Trying out Windows 7's XP Mode

— 3:04 PM on May 11, 2009

Late last month, Microsoft revealed plans to offer a free Windows XP virtualization solution to users of Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate. In a nutshell, this solution is supposed to let folks run virtualized legacy apps seamlessly within their shiny new Windows 7 desktops.

The XP mode beta is now publicly available alongside the Windows 7 release candidate. I was eager to take it for a spin, because I regularly use Virtual PC in Vista for a similar purpose. (As TR's de-facto HTML and CSS code monkey, I need a Windows XP virtual machine to test rendering in old versions of Internet Explorer.)

So, how do you get this thing up and running? First, you'll need to grab both the 4.88MB Windows Virtual PC Beta and the 445MB Windows XP Mode Beta. Both are up on this page. The former is essentially a standalone Windows Update package, which will require you to reboot. The latter contains the entire Windows XP operating system in a pre-baked form, and it adds a handy "Virtual Windows XP" entry in the Start menu.

I like how simple Microsoft makes the setup process. The first time you try to load up the virtual XP image, a setup box presents you with a license agreement and asks you to enter a password for the XP installation. You then get to watch a progress bar moving across the screen for five or six minutes. After that, your Windows XP desktop pops up inside its own little window, ready to go—it's already set up and everything!

The virtual machine provides you with Internet connectivity, clipboard sharing, and access to your Windows 7 drive, so installing old apps and copying files should be relatively easy. I couldn't drag and drop files between the two desktops like in the old Virtual PC, but since you can now use the cut-and-paste CTRL-C, CTRL-V maneuver for the same purpose, it's no biggie.

Otherwise, the virtual XP desktop behaves pretty much as you'd expect, with a couple of exceptions. There's no explicit way to shut down, and closing Virtual PC will hibernate the image by default. The software also lets you run XP in full-screen mode, but with a little pop-out bar at the top to prevent you from trapping yourself in. Oh, and OpenGL/Direct 3D games don't appear to work.

Of course, Windows Virtual PC isn't for gamers. It's for serious-minded business users whose productivity depends on old applications they haven't paid to update (or those written by programmers they fired). Therein comes XP Mode's flagship feature—virtual applications.

Getting those to work is relatively simple: just open up your virtual XP desktop and install an application of your choosing. You're free to run the app within the virtual desktop, but a shortcut for it will also appear in the Windows 7 Start menu, under "Virtual Windows XP Applications." Click on that with the VM closed, and Virtual PC will let you load the VM silently and open the app inside an XP-themed window within your Windows 7 desktop. Neat.

That particular feature is a tad rough around the edges just now, though. When I tried to load up Winamp in that fashion, a pair of familiar notifications promptly popped up in the Windows 7 tray: Windows XP was telling me updates were available and I didn't have anti-virus software installed. The only easy way to make both of them go away was to install the updates and tell the Security Center to stop bothering me. One of the warnings appeared in the hidden part of the tray, too, and it stayed there after I'd closed everything else. If I hadn't known any better, XP Mode would have stayed open in the background, eating up resources. (And, worse, I would have been confused about where the notifications came from to begin with.)

Otherwise, virtual applications may look like they're part of the Windows 7 desktop, but they're definitely not. Dragging them around shows glimpses of the virtual XP desktop, and save/open dialogs point to the VM's virtual system drive.

So, even though it's easy to install, XP Mode feels a tad counter-intuitive in the way it operates. Add to that the lack of support for "Home" editions of Windows 7 or processors without hardware virtualization support, and it becomes clear this tool won't be much help to folks who aren't enthusiasts or business users backed by qualified IT staff.

Hardware requirements could be especially bothersome, since as it turns out, Intel offers very spotty VT support across its product line. Check out these three CPUs: the $190 Core 2 Quad Q8300, the $167 Core 2 Duo E8400, and the $120 Core 2 Duo E7400. Can you guess which ones have VT? Only one does: the E8400. (AMD, by contrast, supports hardware virtualization down to its $55 Athlon X2 5000+, but Intel has a much bigger presence in the corporate world.)

That's a shame. Despite the rough edges, I think offering a free, easy-to-install copy of Windows XP to Windows 7 users is a fundamentally good idea. (Besides, you can always keep things simple by running your legacy apps in the virtual desktop.) Fragmented support may prevent this feature from gaining much traction as a reliable compatibility solution.

Check out the image gallery below for more shots of the installation process and XP Mode in action.

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