Connectix Corporation's Virtual PC wasn't the first product that allowed Mac users to run Windows software, but much to the chagrin of Orange PC maker Orange Micro and SoftWindows publisher Insignia Solutions, Virtual PC's popularity skyrocketed thanks to a no-compromises feel. With version 2.0, released earlier this year, Virtual PC became better, stronger, and faster.
Although early Windows-on-Mac users scoffed at using a software emulator instead of a hardware solution such as Orange PC or Apple's own PC Compatibility Cards, Virtual PC proved zippy enough on fast Mac hardware to silence critics. A Pentium emulator, rather than a Windows emulator like SoftWindows, Virtual PC has the flexibility to run just about any operating system that can be installed on traditional Intel hardware. Note that while most users will want Virtual PC 2.0 bundled with Windows 95, it's also available as a less expensive PC-DOS package, to which users may add the Pentium-compatible operating system of their choice, such as Linux or Windows NT. (See "Virtual PC: Slow but Well Worth the Wait" in TidBITS-397.)
New in Two -- At first glance, the list of enhancements in Virtual PC 2.0 made me wonder why it wasn't Virtual PC 1.5, or even 1.1. Better performance, better game compatibility, and drag & drop features between Mac and Windows environments seemed nice but not earth shaking. In fact, the new Virtual PC 2.0 package includes the original manual plus a light Addendum booklet for 2.0's enhancements.
To my delight, a quick spin with Virtual PC 2.0 made it clear that the software is that much better and that much faster. The changes can be described quickly enough that printing new manuals would have been a waste of money, but they so improve the user experience that I'm left wondering why I liked Virtual PC 1.0.
Virtual PC 2.0 truly is noticeably faster; Connectix claims 25 to 40 percent faster. Windows 95 goes from utterly unusable to fairly usable on my 603e-based,133 MHz PowerBook 1400c , which I should point out is a considerably slower machine than Connectix officially supports. (Virtual PC calls for a PowerPC G3 chip, a 604e chip, or a 603e chip at 180 MHz or faster.) On my 603e-based, 240 MHz UMAX SuperMac C600 the software's performance went from usable-but-noticeably slow to quite smooth and responsive.
If your needs don't include Windows 95, you'll find that Windows 3.1 runs smoothly, though it's a non-trivial task to install it in place of the pre-installed Windows 95. (It's not fun on a real Intel-based computer, either.)
Not Just Faster -- Even better, Virtual PC 2.0 adds a number of usability enhancements that, now that we have them, seem perfectly natural:
These enhancements smooth the interaction between the Windows environment and the Mac OS environment. (They apply only when Virtual PC is running Windows 95; nearly all of the integration features are inactive with other operating systems.)
One usability enhancement that Connectix isn't emphasizing is Virtual PC 2.0's capability to shut down Windows 95 for you. The previous version would remind you to shut down if you tried to quit without saving the PC's state, but wouldn't do it for you. Now, if you shut down the PC rather than saving its state (much like putting the PC to sleep, so you can start your next Windows session where you left off), Virtual PC will safely exit Windows before quitting. (That's yet another way Virtual PC makes Windows better on a Mac, along with making it possible to switch boot disk images easily.)
Upgrading -- Installing Virtual PC is still trivially easy in version 2.0 (if not more so), and upgrading from a Virtual PC 1.0 installation isn't tough, either. A simple updater utility updates your Virtual PC application and copies over the Extras 2.0 folder to your hard disk.
Stopping there would leave you without the Windows side of the new integration features, so it's well worth installing Connectix's updates on your virtual Windows hard disk. The documentation provides step-by-step instructions for overlaying the new integration tools onto your existing Windows 95 installation, or if you haven't modified much on your old C: drive, you can replace it with a fresh copy.
I tried both approaches, since the PowerBook's Virtual PC 1.0 had been used for little more than Solitaire, whereas the UMAX C600's old setup had been more thoroughly exercised. Upgrading to 2.0 with a willingness to toss the old virtual hard disk's contents was, not surprisingly, as easy as a first-time install. Adding the latest capabilities to Windows 95 on the existing hard disk wasn't quite a one-click procedure (and the documentation doesn't mention how to clean up afterwards) but was no more onerous than most other Windows installations I've faced.
Still Some Bumps -- We mentioned in TidBITS-397 that changing the Mac's state, such as swapping a CD-ROM drive for a floppy drive in a PowerBook, could wreak havoc with Virtual PC's "saved state" feature. This is somewhat understandable, since when Virtual PC saves the state of your emulated PC clone for quick launching later, it has to assume that the physical machine will remain the same.
However, Virtual PC could handle these situations more gracefully. The current procedure - informing the user that the saved PC state could not be restored, and then restarting the PC - nearly guarantees the same kind of directory damage and hurt feelings that suddenly restarting a real PC would cause. The software should tell the user what's wrong and either allow an opportunity to set things right before proceeding or cancel the launch and let the user try again later with the proper hardware present, resorting to a restart only as a final option. Modern PowerBooks - and even some desktop models - offer too much modularity for developers to assume the hardware will never change. Allowing a graceful escape from such error states should not be considered optional, and delivering unwitting Mac users to a confusing error message that offers to run Microsoft's DOS-level diagnostic tool SCANDISK is torture.
Another quibble involves documentation. The original manual for version 1.0 is clear but surprisingly lacking on some of the finer points of the software, such as use of alternate operating systems. Its introduction to Windows concepts can't hurt but is somewhat redundant with Microsoft's own Windows 95 manual also in the box. Although the 2.0 addendum does a good job of explaining the new features, a retail purchaser opening Virtual PC should find one comprehensive manual, not a pair of incomplete booklets. As a result, Connectix's Virtual PC FAQ is filled with information not found in the printed documentation.
Meanwhile, though I've had good experiences with Virtual PC telephone support, I'm disappointed with Connectix's support via email. Sending email to the published Virtual PC tech support address results in an automatic reply asking you to re-send your query in a specific format to a different address. Although I sympathize with tech support consultants who try to cope with incomplete trouble reports, Connectix should properly reply to email that's sent to its published support address and that contains adequate information about the problem.
That aside, for as often as I need to run Windows, I'll happily stick with Virtual PC in favor of the other options from Insignia, Orange Micro, or a cheap PC.
Virtual PC 2.0 costs $140 from TidBITS sponsor Cyberian Outpost, and upgrades are $25 - see the sponsorship area at the top of the issue for details. If you purchased Virtual PC 1.0 between 01-Jan-98 and 30-Apr-98, upgrades are free.