Hands on: Windows XP Mode works -- but is it worth the trouble?

Windows XP Mode, one of the most hyped features of Windows 7, was designed to integrate XP with Windows 7 so that you can run XP applications from directly inside Windows 7. Microsoft has touted the feature for small businesses that need to run XP applications but want to upgrade to Windows 7. Those businesses may indeed want to use it -- but for many consumers, the problems with Windows XP Mode will likely outweigh its benefits.

Can your PC handle Windows XP Mode?

Here's the first piece of bad news: Your PC may not be able to handle Windows XP Mode, even if you've just bought a new machine.

XP Mode requires that your CPU be capable of hardware virtualization using either Intel Virtualization Technology (VT) for Intel chips or AMD-V for AMD chips. You might assume that if you've got a multicore PC, it can certainly do that. However, that's not necessarily the case.

Even some quad-core CPUs, such as the Intel Core 2 Quad Q8400, don't have virtualization technology built in. And to make things more confusing, some older, less powerful and less expensive CPUs, such as the Intel Core Duo T2400, do have the technology.

Both Intel and AMD have utilities you can download that will let you know if your PC has that support. You can use either the AMD Virtualization Compatibility Check Utility (which checks whether your processor supports AMD-V) or the Intel Processor Identification Utility (which is a more comprehensive checking tool).

If your processor doesn't support either technology, you can stop reading now -- you're out of luck. However, even if the CPU does support it, you're still not out of the woods.

Hardware virtualization is turned off by default on many PCs. There's no clear reason why that is, although according to Microsoft, there are potential security issues with hardware virtualization.

You'll need to check your system BIOS to find out whether your hardware virtualization is turned on; if it's not, you'll have to turn it on. How you do that varies according to system manufacturer and even model, so check with your manufacturer. (Microsoft offers sample instructions for Dell, HP and Lenovo.)

For example, on my Dell, I rebooted and pressed the F12 key as the system restarted to get into the BIOS setup. At first, I couldn't find an option for virtualization support, but after nosing around, I finally discovered it in a very odd place -- in the POST behavior area. I enabled it and let the PC boot.

Make sure to turn off your PC after changing the BIOS, to put the new setting into effect. It's also good idea to get back into the BIOS when you reboot and see whether the new setting took.

Installing and running Windows XP Mode

Finished? You're finally ready to install Windows XP Mode.

You need to download and install two (currently beta) apps: Windows Virtual PC and Windows XP Mode. Windows Virtual PC is the newest version of Microsoft's Virtual PC, and Windows XP Mode is essentially a precreated virtual machine for XP designed to run in Windows 7. You won't have to pay for a separate license for XP.

Installation is straightforward: Windows Virtual PC first, and then Windows XP Mode. At the end of the installation process, you'll go through the usual setup routine for a new copy of Windows, including questions such as how to handle Automatic Updates and so on. And you're done.

Running XP Mode

XP will launch in its own window inside Windows 7. It looks just like XP, with one exception: There's a menu bar across the top for some XP Mode-specific features, such as using USB drives and customizing how XP Mode should work.

You can use XP Mode just as you would normally use XP -- you're running an actual copy of the operating system. XP recognized all my hardware. I had problems with network connectivity, though -- although I could connect to my network's Linksys router and browse the Internet without trouble, I couldn't see or connect to any other PCs on my network. The other PCs on my network saw XP as if it were a separate PC from the Windows 7 machine under which it ran, but they couldn't connect to it.

On my machine (a Dell Inspiron E1505 laptop with 1GB of RAM and an Intel Core Duo T240 chip running at 1.83 GHz), Windows XP Mode ran significantly slower than if XP were running natively. When I resized the XP window or went to full-screen mode, it was particularly slow. That's no surprise, though, because my system's 1GB of RAM had to be shared between Windows 7 and XP.

The real surprise was not that XP Mode ran slowly, but that it ran at all, given how little RAM I had for both operating systems. And using XP Mode did not appear to slow down Windows 7. It ran as if XP Mode were any other window, not a separate operating system.

Integration with Windows 7

Generally, moving between XP and Windows 7 was surprisingly seamless, without the issues that sometime pop up when you run a virtual machine inside an operating system, such as whether your mouse actions and keystrokes take effect in the host operating system or the virtual one. It was perfectly transparent, as if XP were just another application. Click anywhere in the XP window and you're there.

Similarly, you can copy and paste between any window inside XP and any window in Windows 7. The Windows clipboard is shared between the two. You can also use the printer attached to your Windows 7 machine, as long as you install the proper driver inside XP.

With all that said, the nature of running one operating system inside another leads to potential conflicts. For example, when you press Alt-Tab inside XP, will you be switching applications inside XP or Windows 7? Similarly, what happens when you press key combinations that use the Windows key -- should that key combination apply to XP Mode or Windows 7 itself? For consistency's sake, Windows XP Mode treats those key combinations as if they were issued by Windows 7, not XP. However, if you run Windows XP full screen, they will be interpreted instead by XP, so pressing Alt-Tab will switch among XP applications, not Windows 7 apps.

You can change this setting, if you wish, by using the Tools menu on top of the Windows XP screen. Select Tools --> Settings and click the Keyboard entry. There you'll have the option of having key combinations be sent to XP when you're in the XP window instead of to Windows 7. You can also have the combinations always sent to Windows 7, even when XP is in full-screen mode. In addition, you can change whether XP and Windows 7 should share the Windows clipboard, printers, drives and smart cards via the Integration Features setting.

XP Mode will recognize a USB 2.0 device plugged into the machine, with a caveat -- you'll be able to use it in either Windows 7 or Windows XP, but not both. If you simply plug the device into your PC, it will be recognized by Windows 7 but not Windows XP. To get XP to recognize the device, you click the USB menu item at the top of the XP window, and choose the device you want to recognize. A pop-up window will give you the option of attaching the device to the "virtual machine." If you do that, though, the USB drive won't be available in Windows 7 -- it's either one or the other.

When you want the device to be available for Windows 7, you have to click the USB menu item again, and click Release next to the device you want to be available for Windows 7. You'll now be able to use it in Windows 7, but not XP.

Using the file system

I found the Windows XP file system somewhat confusing, because it's separate from the Windows 7 system. With a bit of work, I was able to navigate from the Windows XP file system to Window 7's, but I couldn't find the XP file system from Windows 7. I'm still trying and will report if I manage to do it.

Windows XP Mode has its own storage area, separate from Windows 7; it uses the familiar file structure of My Documents. But that file structure is outside of the Windows 7 file structure -- in other words, it has its own C: volume that isn't the real, physical one.

In addition, when you're in Windows XP Mode, you'll see the real volumes on your hard disk, labeled according to your computer name.

In my test machine, the computer name is "WINDOWS7-LAPTOP." As a result, the C: drive became "C on WINDOWS7-LAPTOP," the D drive became "D on WINDOWS7-LAPTOP," and so on. I was able to navigate to those drives and use them without any problems.

However, when I opened Windows Explorer in Windows 7, I couldn't find Windows XP Mode's C: drive. I was able to see Windows XP Mode as a separate machine on the network, but I was unable to connect to it. Similarly, other PCs on my network saw Windows XP Mode as a separate machine but couldn't connect to it.

Installing and running apps

The real point of XP Mode isn't to run XP by itself, but instead to run XP-specific applications and make them look and act as if they were native to Windows 7. There's nothing special you need to do in XP Mode in order to do this. Install the program as you would normally, and it will then be available on the Windows 7 Start menu, ready to run.

So, for example, if you installed a program called Enterprise CRM, you would find it on the Start menu under All Programs --> Windows Virtual PC --> Virtual Windows XP Applications --> Enterprise CRM.

You could then run it as you would any other application. The Windows XP virtual machine will launch, although you won't see the entire operating system. Instead, just the application will launch.

The app will run as a window, but not quite like every other window in Windows 7. For one thing, it won't exhibit any Windows Aero behavior -- it won't have a transparent border or offer Windows 7's Aero Peek feature. In addition, when you hover your mouse over its icon in the taskbar, you won't see thumbnails of any files that open in it.

You'll also have to get used to some confusing behavior. For example, when you're running an application in Windows XP Mode, if XP needs to send a notification from XP's Security Center, it will pop up that alert in Windows 7's notification area. In addition, when you drag an XP window around the desktop, you may see what are called "artifacts" -- ghost-like images that follow the window.

The bottom line

If you think of XP Mode as a way to run XP as a second operating system inside Windows 7 -- so that you get two operating systems for the price of one -- you'll be disappointed. It's slower than native XP, and although there is some good integration with Windows 7, it's still kludgy. This is not a feature designed for consumers -- and most consumers won't even know if they can run it, given the confusion around what hardware it will run on.

However, for small or midsize businesses that want to make the move to Windows 7 but have some applications that can run on XP but not Windows 7, XP Mode will probably do the job. The ability to run an XP application from right within the Windows 7 interface, and to be able to copy and paste information between it and a Windows 7 application, will be very useful. True, XP applications won't use all the nifty interface tricks in Windows 7, but they don't need to. The lack of transparent borders, for example, is no great loss.

A larger problem is the difficulty in sharing a common file system between Windows 7 and Windows XP Mode. And for small companies, especially those without IT departments, setup will be problematic as well, given all the handwork required to even figure out if their hardware can run Windows XP Mode. Microsoft says that it expects Windows XP Mode to come preinstalled on business machines, and given all the difficulties with setup, that's going to be the best option.

In other words, businesses that need XP Mode will certainly welcome it. But if you don't absolutely need it, it isn't worth the bother of setup.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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