Virtual PC: Slow But Well Worth the Wait
Running Connectix’s new Virtual PC is a little eerie. Within a minute of double-clicking its icon, you have a Windows 95 startup screen staring you in the face. For some people, this is a horrible nightmare; for others, an inevitability; and for still others, the business reality of using a Macintosh in organizations which rely on software that runs only on Intel-based computers.
Consider this: I have a PowerBook 3400c/200. With Virtual PC installed, I can carry around both Mac OS 8 and Windows 95 with CD-ROM and floppy access for both, plus dial-up and Ethernet connectivity. It’s a truly weird experience to watch Virtual PC running Windows 95 running the Dial-Up Connectivity tool using a Macintosh modem to do a PPP connection. It’s much more like a fantasy than a nightmare for those of us who must run Windows software occasionally but don’t want the extra equipment or expense.
Virtual PC uses your Mac’s PowerPC processor to emulate the behavior of an Intel Pentium MMX chip and its several secondary support chips, creating a "virtual machine" capable of running software that would never otherwise work on a PowerPC processor. As a result, though Virtual PC comes with Windows 3.1 or Windows 95, according to Connectix, you can install any Intel-based operating system, such as Windows NT, OS/2, or the Rhapsody preview for Intel boxes. This review concerns itself entirely with running Windows 95 under Virtual PC.
Although Virtual PC helps Mac owners around the problem of potentially needing to buy a PC clone, it does require a Mac with a decent amount of horsepower. To run Virtual PC Windows 95 Version, Connectix recommends you have at least a PowerPC 603e processor running at 180 MHz, with a minimum of 32 MB RAM and 300 MB of free disk space. Connectix also notes Level 2 cache improves performance, and larger Level 2 caches help even more. In fact, Brian Grove at Connectix said that "one of the single best methods to help Virtual PC performance (especially for Windows) is to increase the size of the Level 2 cache. This is especially true for 603e configurations. There are cases where, even on fast PowerPC processors, Virtual PC is actually waiting for data from the cache." (The hardware requirements decrease slightly for the Windows 3.11/DOS Version.)
Installation — Virtual PC is a breeze to install. It requires a CD-ROM drive, but the process takes only a few minutes because the installer merely copies over disk images containing preinstalled configurations.
The coolest part of the installation process is that you don’t need to reboot. There are no extensions or other system modifications. This fact elicited an audible "Wow!" from my office-mate Steve Broback, co-author of Beyond the Little Mac Book – who quickly thereafter bought and installed his own copy.
After installation, you can decide how much RAM your Windows virtual machine will have. Select the Virtual PC icon, choose Get Info from the File menu, and change the Preferred Size field. Virtual PC requires some memory for overhead, so specifying 40 MB in the Preferred Size field allots about 33 MB to Windows.
I noticed one irony using Virtual PC: the version of Windows 95 that ships with Virtual PC is "revision B," which includes a File Allocation Table (FAT) update that doesn’t use minimum file allocation units. That means the Windows 95 file system wastes considerably less disk space (especially with large groups of small files) than the Mac OS. Although Mac OS 8.0.1 is scheduled to include HFS Plus, a major enhancement to the Macintosh file system that also removes this limitation, it’s ironic that my Mac’s disk space is used more efficiently in the disk images files controlled by Virtual PC than by my Macintosh itself.
Using It Like a PC — In ordinary usage, Virtual PC works like a charm. I’ve installed all kinds of imaging and Web-related software without a hitch. Netscape Communicator 4.0, Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0, DeBabelizer 4.0, and the whole Ulead PhotoImpact line all worked without a hitch.
However, I pushed Virtual PC over the edge by installing a preview release of Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 for Windows 95. Unlike the Macintosh preview release of Explorer, the Windows Internet Explorer 4.0 beta can change the entire desktop environment. That’s not such a hot idea even for Windows users – I’ve seen reports of numerous problems occurring on real PCs, and it’s definitely out of the question for Virtual PC. I had to go back and install Virtual PC from scratch (which was much easier than re-installing Windows on a real PC, admittedly).
When working on a LAN and using TCP/IP, Virtual PC requires a different IP number than the one being used by your Macintosh. In this regard, it’s one of the first consumer products that allows a Mac to use two IP numbers simultaneously (it requires Open Transport to use Ethernet). The practical upshot is that you can use the Internet in both the Macintosh and Windows environments simultaneously. I’ve browsed on the Mac while downloading files via FTP in Windows.
Connectix manages to provide two separate IP numbers on the same physical machine by not doing anything special. The virtual machine runs its own, separate TCP stack – essentially the software that handles interactions between application software and network hardware. Each stack can have its own logical IP number even though the computer has a single physical Ethernet device; the two are totally independent. In the Unix and Windows NT worlds, people often have numerous IP addresses with a single Ethernet device.
You configure PPP in Windows rapidly using wizards in Windows 95 that walk you through a task while explaining it. The wizards suited me well, because it’s complex to configure PPP without assistance. My PowerBook 3400c’s internal modem wouldn’t work with Windows PPP (although other applications in Windows 95 recognized it), so I switched to a Global Village PowerPort Platinum Pro PC Card (I like to call it a GV PPPPP). This caused bizarre "processor errors" as Virtual PC launched; I eliminated them by disabling Ethernet temporarily via the Preferences submenu. Connectix has identified the issue and should have a solution in an upcoming maintenance release.
Mac-specific Issues — I found it easy to switch between the Mac and Windows environments. You can choose a full screen or a within-a-window display for the Windows environment. In full screen mode, pressing Command displays the Mac menu bar as well as a status bar that indicates activity on your Ethernet connection, CD-ROM drive, floppy disk, and hard disk.
Virtual PC also makes it easy to change video modes, and the display has worked well with both the PowerBook 3400c’s 800 by 600 display and an external monitor. You select resolutions in Windows using the Windows Displays control panel; you determine how much virtual video RAM Windows has in Virtual PC’s Preferences dialog box.
One of the neatest features of Virtual PC is that it can save its state, which is much like putting the Virtual PC’s Windows environment to sleep. When you quit Virtual PC through its own menu (rather than shutting down via Windows 95’s Start menu) you’re given the option to save Virtual PC’s current state to disk. Next time you launch Virtual PC, you must wait a bit (about twenty seconds on my 3400c), but after the wait you are – in theory – right back where you left off. I’ve found these saved states a mixed blessing because they don’t work exactly as expected. The 3400c’s hot-swappable drive bay (CD-ROM or floppy) and the Mac’s ease of changing Ethernet and TCP/IP configurations are fabulous, but those capabilities play havoc with Virtual PC when I restore a saved state. It’s as if I reached into a running PC and yanked out the Ethernet card or CD-ROM drive. You must do a full shutdown inside Windows 95 before changing configurations, though you still need not shut down the Mac.
System Resources — You must consider system resource issues before installing Virtual PC. For instance, I originally had 48 MB of RAM. After experimenting with RAM Doubler and running multiple applications alongside Virtual PC, I upgraded to 80 MB of RAM, though I can still run RAM Doubler at the same time for memory management benefits. Adding more RAM enabled me to allocate more than 32 MB to Windows, which is effectively the minimum amount of RAM necessary for Windows 95, whether or not Virtual PC is involved.
Disk space is another concern. Virtual PC creates a single file that acts as the C drive for the PC. You can choose to create either a 150 MB or 260 MB disk image, depending on whether you use the minimum or standard disk images. Even 260 MB is barely enough space to work in, and since Windows’ memory management system is constantly swapping material between RAM and disk (like Virtual Memory on the Mac), you should leave 40 or 50 MB free just for kicks. These disk images are Finder mountable just by double-clicking on them, very much like ShrinkWrap disk images. The disk images are mounted in such a way that Windows 95 long file names re-map to DOS-style eight-dot-three character names.
Creating another file to act as another drive is simple: in Virtual PC’s Preferences dialog, click the D drive, click the New Hard Drive Image button, and then enter the size of the disk image file you want to create. Unfortunately, if you do this while in a Windows 95 session, you are presented with an option to restart the virtual machine. Just as powering a Mac down in the middle of working is bad, so too is powering down a PC running Windows 95 – and the same applies to the Virtual PC virtual machine. Instead, first choose Shut Down from the Windows 95 Start menu, then select Restart in DOS Mode in the Shut Down dialog. Once in DOS mode, you can reboot at will, so you can create the new disk image and allow it to restart. Some warning or documentation in the Preferences dialog would have been welcome: I figured this out through trial and error.
Once you create a drive, you can’t modify its size, and the image occupies its entire volume size on your Macintosh hard disk no matter how full (or empty) it is so far as Windows is concerned. These disk images can play havoc with backups created with Dantz’s popular Retrospect backup software (and other backup programs as well). Just launching and quitting Virtual PC modifies its disk image files, which means Retrospect will back them up during its next backup run. With my current disk images, I’d add about 600 MB to my backups every night if I didn’t specifically prevent Retrospect from backing up those files.
I’ve found several solutions to the sizing problem. First, you need not rely on disk images for all PC files. Virtual PC enables you to share folders between the Mac and Windows environments, so you can save most of your work to a shared folder (the K drive, perhaps), at which point Retrospect would see individual files. Or, you could mount the disk images in the Finder and have Retrospect recognize them as volumes, not individual files. Both mounted disk images and the shared folders use DOS file naming, so restoring files could be a problem later. Second, you could leave Virtual PC running all the time and use the Windows 95/NT Retrospect Remote control panel to back up Virtual PC’s disk images as though they were real hard disks on a physical PC! That’s a bit peculiar, but it should work and it would preserve long file names.
Performance — I’m asked frequently about Virtual PC’s speed. I’m at the low end of Connectix’s recommendations with a 200 MHz 603e chip in my PowerBook 3400c, and, to me, Virtual PC is slow. [Surprisingly, I’ve received a few comments from Virtual PC beta testers who happily ran Virtual PC on PowerPC-based Macs that didn’t meet Connectix’s recommendations. -Tonya] I often feel as though I’m running a 50 MHz Pentium MMX system. With some tasks, it feels fast; other times, I wait minutes for basic network or image functions to complete. One advantage of having Virtual PC as a separate Macintosh application, though, is that it functions perfectly well in the background, without stealing an overwhelming amount of processor power. A speedier chip than my 603e would help, although I doubt Virtual PC’s performance will ever cause jaws to drop.
Virtual PC requires more rebooting than the PC hardware I’m accustomed to, and it’s a little finicky about settings. On the whole, though, doing a normal Shut Down in Windows 95 and then starting it up when I needed it again resulted in consistently good behavior.
At a street price hovering below $150, it’s impossible to not recommend Virtual PC if you need to run Windows software and have a machine that meets Virtual PC’s minimum specs. If you design or write for the Web, it’s increasingly critical to test pages in browsers running on the Mac and the PC. Being able to do this on a single machine is a boon, even with the wait.
[Today, Insignia Solutions, long-time makers of SoftWindows, which enables you to run Windows applications on the Mac, shipped RealPC, a Pentium MMX emulator complete with Sound Blaster support and an emphasis on running games under DOS and Windows. RealPC has an estimated street price of $79, Windows operating system not included. -Tonya]
DealBITS Discount — Cyberian Outpost is offering Virtual PC with Windows 95 to TidBITS readers for $134.95 through the URL below. This represents a $5 discount off Cyberian’s regular price.
Connectix — 800/950-5880 — 415/571-5100 — 415/571-0850 (fax)
Insignia Solutions — 800/848-7677 — +44/131-458-6849