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Posted on Aug 19, 2014 in PC Maintenance, Troubleshooting Compatibility | 0 comments

Are virtual machines for me?

Virtual machines are one way of retiring those decrepit old boxes you may still use occasionally.

Virtual machines are one way of retiring those decrepit old boxes you may still use occasionally.

Since Microsoft discontinued Windows XP in April of 2014, users around the world have been looking for solutions for their old, incompatible software and hardware. In the world of computing, technology moves quickly and the 13 year old operating system was positively ancient when it was finally retired. XP did many things right and the amount of software developed to run on it was colossal. While most home users can upgrade to Windows 7 or 8 easily, there are those of us left with software and even hardware that simply won’t work any more. Of course, replacing ageing hardware or finding new, more modern software is one option, but sometimes that’s just not possible. Many users have been looking for an alternative where they can keep Windows XP around, without relying on it for their day to day computing tasks. One possible way to do this is to use a virtual machine, but just exactly what does this mean, and is this approach right for you?

What is a virtual machine?

Exactly as it says, a virtual machine is a virtual or simulated PC that runs on your existing PC. To put that another way, when you run a virtual machine on your Windows PC, you run a program that behaves as if it were a computer, an entirely separate computer from your physical computer. Virtual machines are used extensively in business and enterprise. A company may use them to replace an older but still business critical PC. Why buy a whole new machine when there’s plenty of computing power spare on another server? We use them extensively here at for testing and evaluating software as well as for making tutorials. Virtual machines are a great way to try out new operating systems. Maybe your new job uses Linux PCs but you’re only familiar with Windows? Simply set up a virtual PC to run Linux and you can learn the OS without interfering with your existing Windows installation. When it comes to Windows XP, if you use a virtual machine you can keep Windows XP around while still upgrading to Windows 7 or Windows 8. On the surface this seems like the best of both worlds and in many situations it is, but before you rush to find your Windows XP installation CD and get started, there are a few points to consider.

Computing in a virtual world

Running a PC on a PC can be a surreal experience at first.

Running a PC on a PC can be a surreal experience at first.

Virtual machines really came into the mainstream when Windows 7 was launched. Microsoft knew there were many Windows XP users who were reluctant to upgrade, so the professional version of Windows 7 came with “Windows XP Mode”. This is a full virtual machine and a free copy of Windows XP. Notice however, that XP mode was only included in Windows 7 Professional edition. The reason for this is that it was squarely aimed at corporate and business users. Home users, who would be more likely to want to run game and multimedia software would likely be disappointed with XP mode, as there is little or no support for games at all.

When you run a virtual PC, there are always penalties in performance. The virtual PC won’t run as quickly as your real, physical PC. It will only have access to a portion of your real computers memory or storage. There are also restrictions on what hardware can be virtualized. Hardware you have installed on your main PC (known as the host) may not always be available to the virtual PC (known as the guest). Refer to the examples below if you want to use legacy or current hardware in your virtual PC.

Graphics cards/accelerators – 3D accelerated graphics have been essential for gaming for the past two decades. Virtual machines have only limited support for graphics accelerators. If you intend to play games on your virtual PC, choose virtualization software that supports gaming.

Sound cards – All virtualization software supports basic stereo sound. Technologies such as surround sound or hardware accelerated sound (such as Creative EAX) will NOT work on a virtual PC, regardless of the guest operating system.

CD/DVD drives, floppy drives, memory card readers – Can usually be shared between the real PC (host) and the virtual PC (guest).

TV cards, capture cards and similar hardware that connects internally via PCI or PCI Express – Unlikely to work or be accessible on a virtual PC.

Printers – If the printer works fine with the real PC, it can usually be shared with the virtual PC as long as the guest operating system supports printing.

USB devices – Most USB devices will work if suitable drivers are available in the virtual PC (guest) operating system. USB storage devices and games controllers typically work without a hitch. More complex USB hardware such as scanners may not be supported. When using USB devices with the virtual PC, you must choose if they are connected to your real PC or to the virtual machine guest, they can’t usually be shared between the two.

Legacy serial or parallel hardware – Some virtual PC software provides means for connecting hardware like this, but configuration is usually very complex.

Choosing virtual PC software

Choosing which virtual PC software to use comes down to what you want to do and the size of your budget. The main contenders are Windows XP Mode (Microsoft Virtual PC), Oracle VirtualBox, VMware Player or VMware Workstation. Consult the table below to help you choose:-

Product Productivity
No. of VMs
at once
Price Notes
Player Free
Excellent Excellent Excellent 1 No Free Non-
use only
Excellent Excellent Excellent Unlimited* Yes €225
Virtualbox Excellent Good Poor Unlimited* Yes Free
XP Mode Excellent Poor Excellent 1 Yes Free Windows 7
Pro only


* Number of simultaneous virtual machines is limited only by your host computers resources.

What are Snapshots? Snapshots allow you to save the entire state of a virtual machine and load it back later. Great for testing new software or making any risky changes that you might later want to undo.

Note that some of the products above are listed as free, that means the virtualization software is free, it doesn’t mean that the operating system software necessarily is. While most versions of Linux are free, if you want to run Windows XP for instance, you still require a copy of the operating system with a valid CD key. Windows XP mode is an exception to this as it already includes a free copy of Windows XP.

For most users we would recommend VMWare Player Free. This is an ideal solution for those of you looking to play an older game, for instance. Those of you with more complex requirements, such as the need to run multiple virtual machines at once should consider Oracle Virtualbox or, if your budget will stretch to it, VMWare Workstation. For Windows 7 Pro users who aren’t looking to run games, XP Mode is well worth a try, especially as it includes a free, pre installed copy of Windows XP. XP Mode is, of course, geared towards running Windows XP and so isn’t the obvious choice if you are looking to try out something like Linux, for instance.

One last point to note, although you could install all three virtual machine programs on your PC with no issues, you may find that you can only use virtual machines from one program at a time. For instance, you may not be able to run a virtual PC in VirtualBox and one in VMWare at the same time. This depends on the capabilities of your PC.

You can download your chosen virtual machine software by using these links:-

Oracle VirtualBox
Windows XP Mode
VMWare Player Free
VMWare Workstation

If you’re interested in running XP software using VMware Player, check out our tutorials here.

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