its own memory allocation, so running two 64Mb PCs is going to require about 135Mb of memory and 700Mb of disk space. You can switch between different virtual machines using the new Virtual PC List dialog box. The list shows a thumbnail of each of the machines available so you can tell either the machines' current state, or the state they were saved or paused in.

In practice this is an excellent feature; switching between machines is just a matter of swapping windows. The application preferences let you choose to leave a background PC running, or pause it to conserve processor cycles. You can close a PC and have Virtual PC save its current state, so that next time you can jump back in to where you left off. The whole process takes about seven seconds.

Virtual PC is a true PC emulator, so you can have one session running Windows 95, one running Windows Me and another running Linux. It now supports booting from CD, so to use an OS other than the one that comes with your copy of VPC, you can create your own virtual disks and then install the operating system of your choice from CD.

Connectix will also be producing ‘OS Packs’ - pre-installed system disks - for PC-DOS, Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows 2000, Windows Me and Linux shortly.

There are other less obvious tweaks here and there. Virtual PC 4.0 is still as AppleScriptable as before, and features a much-improved Mac help system. Preferences are now set on a per-virtual-machine basis, and the integration of the Virtual Disk Assistant, and the Mac-like setup assistant, as well as the resizeable windows, makes it feel much friendlier to use.

There are a couple of minor niggles however. Firstly, USB support is quite good on the whole, but there were problems getting the application to work with a Keyspan DB9 adaptor (plugged in to a Palm cradle).

Secondly, and more annoyingly, while Virtual PC 4.0 still supports the excellent IP sharing feature from version 3.0 (you can use a Mac PPP connection transparently and share an IP address), IP networking between concurrent virtual machines is not straightforward. You can’t have a virtual machine acting as a server while sharing IP addresses, and although there is a fixed IP option, this only allows for one virtual machine IP connection, and makes that machine unavailable to the Mac itself. This is a shame, since the multiple virtual machine feature would make this an ideal setup for web development using server tools that only run on PCs.

That aside, the new features and performance improvements make Virtual PC 4.0 an upgrade well worth shelling out for.


Virtual PC 4.0 is its latest, much improved, PC emulator

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Rating 4.5
Manufacturer Connectix
Pros Fast + Straightforward to use + Inexpensive
Cons No IP serving between concurrent virtual machines
Price 135.32
Originally Published MacUser, Volume: 17, Issue: 02, p30