By Gregg Keizer

When supporting multiple operating systems, the right PC emulation software can save you time and effort. And I believe Virtual PC for Windows from Connectix is the best PC emulator out there. The $229 program, like its Mac counterpart, lets you emulate any number of fast computers—in other words, create a faux computer within a real one—equip them with nearly any operating system that runs on a PC, and switch among them with a mouse click. Plus, version 5.0 works faster than before and can now run under Windows 98 and XP. (Previous versions required Windows Me or Windows 2000.)

While home users should stick to dual-booting (running two operating systems on separate hard drive partitions) if they need more than one OS, anyone who needs to switch between operating systems on the fly should choose Virtual PC for Windows 5.0 (Figure A). Click here to check the latest prices.

Figure A
ZDNet editors give Virtual PC for Windows a 7 out of 10 overall rating. Individual category ratings break down as follows: performance 8, features 8, service and support 4, installation and setup 8, interface and ease of use 7.

Ersatz computers
Virtual PC works by emulating a PC’s hardware—the microprocessor, the hard drive, the video card, and the network card—onto which you install an operating system, applications, and files. Virtual PC for Windows 5.0 requires a PC running Windows 98, Me, NT, 2000, or XP but will itself build a virtual machine that runs any Microsoft OS—including DOS, Windows 3.1, Windows 95, 98, Me, NT, 2000, and XP—as well as Solaris, OS/2, and virtually any edition of Linux.

Bring a beefy system
Thanks to a slick wizard, installing Virtual PC takes only 10 minutes. Once you’ve installed the emulation environment, you must drop an OS onto your new virtual machine (VM). For that job, Connectix sells OS Packs, which are preloaded operating system disc images that you mount on your VM; you can get Windows 98, Me, XP Home ($149 each), and 2000 and XP Pro ($199 each). Sadly, unlike the Mac version, Virtual PC for Windows doesn’t include any OS packs out of the box. You can also use your own OS setup CDs—say, if you already own a copy of Windows 95—which we did.

Figure B

Two hours after we tore off the shrink-wrap, Virtual PC was running two VMs—one with Windows 98 (Figure B), the other with XP Home—on a machine that used to run just XP Pro. To run two OSs on one PC, however, your real hardware must be up to the challenge. Running Windows 98 in a VM on an XP Pro system requires 500 MB of extra drive space and at least 196 MB of RAM (64 MB for Windows 98, 128 MB for XP Pro). Want to run two VMs simultaneously? You’ll need even more space and memory. (Check out the requirements here.)

Faster fake PCs
Virtual PC 5.0 adds a few under-the-hood features to what was already a solid program. This version now emulates a 10/100-Mb Ethernet card, rather than a slower 10-Mb card; you have more control over the CPU (you can assign preference to the VM, rather than just split the CPU’s time between real and virtual machines, as in the past); and 5.0 lets you dedicate up to 1GB of RAM to a virtual machine (earlier editions topped out at 512 MB). The emulated video card has also doubled its RAM, from 4 MB to 8 MB, for faster screen redraws.

Virtual PC claims better performance, particularly on multiprocessor PCs, and we saw a marked improvement over 4.0 even on our single-CPU machine. On an 800-MHz system with 256 MB of RAM, Virtual PC 5.0 ran Windows XP Home as a VM much faster than 4.0, with screen redraws taking less time and apps opening as much as 25 percent faster. Still, Virtual PC’s performance is directly related to the hardware on the host. The virtual machines perked right up when we moved to a 1.4-GHz PC with 512 MB of memory.

Pricey support
Sadly, support for this expensive app is equally pricey—$99 for each call or e-mail message after the first one, which is free. Virtual PC ships with a wimpy four-page manual, and the help file failed us, offering the barest instructions on how to connect to the Internet from a VM. We found the online help a bit better, thanks to a searchable database, but virtually all of the solutions we found dealt with older versions. Your best bet is to browse the online user-to-user forums on Connectix’s site.

The support costs sting even more when you consider Virtual PC’s $229 price tag, which does not include a single $150 to $200 OS Pack. If you just want to try out an extra operating system at home, you’re better off dual-booting a large hard drive. But Virtual PC 5.0 does the trick perfectly for its niche audiences: technical staffs that must support multiple flavors of Windows, a company tied to an ancient DOS app, training centers and schools, and software developers who need to work in several operating systems. Click here to check the latest prices.

This review was originally published by ZDNet on Sept. 18, 2002.