Thoughtful, detailed coverage of the Mac, iPhone, and iPad, plus the TidBITS Content Network for Apple consultants.

PC in a Mac/SoftPC

I've been a serious slug on this one, and I'd like to apologize to Insignia Solutions for taking so long. Some time ago they sent me SoftPC to review and I checked it out fairly thoroughly... and then somehow just forgot about the review in the shuffle of getting married and moving. This is late, but I think still applicable.

I'm sure that most of you have at least heard of SoftPC by now, in part because Apple loves to advertise that Macs have DOS compatibility*, and if you follow the asterisk down to the three point type at the bottom of the page, it always says something to the effect of "With the addition of SoftPC emulation software from Insignia Solutions."

I'm pleased to report that SoftPC lives up to its claims of running most PC software on the Mac with no additional hardware. All the commercial software I tried worked almost perfectly, and the main programs that crashed were public domain and shareware games that may not have run on many PCs either, since they were obviously breaking programming rules and using illegal tricks to directly touch the hardware. I'd hate to try and run some of those programs from within Windows.

The other general problem I had, which I'm sure was due to my configuration of the PC program and not inherently because of SoftPC, was with programs like terminal programs that need to access the serial port. SoftPC handles that quite well, but it's a confusing enough subject on the PC that it took some experimentation to get everything working. Printing was similarly confusing, in part because so few PC applications know how to handle a PostScript printer. SoftPC basically gives you a choice between fooling the PC into thinking you have an Epson dot matrix printer or a PostScript printer. Again, I don't fault Insignia for this confusion since it's bad enough in DOS. SoftPC's manual is generally decent, although the idea behind SoftPC is that you should think you're actually using a PC and should therefore resort to your PC and DOS manuals - it's not Insignia's job to make a PC easy to use.

Herein lies the true problem with SoftPC. Unless you know specifically that you have to run a certain DOS program and you cannot use a Mac equivalent (like WordPerfect, 1-2-3, FoxBase, etc.), DOS software is simply too much of a pain to mess with. In my experience, the majority of the people who think they need to run PC software really just need to know how to translate files better between programs on the different platforms. That said, if you need to run a specific program, test it first at a dealer before buying SoftPC because Insignia may be unable to help you if your program is poorly written and isn't completely PC-compatible.

If you've decided you need SoftPC for a specific program and that program does run, you'll encounter the final problem with SoftPC. It's pokey. Simple as that. When a Mac, even a high-end Mac, tries to pretend that it is really a PC, including support for a 286 and coprocessor, EGA graphics, and expanded memory, it just can't run all that quickly. On my SE/30 I'd rate SoftPC (I'm using the older EGA/AT module with version 1.4) at slightly under the speed of a PC XT, although my SoftPC can do things an XT can't, like run programs that require an 80287 coprocessor. I suspect that a Quadra would significantly speed up SoftPC, perhaps even to the point where it would be usable for long periods of time without creating undue frustration. Admittedly, I'm sure that the most recent versions of SoftPC are somewhat faster, but I'd hate to need to do serious work in SoftPC on anything slower than my SE/30.

Enough complaining, when it comes right down to it, SoftPC does what it claims to do and does it well. I genuinely enjoy using it on occasion because I don't use PC software enough to warrant buying one and SoftPC has yet to fail me. SoftPC creates its own C: drive as a 1 MB (or larger) document to hold DOS and other required boot files. You can then define a SuperDrive or third party drive (like those from Kennect and Dayna) as a PC floppy drive, you can create another SoftPC hard disk document as a D: drive, and you can define a Macintosh folder as an E: drive. I mention this because I truly dislike navigating in DOS, and most of the DOS shells are still a step below the Finder. When I'm using SoftPC, I create all files on my E: drive (the folder) and then switch in and out of the Finder whenever I need to copy, rename, delete, or otherwise play with files. The only slight caveat to this is that SoftPC gets confused whenever I change the files in the E: drive so if I was in a subdirectory on E: it puts me back to the root directory on E: to recalibrate.

All that talk of E: drives and subdirectories may sound confusing (and to many it is) but what I'm trying to get at is that SoftPC running in combination with the Finder is even easier to use than a normal PC. It's also hard to accept that PC programs can just sit on the Mac hard drive as normal files and still run from within SoftPC, but it works fine. It even works fine when Salient's AutoDoubler has compressed those PC files, which surprised me slightly. I used SoftPC to create some disks of public domain games for relatives spending a year in Tanzania with only a 286 laptop. It was easier than I expected because I could download the files from the Internet and America Online using normal Mac software, expand and test the files within SoftPC, and then create the DOS disks on a SuperDrive.

These days Insignia has several versions of SoftPC at different price points, Entry Level SoftPC for the Mac LC and below at $125 (discount), Universal SoftPC for all Macs from the Plus on up at $195 (discount), and for $300 (discount) SoftAT to add to Universal SoftPC for the 80287 coprocessor support, expanded memory support, and EGA color support (otherwise you can only use CGA graphics). SoftAT requires a 68020-based system at a minimum. Insignia also has SoftNode ($105 discount) for Universal SoftPC and SoftAT (but not Entry Level SoftPC) that will allow you to run Novell Netware PC client software on the Mac, which can be extremely useful in some large organizations with Novell networks.

The new versions have some significant enhancements over the version I have. The printing support has been enhanced so that you can do better graphics printing and wide-carriage printing, and there is now support for non-European character sets. More interesting given the spread of CD-ROM drives is support for the Microsoft CD-ROM Extensions, so you can use CD-ROMs that would otherwise be relatively useless on the Mac. SoftPC can now format floppy disks internally and supports a second floppy drive, and for those of you who actually upgraded, it also supports, but does not ship with, DOS 5.0. It still comes with DOS 3.3, if you're curious. Insignia also says that they have redone the interface to make it easier to use and have added balloon help and access to some AppleEvents, although SoftPC has always been able to do some copy and paste between the PC screen and a Mac application, an extremely handy tool for writing and illustrating documentation.

When it comes right down to the question of should you buy this program, I think it's a question that you should be able to answer fairly well now. If you need a little access to PC software and would appreciate integration of the PC with your Mac software for documentation and whatnot, then yes, get it, it's great. If you want to avoid buying a PC but still want to run heavy-duty Windows software and use the PC as much as you use the Mac, you're fooling yourself and you should buy a PC. By the way, I gather that Windows will run, if run is the correct word for it. Considering that Windows is no speed demon on a real 386-based PC, I'd hate to see it amble under SoftPC.

Insignia Solutions -- 800/848-7677

Information from:
Insignia propaganda
Dave Hull -- insignia@netcom.COM
Jason Proctor --


Create your own website with Squarespace’s powerful platform.
Use offer code ‘TIDBITS’ for 10% off your first purchase.
Try Squarespace today! <>