Windows 7 XP Mode may seem like a good idea, but we think it's quite disappointing. Here's why.
Virtual PC to the rescue
Windows Virtual PC 7 is an update to the company's anemic Virtual PC 2007. The new version adds much-needed USB device support, and it claims improved performance and better integration with host system hardware resources, such as smart card readers.
Getting started with XP Mode is remarkably straightforward. The first step is to install Windows Virtual PC 7 by downloading and executing its corresponding Windows Update package from Microsoft's website. Next, you install the Virtual Windows XP package, which copies over the necessary VHD components and registers the VM with Windows Virtual PC 7.
Once the updates are in place, you simply launch Virtual Windows XP from the Start menu. If this is your first time starting the VM, you're asked some basic Windows XP configuration questions, like how to handle automatic updates. Because Virtual Windows XP encapsulates a complete installation of Windows XP within a VM image, it retains its own, separate set of system-wide configuration and management tools.
These include Windows Update, the Windows Firewall service, and related OS-level resources - something to keep in mind as you evaluate the support and maintenance implications of deploying this add-on.
Get past the initial setup Q&A and you're presented with a window containing a representation of the virtualised Windows XP's desktop. You interact with this desktop just like you would any physical Windows XP system: by clicking on the Start menu to launch applications, access Windows Explorer, and so on.
And thanks to the magic of Microsoft's Remote Desktop Protocol (yes, RDP - you're actually viewing the virtualised desktop as if it were a remote PC), many of the virtual environment's attributes bleed through to your Windows 7 host.
For example, alert icons for Windows XP's Security Center appear in the tray notification area of Windows 7, a behaviour that, frankly, can be quite disconcerting until you learn to differentiate them from Windows 7's own notifications. (Hint: the newer Windows no longer uses colored icons.) But the bleeding doesn't stop there.
Applications running in Windows XP Mode, such as the instance of Microsoft Word in the foreground, weave nearly seamlessly into the native Windows 7 desktop.
Any applications that you install into the Windows XP VM, and that register their application shortcuts to the Start Menu's All Users group, will be "automagically" exposed through the Windows 7 host PC's local Start menu. Click one of these exposed shortcuts and Windows Virtual PC 7 launches the application from inside the Windows XP VM, rendering just that application's UI in a kind of seamless window on the Windows 7 desktop.
Of course, if you've worked with Parallels' Coherence mode or VMware's Unity mechanism, you've already seen this sort of dynamic screen-scraping technology in action. Microsoft is simply playing catch-up, using the ever-expanding feature set of its venerable RDP client to cut a few corners along the way. (The aforementioned seamless application publishing mechanism was introduced with RDP 6.0.)
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