Thought you had to give up your love-affair with XP to upgrade to Windows 7? Well, think again. Microsoft has released a new downloadable feature, called Windows XP Mode, for users of the Professional, Ultimate, and Enterprise editions. It lets you access the entire XP desktop and environment, all in Windows 7. Use it to run legacy applications or for day-to-day use.
What is Windows XP Mode and Virtualization?
Windows XP Mode is basically a virtual machine preconfigured with a full edition of Windows XP Professional Service Pack 3. It uses Microsoft's new virtualization program, Windows Virtual PC, that only runs in Windows 7. It's an updated and renamed version of Microsoft Virtual PC 2007.
There are other virtualization programs, like the ones from Microsoft, such as the VMware Player and VirtualBox. They all offer a similar solution. They are applications that provide a simple interface within Windows (or other OSs) where you can set up and access virtual hard drives.
You can load whatever you want on the drives: Windows 3.1, XP, or Windows 7, or even another platform like Ubuntu Linux. You allocate how much memory (RAM) you want to give a virtual machine. Many of the physical computer's ports and devices are emulated in the virtual environment, such as the CD/DVD drive, COM ports, and USB ports.
One feature that sets Windows XP Mode apart from other virtualization programs is its ability to integrate within Windows 7. In addition to being able to access the full XP machine in a full or reduced screen view (see Figure 1), you can launch programs installed on the XP machine directly from the Start Menu in Windows 7 (see Figure 2).
Installing Virtual PC and XP Mode on Windows 7
Be aware that to give Windows XP Mode a try, you must be sporting a premium edition of Windows 7. Plus your computer must be capable of hardware virtualization. You can check your current system by visiting Microsoft's virtualization detection tool. When you're ready, download and install the new Windows Virtual PC program in addition to the XP Mode. Once installed, you'll see the two programs listed on your Start Menu.
To get started with the XP Mode, click the shortcut from the Start Menu. The first time you run it you'll have to perform a short configuration. You'll be asked to accept the Windows XP License Agreement, create an administrator password, choose whether or not to receive Automatic Updates for Windows. After that it will bring up Windows.
Using XP and Installing Applications
Once you're in Windows XP, you can download and install software like normal. If it's on a CD or DVD, just pop it into the computer and the virtual machine will read it. If you have a disc image (.ISO) file, you can select it and it will act like a normal disc in the virtual machine. To load a image file, open the main Windows Virtual PC window, select the machine, and click the Settings button. Then select the drive, click Open an ISO Image, and browse to and select it.
Once you install programs in XP, shortcuts should automatically appear on the Windows 7 Start Menu under the Windows XP Mode Applications folder. When you use these shortcuts, XP doesn't fully boot, the application opens directly in Windows 7. However, the application window will appear as it would in XP, such as Figure 2 showed.
When you’re done using Windows XP, you can close the Virtual PC window to hibernate. Then when you open XP Mode again, it will resume in the same exact state. If you choose, you can also Log Off, Shut Down, or Restart from Windows XP. The Log Off shortcut is directly on the Start Menu. For other power options, click the Windows Security shortcut.
Changing the VM Settings
Just like any other Virtual machine of Windows Virtual PC, you can change the system settings of the Windows XP Mode machine, such as you see in Figure 3. You can increase the amount of allocated memory, create and add more virtual hard drives, configure COM ports, and change other miscellaneous settings. To change most settings, the virtual machine must be currently powered off, not hibernated.
If you find it useful, you can use the Undo Disks feature. When enabled the virtual hard disks are basically in a read-only mode. Any changes to Windows XP are tracked and the associated data is kept in cache until you manually apply the changes or undo them and return the machine to the exact state it was in when the feature was enabled or cache file started. To enable this feature, select it from the menu and select the checkbox. Then you can come back to apply or discard the changes.
If you don't want certain drives or devices, or all of them, from the physical computer to be accessible in the virtual machine, you can change the Integration Feature settings.
To make the virtual XP machine more secure, you can delete the saved password from the Logon Credentials settings.
If you don't want the application from the virtual machine accessible directly in Windows 7, you can change the Auto Publish settings.
Last but not least is the Close settings, which is something you might actually want to change. You can change it from automatically hibernating to something else when you close the virtual machine window. You can have it prompt you for the desired action, for example.
Maintaining Your Virtual Machine
Remember, though these are virtual machines, they run real operating systems that are prone to most of the same infections and threats of the Internet. You should keep up with the maintenance for both the real and virtual OS. Install Windows and program updates in the XP Mode and other virtual machines. You should also install anti-virus and spyware protection, such as the Free Edition of AVG.
If you're going to use the XP Mode day-to-day or otherwise find it useful, you might investigate using third-party tools to clone the drive of your current XP system so you import it into Windows 7.
Eric Geier is an author of many computing and networking books, including Home Networking All-in-One Desk Reference For Dummies (Wiley 2008) and 100 Things You Need to Know about Microsoft Windows Vista (Que 2007).