Virtual PC weds Windows and Linux

Can’t decide among Linux, Windows 2000, or XP? Why not install them all? Virtual PC from Connectix Corp., available now in a free beta version, lets you run multiple operating systems on Windows at the same time.

Virtual PC is available in a downloadable prerelease form, and is scheduled to ship in June priced at $300.

This product brings Virtual PC, best known as a program that lets MacIntosh owners run Windows programs, to the Windows world. The program will appeal to those who like to try before they commit to a new operating system, and to people who occasionally use a program that runs only under a certain OS.

The beta form of Virtual PC supports most versions of Linux and all major releases of Windows including XP. However, you won’t be able to run the MacIntosh OS, Corel’s version of Linux, BeOS, or QNX. Connectix says it’s weeding out bugs so that Virtual PC will run Corel Linux and BeOS when it ships. Connectix’s chief rival is VMWare. Its $450 VMWare 2.0 lets Windows PCs run Linux or vice versa.

Virtual PC works by creating a file that acts as a hard drive, where a guest operating system resides. It then emulates all the elements of a PC from a 4MB video card, 16Bit sound card, and a PC’s BIOS. Those hardware specs cannot be modified, according to Connectix. You can create as many virtual hard drives as your PC can hold.

When you launch Virtual PC for the first time to install a guest operating system, it opens a window that mimics a PC with no OS and prompts you to install a boot disk.

Are Two OSs Better Than One?

I tested the software on a 600MHz Pentium III with 128MB of memory and a 20GB hard disk, running Windows 98 SE. I had trouble installing Corel Linux, then discovered it isn’t supported by the beta version of Virtual PC. I switched Linux distributions and had no problem installing Red Hat Linux 7.1.

First, I allocated memory to my new OS. But, as a rule, the total amount of memory on the guest PC cannot exceed half of the hardware’s actual total. This means you’ll want a fairly muscled machine if you want Virtual PC to run the latest version of Windows. In order to run Windows XP on my Win98 machine, for example, I needed a minimum of 256MB RAM.

Red Hat Linux installed and ran smoothly. However, the stability benefits gained with Linux are negated by fact it runs under the less-stable Windows 98. Besides supporting Red Hat Linux, Virtual PC works with the latest Linux distributions from SuSE and Mandrake.

My installation of a preview version of Windows XP was flawless as soon as I upgraded my machine to 256MB RAM. One glitch was a loss of audio support within Windows XP, which I didn’t attempt to fix. When I tried to install Windows XP with 128MB RAM, my system kept crashing during the installation process.

Pros, Cons of Going Virtual

Running Virtual PC has advantages over setting up a dual-boot PC that can run one of two operating systems on a single PC. For one, Virtual PC lets you run two different OSs concurrently (even three, if you’ve got a lot of memory). Also, dual-boot systems can be complicated to set up and dismantle, while Virtual PC was a snap to use.

However, installing Red Hat Linux did require me to partition my virtual hard disk, which could be intimidating to novice PC users. But at least Virtual PC can sniff out all network connections, so connecting to the Internet required no special configurations in Linux and Windows XP.

For me, the biggest drawback is that Virtual PC limits your guest PC to a 4MB video card. Also, it might be disappointing that Virtual PC requires your host PC to be a Windows machine. VMWare will run on Linux, but costs $150 more.

Connectix also offers a bit of a shortcut in Windows OS Packs, which are separate programs that work with Virtual PC software. The Virtual PC program lets you install existing operating systems that you buy separately, but Connectix Windows OS Packs run only in virtual mode. The packs, sold separately, won’t cost much less than Microsoft’s full version of the software, however. For example, a Windows 98 OS Pack is priced at $225, compared with a Windows 98 full version for $265. (Estimated Cdn $)