XP Virtual Computing Avoids Dual-Boot Complexity

It’s possible to have Vista and chow down on your XP cake, too, if you apply a free — for now — virtual machine.

If you’re stuck with a Vista PC, but you really prefer using XP, I’ll show you how to set up XP as a virtual machine on Vista, plus some tricks you can use to get the most out of this setup.

Why you should give virtual machines a free try

It’s unarguable: Windows XP operates more quickly than Vista (a fact that PC World recently demonstrated even with the new Service Pack 1 installed on Vista). Additionally, no one who’s independent of Microsoft’s payroll suggests that device drivers are just as easily available for Vista as they are for XP, or that Vista supports as many software applications that people own.

It’s Microsoft’s mission to make the marketplace more Vista-friendly, which seems to be the company’s primary motivation for shutting off retail sales of XP on June 30. But many Windows users want to stick with XP, either for performance reasons or so they can use software that’s not Vista-friendly. With fewer PCs on the shelf that will run, or even support, Windows XP — and with that number dwindling each day — a way you can run XP on a Vista machine that may be your only option is a blessing.

Operating XP in a virtual machine (VM) is a great alternative for those with newer PCs that may not, out of the box, be XP-compatible. Indeed, when I explained in a Feb. 14 article how to set up a computer to dual-boot between Vista and XP, a number of readers suggested another possibility: run XP in a virtual machine.

One related fact makes this option even greater: you can prove that it works for free, using downloads from Microsoft that will function at least through July 3, 2008. (More on that later.)

The advantages of running a second operating system like XP inside a virtual machine include:

  • Compatibility. You don’t have to worry about locating XP drivers for most hardware components. Vista’s drivers provide all the support XP needs within the VM.
  • Faster access. You don’t have to reboot your computer to start a session running XP or another operating system in a VM.
  • No System Restore bugs. Running XP in a virtual machine bypasses the fact that XP deletes Vista’s restore points, as I discussed in tip.

In my tests, I’ve found Microsoft’s Virtual PC to be a simple and convenient way to run XP within Vista. But, if you’re interested in trying virtual-machine software from a non-Microsoft source, download the free VMware Player from (who else?) VMware.

To use the VMware Player to install Windows XP, you’ll need to install some additional software and create a couple of special files. Fortunately, self-described freelance Perl programmer John Bokman details the steps on his Web site.

How to install XP on Microsoft Virtual PC

Before beginning, make sure that you meet all of these requirements:

  1. A computer with adequate muscle. Your PC needs to a be good performer, with at least 2GB of disk space and 128MB of RAM to run Windows XP. That means 128MB of RAM over and above what your current operating system demands, not 128MB total. More than 128MB of spare RAM works better. You can find the requirements on a Microsoft System Requirements page.
  2. A copy of Microsoft’s Virtual PC. Virtual PC is free and — once you’ve installed the (equally free) Virtual Machine Additions — you’ll probably find the software is easy to work with.
  3. A copy of Windows XP. You’ll need a Windows XP install disc to add that operating system to your virtual machine. If you’re transferring a retail copy of XP from another machine, this should not be a licensing issue. If your only copy of XP is an OEM copy, however, you may need to purchase a retail copy while packages are still available. See my Mar. 13 article for a discussion of licensing concerns.

If you only need XP (or Vista) to run in a VM for a few weeks for testing purposes, Microsoft makes preactivated images of those operating systems available for free at its Download Center.

Note, however, that this free version of XP expires on July 3, 2008. Microsoft has been giving away these short-term versions for some time, so it’s possible that another downloadable version of XP will be available when the current one expires. If you ever reinstall the OS within your VM, unfortunately, you’ll also have to reinstall any software you added to the VM.

Let’s get started with the installation process. It looks long, but if you follow my steps precisely, it’s straightforward:

Step 1: Get a copy of Virtual PC from Microsoft’s Download Center.
Step 2: Launch the downloaded setup.exe and follow the steps in the Microsoft Virtual PC 2007 Wizard.
Step 3: Launch the Virtual PC Console by choosing Start, All Programs, Microsoft Virtual PC. (In Vista, you can also click Start, type Virtual PC, and press Enter.)
Step 4: If you have no virtual machines, the New Virtual Machine Wizard starts automatically. Otherwise, you’ll need to click the New button to start the New Virtual Machine Wizard. Click Next.
Step 5: In the wizard, select Create a virtual machine and click Next.
Step 6: Type a name for your VM. If you want to change the folder that the VM (.vmc) file is stored in, type in a new path or use the Browse button. Click Next.
Step 7: Specify Windows XP as your operating system (this is the default if you’re running Vista). Click Next.
Step 8: I recommend you select Adjusting the RAM and increase the setting rather than accepting the wizard’s 128MB default. Your choice depends on several considerations, including how much RAM your system has and whether you’ll be running other applications in Vista at the same time that you’re working in the VM. You can always adjust the RAM setting later. Pick a number, enter it, and click Next.
Step 9: Reserve a chunk of hard disk space to simulate a hard drive for the VM to use. Select A new virtual hard disk and click Next for this file. (It has a .vhd extension.) The default option is to let the virtual disk expand dynamically until it reaches the size you specify. Click Next.
Step 10: Specify the size and location of the .vhd file and click Next. Then click Finish.
Step 11: Select your new VM in the Virtual PC Console window and click Start.
Step 12: When the system finishes loading the VM, insert your XP install CD or DVD and press Enter. XP setup should begin. If it doesn’t, choose CD, Use Physical Drive X: (where X is the drive letter displayed). Then press Enter again.
Step 13: Allow XP setup to proceed just as though you were installing the OS on a new computer. Installation is a faster process on a virtual machine, because the PC hardware doesn’t have to go through a hardware reboot several times during the installation.
Step 14: Once you’ve installed XP and have it running in a window, you’ll need to install some Virtual Machine Additions to give Virtual PC more features and flexibility. From the window that shows your new XP VM, pull down the Action menu, and select the option entitled Install or update Virtual Machine Additions.

Without the Virtual Machine Additions, your mouse pointer is trapped inside the VM until you press the Right-Alt key on your keyboard. With VM Additions installed, however, you can move the mouse freely between the windows.

VM Additions also enables folder sharing between your VM and the host OS, supports drag-and-drop file copying between guest and host systems, and sharing the Clipboard between guest and host systems. VM Additions also adds joystick support, provides optimized video drivers, and more.

Tricks to improve your VM experience

If you haven’t run a virtual machine before, it’s a different experience from what you’re used to. Here are a few quick-start tricks to make your XP virtual-machine journey easier:

  • The new Ctrl+Alt+Delete. The Ctrl+Alt+Delete combination affects only your host version of Windows. If you need this feature within your VM, hold down the Right-Alt key and press Delete instead.
  • Run full screen. To run your VM full screen, hold the Right-Alt key and press Enter. Repeat to reduce the VM to a window again.
  • Make your VM hibernate. To get the equivalent of Windows Hibernate within the VM, click the VM’s Close button or pull down the Action menu and click Close. Then choose Save State when the system prompts you.
  • Share folders. To share a folder between your VM and your host OS, right-click the folder icon in the bottom of your VM window and choose Share Folder. Select the folder (on your computer) that you want to share and specify a drive letter. Click OK. Within the VM, the folder appears as a network drive with the letter you assigned.
  • Adjust memory. If you need to adjust the amount of memory you’re giving your VM, you must first close the virtual machine down completely, without the Save State feature. This is detailed in the following steps:

Step 1. Within the VM, choose the Start button and then the Shut Down option. Alternatively, use the VM’s Close button (or pull down the Action menu and select the Close option) and choose Turn off.
Step 2. Select the VM in the Virtual PC Console window and click Action, Settings.
Step 3. Select Memory on the left side and adjust the slider on the right side. Click OK.

Running XP in a virtual machine isn’t perfect. XP won’t run as fast in a VM as it would running by itself. In addition, VMs have a limitation that may be a deal-breaker to some: Microsoft’s Virtual PC does not support access to USB devices from within the VM. Note that VMware Player does not have this problem.

Running the free, preactivated version of XP within either Microsoft’s Virtual PC or VMWare Player can give you a sense of whether the VM approach is right for you without spending any money.

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