The latest version of Connectix's PC emulator comes with a host of improvements, many thanks to Mac OS X 10.2. New features include greater Mac-to-PC integration - especially in OS X - along with speed bumps and the ability to mount drive images on the Mac desktop. Like the previous version, Virtual PC (VPC) 6.0 ships with different guest operating systems - one comes with the Virtual PC package, then you can buy additional OS Packs to upgrade your system or test projects, such as Web sites.
The top-of-the-range package is the Windows XP Professional version. The installation is a lot smoother and performance better than when we tried to install a stand-alone copy of XP Pro on Virtual PC 5.0, so it's clear that Connectix has beefed-up the process. In fact, the company claims that Virtual PC 6.0 under Mac OS X 10.2.3 performs 25 per cent quicker. A note, though: at time of writing, the company had just launched an updater to version 6.0.1, which fixes compatibility problems with G3 Macs, so be sure to download it.
Installation on Mac OS X is a simple drag-install manoeuvre, with Windows XP - and its various anti-piracy measures - being the most onerous part of the process. This is time-consuming, and requires an Internet connection. I'd hate to do this on a dial-up modem. But this is a Microsoft thing, not Connectix. The shared networking in VPC should take care of everything, but you may have to do some tinkering in Windows to get things running smoothly.
Installing on Mac OS 9 is similarly hassle-free, and although you have to enter the serial number a second time, the application seems to go even faster. Connectix introduced a lot of good ideas with version 5.0, but it's taken this upgrade to really show them off. The XP Pro application ships with a second CD, this time with the installers for the Microsoft .Net framework and its Service Pack. You don't have to install them though, and there's plenty on the base OS to eat up hard-drive space.
Key to version 6.0 are the abilities to launch Windows applications directly from the Dock, and to display the Windows Start Menu on the Mac desktop. Once the applications are running in VPC 6.0, you need only set the icon to Keep In Dock for it to provide a direct shortcut to PC apps. The Start Menu can apply only to one of the guest PCs on a system at one time, however - so make sure your favourite programs are on the best guest OS.
The new release also provides Desktop Drive Mounting - ostensibly for backing-up Windows files more easily, moving files to and from the drive, and to allow tools such as Sherlock to search for PC files. The drive mounts like any other OS X disk image, and allows you to access the Windows files directly, or run backups of the PC disk as if it were a Mac volume. This works seamlessly, and provides an easy way to transfer files between old PC disks and a new XP Pro guest machine.
As Virtual PC is now well established, many users will be looking to upgrade for just these new features, and Connectix is offering a cut-price updater for £69. Bringing old disks into VPC 6.0 is not without its problems, however. Previous versions of VPC introduced a dynamic expansion feature, which automatically increases the space demanded by the Windows applications. The Windows 98 SE disk we had running on version 5.0 took full advantage of this, and ended up well over 3.5GB in size. Too big: especially as we were installing XP Pro, which is as space hungry as OS X. The Virtual Disk Assistant used for the creation of new virtual disks, as well as installing the Guest OS Packs, seemed to be the answer. However, each time we tried to run the Assistant to resize the old disk or change it to a fixed-size disk, it came up with a problem: either it reported that there was not enough room for the resizing process to run; or it developed a mysterious error when we attempted to change its state. Trying again after mounting the Windows 98 disk as an OS X volume - and using some Mac disk utilities on it didn't solve the problem either. A peek on the Virtual PC Forums found that other users had encountered similar problems - though there is no solution as yet, aside from buying a bigger hard drive.
Another shortfall in the application is its lack of support for 3D-graphics acceleration. Again, this is something that Connectix comes clean about - saying however, that it will be exploring the feasibility of 3D emulation in the future. So, no Halo for the present then.
There's enough here to warrant a purchase, though. Better USB printing support, up to 225-character filenames in folder sharing, and support for larger monitors in 32-bit colour (including the Apple Cinema Display) are all welcome extras. There's also password security available in the Preferences to lock out malicious hands in multi-user environments. With all that and the speed bumps too, it's a worthy upgrade.