Connectix recently released version 6 of Virtual PC, the standard for emulating Windows on a Mac. With version 5, the main feature was Mac OS X compatibility. With version 6, the focus is on better performance and Mac integration.Now -- and this is the honest-to-goodness truth -- I have not seen an actual computer (only images on TV or in magazines) running native Windows in months. For the whole of 2003. I live a very good life. And I don't want to ruin it by running Windows on my Mac unless I have a need to.
My Windows needs are few. I am a perl developer; I work on perl and release perl software. Occasionally, I want to test on Windows. Further, I am a Slash developer, and sometimes our users complain about certain bugs that only show up on certain browsers, so I want to test that on Windows too. And every once in awhile, there is some software I need that is Windows-only.
All of these needs are rare, but when I need them, I need them. Virtual PC has always been helpful to me for these purposes in the past, though it's been slow. So on to version 6.
The first thing I did was upgrade from version 5, and just play around. Everything is noticeably faster. Viewing multimedia is nicer, opening apps is quicker, moving around the filesystem is zippier (I am running out of adjectives here, bear with me).
I was overdue on some updates, so I ran the Windows Update app. They downloaded and installed much more quickly, though I still prefer to download via Mac OS X and drag the files over to Windows.
I updated Cygwin and ActiveState's Perl Development Kit and Komodo, which I use occasionally; they work fine, but are still too slow to be bearable for everyday use, but I would not want to use Windows for everyday use, so it's all good.
Now, on to the new features. Version 6 has a more refined interface for defining preferences and organizing multiple guest PCs (I've got Windows 95 and Windows 2000). You can now mount those PC disk images, which is nice, but only when the PC is shut down. Since I leave the PCs running all the time, to make startup faster (using the Save State feature), I never have much opportunity to mount the disk images. Although, when I did try to mount the Windows 95 PC (more than once), it crashed. It worked fine for the Windows 2000 image.
Another new step toward integration is the addition of some items for the Mac OS X Dock: a Start menu application, and the ability to place Windows applications in the Dock. The Start menu application is nifty; you get the Start menu from your Windows PC, but in the Dock instead. It's more responsive and looks better. The Windows applications in the Dock seems slightly less useful; clicking on them does not bring the application to the front, it only launches it (which I'd just as soon do from the Start menu).
Supposedly, there are some significant improvements to printing, including automatically detecting USB printers. My USB printer, however, is connected via Mac OS X printer sharing on another Mac, and so I can't print to it directly from Windows (at least, not that I could figure out). Instead, I need to print through the host Mac OS X from the Windows OS. Sounds simple enough, right?
To do this, I still needed to use the right driver for the printer, and it wasn't included with Windows, so I needed to install it. I downloaded the drivers from Canon's web site with a Mac browser, and just copied them to the Windows desktop. When I ran the installer, Windows reported an "access violation". Thinking that perhaps the file was not downloaded properly, I tried downloading it via Windows instead. It takes longer, but maybe it will work. But no, I got the same error. It's good to know that Virtual PC maintains the Windows Experience, that these problems weren't Virtual PC's fault.
I pulled out the CD that came with the printer and installed the (somewhat out of date) drivers from there; this time, it worked fine. But then, when I tried to print, and the Virtual PC app hung on "Printing page number: 1", with a spinning pinwheel and an unmoving progress bar. Force Quit was my only way out. I tried several times, as I did with mounting the Windows 95 image, and each time, it hung. When I would start Virtual PC again, I'd get the Print dialog, and try to print again, and it would hang. At least it's consistent.
I finally decided to give up on printing this way, and did direct printing. I plugged my printer directly into the computer, told Virtual PC to use that USB device for Windows, and Windows detected it automatically and set it up for me. After that, printing worked fine.
But, in fairness, none of these problems are related to my normal uses of Virtual PC, and if I really needed to accomplish the tasks of printing or mounting I'd probably be able to figure it out. I just didn't care enough, so I dropped it and moved on to more interesting things.
I have a Kyocera QCP 3035 cell phone. I am going to be on the road some this summer, so I wanted to use it as a modem for my PowerBook G4/867. I got the cable and the Mac OS X modem drivers and scripts (I had to email tech support to get them), and it works fine as a modem, but I also wanted to use the cable to upload contacts and ringers. The problem is, the Kyocera software is Windows-only. Virtual PC to the rescue?
I installed the Windows drivers and software and plugged in the cable. It took me a couple tries to figure out that I needed to select the cable in Virtual PC's Serial Ports preferences (assigned it to COM1), but when I did, the software recognized the phone and everything just worked. I uploaded ringers, I controlled the phone with the software. So now for the contacts.
I converted my contacts from the Mac OS X Address Book vCard export to a CSV file the Kyocera software could read. I dragged the file from the Mac OS X desktop to the Windows desktop. I imported the file into the Kyocera software and synched it with the phone. It worked. There's not much else to say here, which is about the highest praise I could heap on the test.
I was also thinking about using some Windows software I have to control my motorized Meade telescope; but frankly, if I am going to be investing the time into getting the cable and setting it all up to use software like that, I'd rather spend the extra money to get the Mac version of the software. It'd be much better to use.
All in all, Virtual PC does what -- for me -- it should. I can run perl and various web browsers for testing; I can communicate with serial devices; I can even play Windows-only multimedia files.
You may recall, gentle reader, that Microsoft has purchased Virtual PC from Connectix. Does that mean people should invest more into Bochs, or look for alternate solutions? Will Virtual PC mean the end of Office for Mac? I don't really know; but as I am not a Windows user, I don't really care, as long as I can keep using the very few Windows products I need.