Windows 'XP mode': The new DOS box

Microsoft takes a page out of Apple's playbook to entice Windows 7 fence-sitters, with disappointing results

An October surprise -- that's how many are interpreting Microsoft's 11th-hour revelation that it will be providing a virtualized copy of Windows XP as a free compatibility add-on to Windows 7 Professional, Ultimate, and Enterprise editions.

The idea is to entice potential upgrade fence-sitters into taking the Windows 7 plunge by addressing one of the more widely cited concerns about the product: It will break legacy, Windows XP-era applications. And based on the amount of buzz surrounding this unexpected new feature, it would seem that Microsoft has hit a home run with its Windows XP mode announcement.

Yet I fear that much of this excitement will turn to disappointment as IT shops begin to understand just what XP mode really is and how limiting its Virtual PC-based underpinnings can be. Simply put, XP mode is a bit of a kludge, a half-baked, half-measure of a solution cobbled together from various disjointed Microsoft technologies. Compared to something like Mac OS X, which famously introduced one of the more elegant legacy compatibility solutions in the form of its integrated Mac OS 9-era application support, Windows 7's XP mode is downright homely.

Before I dive into my reasons for disliking Windows XP mode, it might be helpful to first review exactly what it is and how it works. Simply put, XP mode is a virtual machine image file that contains a fully licensed and activated copy of Windows XP with Service Pack 3 installed. The image is shipped in Microsoft's Virtual Hard Disk (VHD) format and is compatible with Windows Virtual PC 7, the company's new host-based desktop virtualization tool.

Virtual PC to the rescue

Windows Virtual PC 7 is an update to the company's anemic Virtual PC 2007, a product that I panned more than a year ago in a four-way shoot-out with VMware Workstation, Parallels Workstation, and VirtualBox. 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 Web site. 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 (and the prerequisite Windows reboot cycle is completed), 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 virtualized 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 virtualized desktop as if it were a remote PC), many of the virtual environment's attributes bleed through to your Windows 7 host.

windows-xp-mode_sm

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. They lack stylistic touches and Aero effects that Windows 7 brings to native apps, such as the instance of Microsoft Word in the background.

Join the Good Gear Guide newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection

Tags windows xpMicrosoftWindows 7virtualisation

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Randall C. Kennedy

InfoWorld
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Matthew Stivala

HP OfficeJet 250 Mobile Printer

The HP OfficeJet 250 Mobile Printer is a great device that fits perfectly into my fast paced and mobile lifestyle. My first impression of the printer itself was how incredibly compact and sleek the device was.

Armand Abogado

HP OfficeJet 250 Mobile Printer

Wireless printing from my iPhone was also a handy feature, the whole experience was quick and seamless with no setup requirements - accessed through the default iOS printing menu options.

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?