With the release of Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate editions, Microsoft is including a little gift called XP Mode. XP Mode is a virtual machine running Windows XP. I call it a gift since to similarly equip Vista would have incurred the additional cost of a license for XP. Microsoft gives us XP mode as a means to having a fully modern computing environment without having to sacrifice legacy support.
Here's a quick guide to getting up and running with XP Mode.
Enable Hardware Virtualization
XP Mode is a non-starter if your CPU doesn't have hardware virtualization support enabled. To check if your CPU is supported, Intel and AMD both offer utilities to identify your CPU and what features it offers. If your CPU supports virtualization, this feature needs to be enabled in the BIOS.
Download and Install Windows Virtual PC and XP Mode
To download both Virtual PC and XP mode, follow this link. XP Mode is a 472MB file, so set aside some time for both downloading and installation.
First install Virtual PC, then XP Mode. Both installations are straightforward and the default settings will suffice for most situations. When XP Mode setup launches and you'll need to supply a password for the local XP Mode user that XP Mode automatically creates on the virtual machine. Finally you'll need to decide whether or not you want automatic updates. After all this information is gathered, Windows will finalize installation of XP Mode.
When installation is complete XP Mode will launch in Desktop Mode. Here, you have access to the full XP environment. Desktop Mode is useful when you want to use a completely separate desktop environment from your Windows 7 base install. It's important to note that by default, shortcut keystrokes are only passed to XP in Desktop Mode when it's running in full-screen. Also, while you don't have drag and drop capability between the operating systems, they do share a clipboard. Also, you have access to the complete host file system while in Desktop Mode.
Virtualizing Apps with Seamless Mode
Where XP Mode really shines is with Seamless Mode, which lets you launch XP apps straight from your Windows 7 menus. To use Seamless Mode, you first install an app under Desktop Mode, then log out of and close the virtual machine. The app you just installed can then be found on the host PC's Start menu under All Programs, Windows Virtual PC, Windows XP Mode Applications.
When the app is launched from the host OS, XP launches in the background and the app appears as if it were running natively in Windows 7. Apps run this way are called virtual applications. If you don't find the default start menu location to be convenient, you can move the shortcut to any location a traditional shortcut can be placed. If the app you want to virtualize doesn't automatically create a Start menu shortcut, or the app is already included with Windows (Internet Explorer 6.0 for example), you simply need to create a shortcut for it in Desktop Mode under c:\documents and settings\all users\start menu and the app will appear on the host start menu under Windows XP Mode Applications.
Seamless Mode isn't completely seamless; there are couple issues with it. In multi-monitor setups, the virtual application only lives on the primary monitor. Also, virtual apps don't want to play along with the Windows 7 Snap feature. Their Windows needed to be manually resized. It's also important to note that virtual applications and Desktop Mode cannot be used simultaneously. Finally, you'll need to keep in mind that a full OS needs to boot before a virtual app can be run, so a little patience will be needed on that first launch.
Despite its few limitations, IT admins will find that XP Mode provides a viable means of coping with legacy applications while fully modernizing the desktop environment.
Michael Scalisi is an IT manager based in Alameda, California.