Microsoft Virtual PC 2004 SP1 Review

So you need to run multiple operating systems, but you also need the latest releases as well?

Or do you, perhaps, run a tech support center and need fast access to several operating systems without rebooting an actual production client?

Well, leave it to the Vole to call your number, if either of the above, or a comparative version thereof, describes you. That’s because Microsoft has decided to throw down the gauntlet at VMWare by re-releasing its server and workstation virtualization technologies for free… literally. That’s right – Virtual Server and Virtual PC, the virtualization products bought out by the world’s largest software make not too long ago, are now completely free. All you need is a recent copy of Windows (an Apple-friendly version update could theoretically still happen if the Vole still plans an update for Intel Macs after this event) and possibly a Microsoft-approved product key for proof of licensing legality because my best guess is that Windows Genuine Advantage is required to access the software directly from Microsoft. But my tests prove that the software is well worth it, so this software should be high on any savvy tech guru’s download list.

In fact, Virtual PC makes computer virtualization effortless enough without any extra cost, so it’s all good. Effortless configuration comes standard, from a first time virtual machine creation wizard to additional configuration wizards for the creation of virtual hard drives and the like for use in your virtual machines included to help you create additional virtual machines as needed. By default, Virtual PC comes preconfigured for various versions of Windows prior to Windows XP, and contains a miscellaneous operating system mode (labeled as Other in the virtual machine creation wizard) for use with newer Windows versions, Liunux, etc. so that you can create a custom virtual machine to suit your tastes.

For my review, I tested the installation of two versions of Windows on the miscellaneous configurations (Other OS) option for virtual machines. I would only have tested one, but the ever-picky Windows Vista beta 2 would not recognize my Virtual PC configuration when the DVD I burned it to was mapped to the CD drive definition in Virtual PC no matter what I did, so I added Windows XP Professional as an interim step (which installed flawlessly), after which I threw Windows Vista on top of that (or rather, next to XP Pro, which was for two reasons – 1: Vista required 256 Megs of RAM allocation to Virtual PC to install, and 2: I would have had to apply Service Pack 2 to the WinXP configuration in order to perform an upgrade install with Windows Vista. Regardless of these two trip-ups, Vista also installed effortlessly once the necessary adjustments were made (actually, the one adjustment – for the purpose of saving time I decided to forego SP2 on the XP configuration to make the review go faster. And both operating systems ran flawlessly with their base configurations.

Still, to get the most out of Virtual PC, and also to run it’s business server configuration version known as Virtual Server, you need Windows XP Professional (and Windows Server 2003 or similar is a necessity for production server environments when using Virtual Server) – I only had access to an OEM release of XP Home, which limits what I can do with Virtual PC and does not allow me to use Virtual Server. In fact, Virtual PC slapped an incompatibility notice during installation; however it had no bearing on the actual installation other than an internal error during installation that also failed to interrupt Setup, though your experience may vary. And Virtual PC doesn’t support all the same device types as VMWare, either.

Still, for the money, Virtual PC is a good choice for the money when it comes to virtualization software, even if it doesn’t cost a dime. And even if you do need to legalize your Windows setup to use it, it’s a small price to pay for powerful virtualization technologies. After all, you can’t beat free, if I’m not mistaken.

And as for VMWare, I hope the guys behind that virtualization technology are at least paying attention.

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