Hardware

It's a Mac. It's a PC. It's common sense!

The Macintosh is more versatile than many people realize. In this article, Schoun Regan explains the benefits and uses of VirtualPC, an application that allows your Mac to perform like a PC—only better!


The Macintosh is more versatile than many people realize. While my job is to teach people how to use the Macintosh, I also use a PC regularly, and I’ve found an application that can make your Macintosh perform like a PC—only better! This article will show you how VirtualPC will make your Macintosh more automated, better managed, and easier to use. The uses for this application are many: training, secretarial duties, IT/IS experimentation, etc. It all falls into what I call the “Common Sense Solution.”

The Mac and the “Common Sense Solution”
MacOS 9, the current Macintosh operating system, is built around the same concept that previous Mac operating systems were; the user doesn’t need to gain low-level access in order to use the computer. Since the user has no low-level access, there is no easily accessible command prompt and no Registry Editor to misuse. Thus, Macs continue to function—without the tinkering that often characterizes those curious PC users. Hierarchical File System Plus (HFS+), the Macintosh filing system, works on a Folder and File concept, just like Windows Explorer. When a Macintosh starts up, it performs a series of hardware checks on various components in the system. After all hardware has been verified, the Mac looks for a startup device that contains an active System Folder. The Mac loads the System into memory and proceeds to load any drivers and/or control devices that are present. After loading the drivers, it loads an application called the Finder. The Finder is the desktop of the Mac—all navigation and manipulation is done here. Of course, this process differs slightly from the way in which Windows loads, but it’s a critical difference to remember when you use your Mac as a PC.

Since the Finder is always active, other applications load and run in conjunction with the Finder when they are launched. These applications sometimes load other small applications or activate drivers that would normally stay dormant. Additional applications and drivers increase the amount of used memory and the overall System load. Most Macs use between 24 and 40 MB of RAM. Just by opening Microsoft Word, however, we will cause our System memory usage to jump to 95.2 MB. MS Word activates 5.2 MB of extras and places an additional drain on the System. In a PC, most of these extras load when the PC starts up. That’s why people seem to think that PCs are faster; they usually see Microsoft applications launch faster on PCs than on Macs. However, launching applications a few seconds faster doesn’t necessarily indicate speed. If your Macintosh is going to become a PC, it has to limit the additional resources that are placed on the System.

Enter VirtualPC
VirtualPC (VPC) is an application that was created by Connectix. VPC works by emulating the Intel instruction set in software. Once the application has been installed on a Mac, it places several items on the Mac's hard drive, including the application itself and Windows 9x. When it’s launched, VPC needs only 12 MB of RAM, but you can add more to that amount. For example, if I want my Windows files to "think" that they have 48 MB of RAM when they're launched, I'll set the amount of memory that VPC takes to 60 MB (12+48=60). It's the way in which Windows works on a Mac that makes the application so revolutionary. On the Mac, Windows 9x is really just a file. It can be as small as 260 MB or as large as 2 GB. It can be moved, deleted, copied, locked, and so on. When VPC is launched, it seeks out the preferred file (there can be many "Windows" files) and opens that file, just like MS Word can open a preferred file after it launches. This action "starts" Windows on the Mac.

Since VPC is an application, Windows is launched in a separate window, and the Finder is always active in the background. You can download a video of VPC launching Windows 98. The video shows VPC launching Windows 98 in 640x480 resolution. Since the Mac was also set to that resolution, you can’t see the Finder behind it. You also can launch VPC in its own window on the Mac. Set your Mac to any resolution and set VPC to any other resolution. Doing so allows the VPC window to be shown in one section of the Finder window.

VPC goes one step further. We can actually quit VPC without shutting down Windows. With a PC, it’s a bad idea to shut off the power to the computer while Windows is still active. In VPC, we can save the state of Windows. It freezes the file and anything that happens to be running at that time. Then, we can launch Windows much faster the next time. In our scenario, the Windows 98 file is 500 MB in size. Saving and opening the file again takes about 35 seconds. You can view a video of VPC saving and launching a saved file. Try doing that on a PC.

Backing up files and data
VPC loads and saves files in a fashion similar to MS Word. Instead of different Word files, however, VPC gives us the ability to load a variety of operating systems. A user can load several operating systems and rapidly switch between them without ever restarting anything. For example, I can start Windows 98, switch to Windows NT, move over to Linux, open Windows 95 or DOS or Windows 2000 Advanced Server Beta, and come back to Win98, if I wish. Each OS can be running a variety of software, and each is its own file, independent of the others. This ability has several advantages. First, you can test software on one machine without worrying about messing up the initial OS and having to reinstall. Second, Webmasters who must view their pages on a variety of operating systems and resolutions can do so without ever moving to another computer or restarting their machines.

Since files can be backed up easily, Windows can be reloaded on a Mac from a backup source in very little time. Consider a training company that must reload after every class. This training company doesn’t train users on Mac software, nor do they care for Macs. However, using Macs would save them time, money, and frustration. Imagine having iMacs on every desk; at a set time, they would delete the VPC Windows file on their drives and get a fresh copy from the server automatically. Now, they're ready for the next class with exactly the same setup as the previous day. There are no worries about user interference, incorrect loads, or pay for employees who stay up and do this job. It’s totally automated. Take that one step further. The training company has many Microsoft technical classes. Some of these classes involve deliberate malicious alteration of the operating system in an attempt to fix or decode a problem. Precious class time would be lost reloading after every alteration. If Macs and VPC were used in this scenario, students would spend more time attempting to solve problems and less time on repetitious reloading. I call that a competitive advantage for any training company.

We know that VPC treats Windows as a file and that those files can be replaced easily. But what about a user's data? If users are saving their data to the C drive (in this case, the Mac file), will deleting that file result in a loss of data? Yes. Fortunately, there is a simple solution. When VPC is loaded, you have the option of adding a D drive of up to 2 GB in size. You can always save your files there. However, there is an even better solution: you can choose to have a folder in the Mac world show up as a drive in the Windows world, as shown in Figure A.

Figure A
When you’re using VPC, you can save to a drive letter, which is actually a folder on your Mac.


Users can save to a drive letter, as they normally do. However, this drive letter is actually a folder on the Mac. If something happens—a virus, a crash, an application corruption, or any other mishap—users simply discard the file and download a copy from their backup sources. The important data has been sitting in a Mac folder, safe from any damage.

What about networking and transferring files?
Can Macs interface to a Windows network easily? How does VPC handle network access? Macs use a variety of protocols to communicate with other network devices, including TCP/IP, PPP, and AppleTalk, which are all built into the OS. Macs can handle both static IP addressing and DHCP addressing via their TCP/IP control panel. They can obtain an address on a Windows NT network without adding Services for Macintosh or raising the ire of uninformed IT personnel. VPC handles the network access in one of two ways. First, you can have VPC share the address of your Mac, allowing one IP address to work simultaneously for both the Mac and VPC, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B
If VPC and your Mac share the same address, one IP address will work simultaneously for both.


This is the ideal solution because it reduces the number of IP addresses that must be given out. It doesn’t make much sense for a small company with 200 computers to maintain two subnets for 400 IP addresses just because the Mac and VPC can’t operate off the same address. There are certain cases when you may wish to have the Mac and VPC maintain separate addresses. Client ID login, NetBUI, and certain software applications may require the use of DHCP on the Mac and a static IP on VPC (or vice versa). In these cases, VPC networking can be configured separately from the Mac.

File transfers are also fair game for IT departments. They need to be sure that files can move easily from the Mac to VPC. This task can be accomplished in several ways. The first and easiest way has already been described: using a Mac folder as a VPC drive so that files can be placed in that folder and accessed by both systems. A second way is to drag the files back and forth between the VPC window and the Finder on the Mac. VPC supports dragging files back and forth—it’s just like dragging files from one window to another. You can download a video of a drag-and-drop transfer. VPC would be a useful tool for companies with employees who prefer to use Macintosh but who still must access PC-only applications.

Other aspects of VPC
There are other functions that VPC can handle, including floppy disk drives, CD players, peripheral support, USB support, sound card support, and right-click key sequences for Macs. Instead of using a keyboard sequence for the Windows shortcut menu, I would suggest that you use a two-button mouse for the Mac. It allows you to right-click instead of using a keyboard sequence. VPC is also AppleScript ready. That means that a user can write AppleScripts (Apple's scripting language for controlling applications and the Finder on a Macintosh) to control Windows!

It’s fair to argue that VPC is not as fast as a real PC. However, when you ask what taxes a processor the most, the answers include working with audio, video, animation, image editing, and scientific and higher math applications. These are the tasks that the PowerPC processor performs best. Therefore, you can use the Mac for its superb processing power and VPC for the applications that don't require much processing power or that are PC-only. A proper test of speed is productivity, not just a few seconds’ launch time.

Conclusion
The advantages of VPC are clear: versatility, ease of administration, cost savings, and automation. Imagine a company that has Macs running VPC. When a user calls to report a VPC problem—say, a PC virus—the IT department tells the user to drag the VPC Windows file to the trash and empty it. Then, the user double-clicks on an AppleScript icon that logs the user onto the NT server, selects the backup Windows file image, and copies it to the user's Mac automatically. Since the user's data files are stored on a shared Mac folder, no data is lost. The user double-clicks on the VPC icon and is up and running in the time that it takes to copy the file. This ease of use is the epitome of the “Common Sense Solution.”

Schoun Regan is the training and media specialist for Complete Mac Services , an Apple VAR, training, and consulting facility in Louisville, Kentucky that specializes in PC-to-Mac integration. He teaches throughout North America on a variety of subjects and software. Schoun has been associated with Apple and the Macintosh since 1985 and has authored many Web sites. Certified in several applications and areas, he most enjoys teaching graphics applications.

Schoun's a regularly featured guest on 84Online, a technology-centric radio program heard in more than 30 states on Louisville's clear-channel station 84 WHAS, and on dot.com, a TV call-in show that’s broadcast from the Louisville area. He resides in the Ohio Valley with his very tolerant wife and children.

The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.

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