One of the hassles of working in software/hardware development or product support is running multiple operating systems to check that what works under, say, Windows ME, will also work under Windows 2000. You can do it by swapping hard drives or by using multiple partitions, but a more elegant solution is Virtual PC.
Like vmware under Unix, Virtual PC emulates a PC in software. This means that you can run several different operating systems at once, all from within Windows. Connectix recommends Windows NT4 (service pack 6+), Windows ME or Windows 2000 as the host operating system. In our tests, Windows 98 SE worked fine too, although it’s not officially supported.
Installation of the program takes just a few minutes. After that you simply set up a virtual machine, choosing the amount of RAM it will have access to, where to store the disk image (which conveniently expands and shrinks dynamically as you add data to it) and what to call it.
The emulated PC has a Pentium processor, an Intel motherboard, an S3 graphics card, an MR BIOS, plus memory and one or more hard drives. If your PC has a CD-ROM drive and floppy drive, those will be accessible too, as will any serial and parallel ports and the sound card. You can select whether or not any of these are active in any particular virtual machine.
When you launch the virtual machine it’ll prompt you for a boot disk, at which point you’re ready to install the application of your choice. To save hassle, Connectix has various OS packs available as optional extras, which include the product licence and pre-configured, pre-installed operating system.
You can have several virtual machines running at once, all with different operating systems, and the control panel shows you – via a thumbnail image – what each machine is currently doing. You can switch to and from each virtual machine whenever you like, use the mouse (by clicking within the ‘screen’ space) and configure various ‘hardware’ and software parameters. You can even pause the virtual machines, or save their state and switch them off.
It all worked fine in our tests. We installed Windows 95 and (as you can see from the screenshot) Windows 3.11. Linux might be a tougher test of the program’s hardware emulation routines, but some versions are supported by Connectix (see the Web site for details of which). Those programs that make use of undocumented x86 features, such as some DOS games, are unlikely to run under Virtual PC, but from what we’ve seen, the majority of conventional software titles will work perfectly well.
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