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Run another OS using Virtual PC

Go to Part 1

In part 1 we saw how Microsoft Virtual PC could be used to run one version of Windows within another version, such as XP in Vista, Vista in XP, or Vista in Vista. It's very useful for testing your own software, running beta software, or trying out shareware downloaded from the internet. Virtual PC emulates a computer in software and you can install any version of Windows into it and run it as if it was really running on a PC.

Microsoft Virtual PCIf you followed part 1 you will have downloaded and installed Microsoft Virtual PC in either Windows XP Pro, XP Media Center Edition, Vista Home Premium, Vista Business, or Vista Ultimate, and you will have created a virtual machine in which to run the new operating system.

As soon as the New Virtual Machine Wizard has finished the new virtual PC you created will try to boot up and it will look for an operating system to load.

However, it will fail to boot because there isn't an operating system installed yet to boot from.

After a few seconds delay it will then display a message saying "Reboot and select proper boot device or insert boot media in selected boot device."

Microsoft Virtual PCAt this point you should insert your Windows CD/DVD and press Return. (It is important here that you have a full Windows disc and not an upgrade version - you can't install an upgrade because there's nothing on the virtual computer yet to upgrade!)

From this point on, installing Windows int he virtual machine is exactly the same as it is when installing it on a real computer. You just follow the setup and configuration instructions as you normally would.

For example, it will ask where you want to install Windows and it will prompt you to select a disk drive. This is the virtual disk that you created with the New Virtual Machine Wizard, so just go ahead and install it. Select the region, language, and time zone as usual, create a user account, optionally add a password, and so on.

At the end of the Windows installation procedure you will have a brand new copy of Windows running in the Virtual PC window. You'll need to configure it a bit because the default settings are probably not to your liking. For example, the default screen resolution is usually the lowest, so right click the desktop and select Properties, Settings (XP) or Personalize, Display settings (Vista).

Microsoft Virtual PCAnother thing you should do is to install the Virtual PC extensions. These enable you to access a shared folder - shared between Windows running on the virtual machine and normal Windows.

It enables you to pass files and programs from one Windows to the other.

The extensions enable the clipboard to be shared and you can copy something to the clipboard in the virtual machine and paste it in Windows.

The mouse smoothly moves between Windows and Windows in the virtual machine too, with no need to press Alt as you normally do.

To install the extensions, go to the Action menu in the virtual machine window and select Install or Update Virtual Machine Additions.

No Windows CD?

Most PCs are sold without Windows CDs these days and this means that many people do not have a Windows disc to install into Microsoft Virtual PC. If you are planning to upgrade from XP to Vista you could go out and buy a full Vista DVD - the disc has every version of Vista on it and any can be installed into Virtual PC. You can thoroughly test Vista in the virtual machine and try each of the Vista versions before committing your PC to a full upgrade.

Many people won't want to buy a Windows XP or Vista package just to run in Virtual PC, so what can you do? Fortunately, Microsoft has provided ready-made virtual hard disks that you can download and run with Virtual PC. There's Windows Vista Enterprise, BizTalk Server, Office 2007 Professional, SQL Server 2005, Windows Vista and others. Some of these virtual hard disks require Microsoft Virtual Server, which is a similar program to Microsoft Virtual PC and it enables you to run other versions of Windows. Some virtual hard disks will work with either Virtual PC or Virtual Server, so check the system requirements before downloading them. These downloads are big! Vista Ultimate with Office 2007 Professional is over a gigabyte, so you need a fast internet connection.

What can you do with it?

One common use for Virtual PC is so that you can run a different version of Windows to the one you currently have. For example, you can run Vista in XP and vice versa. You can also run the same version of Windows, such as Vista Home Premium in Vista Home Premium, but why would you want to do this? The main reason is to enable you to test software in a safe environment.

Not all programs will run in Windows running on a virtual machine, but the vast majority does and it's a great way to try a program before you actually install it on your desktop or laptop computer. It's common for software to scatter files across the hard disk drive and to change system settings, and this makes it difficult to uninstall, but when it's a virtual machine it doesn't matter. You can simply delete the virtual machine and create a new one, or better still, just delete it and restore a backup. There's no risk.

The best way to see what Virtual PC can do is to simply try installing some software and see what happens.

Alternatives to Microsoft Virtual PC

Microsoft does not have a monopoly on virtual machines or guest operating systems and it didn't even invent the technology - it bought it a few years ago from some other company. There are several alternatives that are well worth trying if you want to experiment with virtual machines and some of them are free.

VirtualBox is a free open source virtualisation program that enables you to run a variety of different guest operating systems on a variety of different hosts. It runs on Windows, Linux, Macintosh and OpenSolaris hosts and supports guest operating systems including but not limited to Windows (NT 4.0, 2000, XP, Server 2003, Vista), DOS/Windows 3.x, Linux (2.4 and 2.6), and OpenBSD.

It's a popular program and it was originally developed by a German software company called Innotek GmbH, but now Sun is behind the project and you can find Sun xVM VirtualBox at the corporate website. If you follow the links to the download page you'll see links to get Sun xVM VirtualBox 1.6 and VirtualBox Open Source Edition (OSE) 1.6. As they are both free and essentially the same software, it's not clear what differences there are, apart from the license.

VMware has a range of virtualisation programs and there's VMware Workstation for Windows PCs and VMware Fusion for the Apple Mac. Parallels Desktop is a well known virtualisation program that enables you to run Windows on the Apple mac. These products are all excellent, but they aren't free.

For more information about various virtual machines, there is a good page on Wikipedia that compares lots of different products and provides links to them.

Go to Part 1


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