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Virtual PC For Mac OS X

A.P. Lawrence
Expert Author
Published: 2003-09-16

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Virtual PC for Windows, Mac (OS 9 or X) and OS/2 creates virtual machines that can run multiple Windows versions. This is particularly advantageous for Mac users, but even ordinary PC users can find value in this. It's easy to have Linux, Windows 98, Windows ME, 2000, XP Home and XP professional all on the same machine.

Easy doesn't necessarily mean fast. It took two hours to install Linux on my iBook, and after installation, running "makewhatis" took 13 minutes. A "time dd if=/dev/hda2 count=1024k of=/dev/null", which would have run in perhaps 18 seconds on a real install, took 24 seconds here. None of that is awful, but it is noticeable. Part of the problem is that the iBook isn't exactly high performance to start with, and the limited memory available (640 MB) does not help. If you are going to run Virtual PC, load up your machine with as much memory as you can.

Windows OS Packs
For Windows OS installs, the easiest choice is to buy an OS Pack. This gives you a legal, licensed version of whatever operating system(s) you want, and it is very easy to install. I installed Windows XP Professional from a Connectix OS Pack and had absolutely no difficulties. The installation of RedHat 8.0 was not so easy.

Linux Install
You begin by creating a virtual drive and allocating memory. I gave it a 15 GB hard drive (potential) and 128 MB of memory. You then simply pop in your install CD and startup the virtual machine. You can also do this using CD images: start up the machine, and of course it will fail. Now drag a CD image to the little CD icon at the bottom of the window, and use the Control menu to send Control-Alt-Delete.

The first problem I had was caused by my lack of patience. The difficulty was simply that I needed to wait for the Mac Desktop to mount the CD before telling Virtual PC to start up the installation. My impatience showed up again on CD 2 in a later install; if your install refuses to recognize a CD, try ejecting it and reinserting.

Image of installing RedHat 8.0 on Virtual PC

After getting by that, my impatience caught me again at the screen shown above. The installation hangs for a LONG time there; I assumed something was wrong and rebooted Virtual PC. Fortunately, when it hung again I had to take a fairly long phone call. That kept my hands off the keyboard, and after ten minutes or so the install continued. If I had paid attention to the activity indicators at the bottom of the Virtual PC window, I would have realized that it wasn't dead at all.

The final problem with RedHat was the GUI configuration. You can just accept the defaults here; I used Unprobed Monitor with a horizontal sync of 31.5-48.5kHz and a vertical sync of 50-70Hz, and a screen resolution of High Color (16 bit), 1024x768. When I clicked "Test Setting", everything went well until it returned to the installation. I had a much smaller window and it would not resize. I'm quite sure I could have tabbed my way to proper answers, and I did try, but I kept getting stuck in the same place so finally I gave up and started over. This time I did NOT test the settings, and the the only concession I made to the possiblility of it not working was to have the login be character based.

The RedHat install suffers from another problem: the mouse gets stuck in the Virtual PC Window. The Windows XP I purchased from them has a custom mouse driver that eliminates this problem (except briefly at startup), but here we have to live with it. Use Apple-Tab to switch away. At one time Virtual PC sold a bundled RedHat OS that might have not had this or other problems, but they stopped doing that, and now that Microsoft has bought them, I doubt we'll see it again.

The Linux AlT-Screens work as they should: hold down Control and Alt (Option) then fn (the key to the left of Control on my iBook) and press a function key.

Image of Linux Desktop under Virtual PC

Performance
As mentioned aboove, the performance is a little sluggish at times. Connectix has a lot of good help on the Windows OS side; for example
http://www.connectix.com/downloadcenter/pdf/OptimizingWinXPProandHome.pdf.
I don't spend a lot of time in XP or Linux; my main use is to check out how to do something for a client or test scripts I'm writing. The small performance penalty doesn't really bother me.

I mentioned above that I had the RedHat drive have a potential of 15 GB. Its actual size is about 5 MB; it will grows as needed. That's an area where you could imporove performance by preallocating the space you really need.

Networking
There are two ways to handle networking: you can either use Shared Networking (meaning it shares your machines ip address) with the machine set to DHCP, or you can have it set to "Virtual Switch" and assign your own real ip address (or use a real DHCP server). I used the Shared method on both XP and Windows but ran into a very odd problem on the Linux side. I could ping anything by ip address, ssh to any ip address etc. I could also resolve host names with dig or host. Yet I couldn't ping or ssh by host name. That's beyond strange, and I've yet to figure out how that can be. However, for my use, it is unimportant.

Throw way changes
The very best thing about Virtual PC is its handling of drive changes Whenever you shutdown an OS (using the Virtual PC menus), you are asked what to do with hard drive changes: discard, carry them forward, or make them permanent. When I'm about to try something odd, this feature can be a lifesaver: I save the PC's state first, then do whatever awful thing it is I want to do. If I then get crashes or unpleasant behavior, I simply discard the changes and I'm back to a working configuration. This is ju8st wonderful for people who have to screw around with all kinds of strange software that can do damage to your system. It's also a clean sweep of anything you don't want: you don't have to trust their uninstaller.

Originally appeared at http://www.aplawrence.com/Reviews/virtualpc.html

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About the Author:
A.P. Lawrence provides SCO Unix and Linux consulting services http://www.pcunix.com

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