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Running Windows on a Mac: It works, but it's slow
technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
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Running Windows on a Mac: It works, but it's slow

Technofile for April 25, 1999

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers

It sounds like a miracle computer. It works like a PC but has none of the PC's drawbacks. It runs Windows but keeps on humming if Windows crashes.

But is it fast enough? Can it play PC games?

These are the questions I had in mind when I borrowed a new Macintosh PowerBook notebook computer from Apple. It was a G3 model with a processor running at 300 MHz. As a Mac, the G3 PowerBook was very fast, and using it was a pleasure.

But it wasn't the Mac that I cared about. I'm not a Mac fan. I wanted to see how this new PowerBook would do as a Windows PC. It had the latest version of the amazing PC emulator, VirtualPC, along with Windows 98.

What VirtualPC does is hard to believe until you see it: It turns a Mac into a PC. Just like that. You just run the program. In a minute or so, Windows appears. You can run it in a separate area of your screen or do as I did and run it full-screen. When you do that, there's no way to tell (without looking at the Apple logo on the computer) that you're not working with a real PC.

To get back to the Macintosh side of the computer, you press the Apple key along with the M key. The Windows desktop slides down a little to display the Macintosh menu bar at the top of the screen. To go back to full-screen Windows 98, you press the Apple-M combination again.

If we leave aside the question of speed, I can tell you that VirtualPC works exceptionally well as a way to run non-entertainment software. I loaded Microsoft Office 97, Norton SystemWorks, PowerPro (a macro utility), Shove-It (another utility) and five or six other programs that I use every day on my own PC. They all ran perfectly.

I also loaded a bunch of MS-DOS programs that I still use, and they also ran flawlessly. The PowerBook's built-in network connector let me plug the computer into my Road Runner network, so I could get onto the Internet on both the Mac side of the computer and the Windows side. This also worked perfectly.

But the Windows side of this PowerBook was slow. Connectix, which makes VirtualPC, is cautious when making claims about how fast VirtualPC is compared to a real PC. In general, however, most fans of VirtualPC say it's about as fast as a PC running at half the processor speed of the G3 Mac that's running VirtualPC. In other words, the 300 MHz PowerBook I was using should run Windows about as fast as a 150 MHz Pentium.

But that's pure fantasy. My tests showed a huge loss in speed between the Mac side and the PC side. In most of the results, the VirtualPC-Windows 98 combination was only one-fourth as fast as a real 233 MHz Pentium. The disk drive performance was even worse, measuring only about 7 percent of the speed of a typical PC hard disk.

But the most disappointing result came in the video test, where Windows 98 running on VirtualPC was so slow that AVI files (Windows videos) were unviewable. A video-test program I ran confirmed this. VirtualPC's score was one-third what a standard PC would achieve.

In normal use, the lack of speed is not a big problem. If you're used to a modern Windows PC, you'd notice right away that Windows on VirtualPC lacks all the "snap" that it has on a real PC. (I turned off all the extra features in Windows that slow down the display, such as window and menu animation, but could never get the speed to improve.) But you can do all your word processing and other tasks easily.

Sound quality on the PC side was a minor problem. VirtualPC emulates an 8-bit sound card, so you can't get the quality you'd hear from a standard PC's 16-bit sound card. The PowerBook's keyboard layout was another small problem. The cursor arrow keys are too small and the Backspace key is called, for some odd reason, "Delete." (It doesn't work the way the Delete key works in Windows, and that's frustrating.)

Apple is planning to introduce faster G3 PowerBooks, which means VirtualPC would run faster. Apple is also working on a G4 model that could run as fast as 1 GHz. That's 1,000 MHz, a very fast processor speed. Running VirtualPC on a Mac running that fast probably would give the PC side an equivalent speed of at least 250 to 300 MHz. That would be nice.

Next: How the new G3 PowerBook stacks up as a Mac.

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