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Run another OS using Virtual PC

There is a free utility from Microsoft called Virtual PC that lets you run Windows in Windows. It sounds strange thing to do, but it is actually a regular Windows program that emulates a whole computer. It gives you a BIOS (Basic Input Output System), video card, disk drive, sound system, network card, mouse, and so on.

Microsoft Virtual PCWhen you run Virtual PC and emulate a computer you can install an operating system on its virtual hard disk drive, such as Windows 98, ME, 2000, XP, or Vista. The new operating system runs within the Virtual PC emulator, but it works just like the real thing and it can be used as if it was really installed on your computer.

It might be a bit difficult to imagine, but here is a screen shot of Windows Vista Ultimate running within Microsoft Virtual PC. Virtual PC is running in Windows Vista Home Premium. So basically you have Vista running in a virtual machine in Vista.

In the screen shot Vista Ultimate is being displayed in a window on the desktop, but there is an option to run it full screen, which makes it even more realistic. In fact, it's hard to tell from the real thing! (Microsoft says that you need Vista Ultimate or Business to run Virtual PC, but it works fine with Home Premium as you can see.)

Microsoft Virtual PCIf you think that running Vista within Vista is strange, how about running Windows Vista in Windows XP? In this screen shot Windows XP Media Center Edition is being used to run Microsoft Virtual PC. Windows Vista Basic has been installed in Virtual PC and is running in a window on the XP desktop. It'll run full screen, but it's more impressive in a window because you can actually see the XP desktop.

You can switch back and forth between XP and Vista, using both operating systems simultaneously and even swap files, copy to the clipboard in one OS and paste it into an application in the other OS, and so on. (Microsoft says that you need XP Pro to run Virtual PC, but it works fine with Media Center Edition as you can see.)

You might expect the operating system in Virtual PC to run very slowly, but that's not the case and it is more responsive than you might think. Vista Ultimate is the most demanding OS, yet it runs reasonably quickly within Virtual PC and while it isn't exactly fast, it is certainly usable. Older operating systems will run much quicker in Virtual PC of course, and Windows 98 would really fly on a modern PC, even under the emulation offered by this utility.

Why would you want to do this? Well, there are several reasons and one is that you might be curious to discover what is in a different version of Windows. For example, you could run Windows Vista in a virtual machine that's running in XP. You can also run XP in Vista and this can be useful if you have software you need to use that is not compatible with Vista.

You can also use it to test software. If you are a developer and write your own programs or create websites, you can test them in any version of Windows you want, all on one computer in virtual machines. You can test beta software in a virtual machine without risk to your current Windows installation. If it goes wrong and messes up Windows in the virtual machine, you simply delete the file and create a new one.

System requirements

So what do you need to run Microsoft Virtual PC? The system requirements are actually quite minimal and you'll find a list at the Microsoft website. The more powerful the processor and video card are the better the guest OS will run. You should bear in mind the minimum requirements of the OS you are installing, so you only need 64Mb of memory and about 500Mb of disk space for Windows 98, but to install Vista Ultimate you'll need at least 512Mb of RAM and 15Gb of disk space. Don't forget that you are running an OS within an OS, so if you're running Vista in Vista you'll need at least 1Gb of RAM because you'll need to allocate 512Mb for Virtual PC to run Vista and you can't do this if there's only 512Mb in the PC.

It's best to have a large screen too, so you can run the guest OS in a reasonably large window. Full screen is an option, but windowed mode is useful because you can switch back and forth between ordinary Windows and Windows in Virtual PC. If your desktop resolution is 1280 x 1024, for example, you can then set the guest OS to 1024 x 768. (You set the resolution in the same way you normally would - right click the desktop and select Properties or Personalize depending on the OS you are running.)

You need to have an operating that is capable of running Virtual PC and this means Windows XP Pro or Media Center Edition, or Vista Home Premium or Ultimate. According to Microsoft, Home Premium and XP MCE can't run Virtual PC, but it works just fine as you can see from the screen shots. Ignore any warnings about it not being suitable because it certainly is.

If you want to install Windows in Virtual PC you will need to have a Windows CD. A full CD that is, not an upgrade disk. However, there's a way around this if you don't have a Windows disc as you'll see later.

Installing Virtual PC

Microsoft Virtual PCYour first task is to download and install Microsoft Virtual PC, so go to the Virtual PC home page and follow the download links to get the file and save it to the desktop.

Whenever you install new software in Windows Vista you should always remember to right click the file and select Run As Administrator, even if you are logged on as an administrator. It's all very straightforward, so let's move on to actually running the software.

Click the New button to create a new virtual machine (you can actually create as many as you want and have a different operating system running in each one).

The New Virtual Machine Wizard appears and this guides you though the process step by step. There are three options right at the start and you should select Create a virtual machine - you can try the others later on.

Enter a name for the virtual machine (the files are stored in your Documents folder by the way).

Microsoft Virtual PCYou will then be prompted to select the operating system from a drop-down list. Choose the one you want to install and in the next step you can set the amount of memory to allocate.

The default is OK, but if you have lots of memory in your PC (your real PC that is), you should select the Adjust the the RAM option because you can then allocate more than the abre minimum so the Virtual PC runs better.

You are asked whether you want to use an existing virtual hard disk or create a new one. The first time you run the program you'll need to create one.Enter the amount of disk space you need, such as 20000 for a 20Gb virtual hard disk.

You must ensure that it is big enough to install the operating system and any applications you want to run. For example, Windows 98 needs less than 1Gb, but Vista Ultimate needs 15Gb.

That's it, the wizard finishes and the virtual PC appears in a window. It will try to boot, but after a a minute or so it will realise that it can't. What you have is basically a PC with no operating system, so it won't do anything until you install one.

Microsoft Virtual PC

Go to Part 2: Install an operating system


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