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88. Free Windows Virtual Computing

By Andrew D. Wright

With Microsoft's decision to give out Virtual PC 2004 for free, a powerful new tool has been made available to Windows users.

Virtual PC 2004 allows users of Windows XP Professional and Windows 2000 Professional to run more than one Operating System at the same time on the same computer.

Each different Operating System, or OS for short, is given its own virtual computer to run on. This virtual computer acts just like a real computer; it boots up and has its own hard drive, but it does not see the host computer or OS. Changes made to the guest OS do not affect the host computer at all.

What this means is that you can be running Windows XP Pro and in a window on your monitor you can be running Windows 98. Or you can have another copy of Windows XP running which you can use for test purposes, say to check out new software before you put it on your main computer. Or you can let visitors on your computer use the virtual machine; when they are done, close the virtual machine and everything's erased like they were never there.

The host computer should have a fast processor as well as lots of RAM and free hard drive space. A 1 GHz CPU is recommended with 500 MB or more RAM. Each virtual hard drive can be several GB in size depending on the OS.

When you start Virtual PC 2004 you can create a new virtual machine. Give it a descriptive name and select what OS you want to install. Virtual PC 2004 supports hosting all versions of Windows up to Windows Server 2003 as well as IBM's OS/2. Select Other if you want to install another OS such as Linux. Use a new virtual hard disk for each virtual machine you create.

When you hit the Start button on your new OS, a window will open and the new virtual machine will look in your floppy drive and CD/DVD drive for a boot disk.

Installing a new Operating System works the same as doing it on a real empty computer. The virtual hard drive needs to be partitioned and formatted before the new OS can be installed.

Allow a lot of time for installing the OS. Installing Windows then updating it with all the current patches can take three to four hours. You can use your computer at the same time as you are installing a guest OS but there will be a lot of disk writing going on so it will be a bit laggy.

Some Operating Systems such as Windows XP may require online activation to be fully functional, just as a fresh installation on a real computer would.

When you are done you will have a .VHD file on your host computer under /My Documents/My Virtual Machines/ which you can copy to another folder for safety. Windows XP with all the patches will make a .VHD file about 4.2 GB in size while Windows 98 SE fully patched comes to around 640 MB. You can use these files to create duplicate virtual machines so you only need to go through the tedious install process once per Operating System.

Microsoft Virtual PC 2004 (free):

Operating Systems that work with Virtual PC 2004 (more than 1400 entries):

The Mousepad runs every two weeks. It's a service of Chebucto Community Net, a community-owned Internet provider. If you have a question about computing, email or click here. If we use your question in a column, we'll send you a free mousepad.


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Originally published 16 July 2006


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