Originally created 07/12/98

PC emulators for Mac users an exercise in compromise



One thing sure to raise the hackles of a Macintosh owner is discovering that a particularly nifty piece of software is PC-only. And there's that sinking feeling when you learn you need to run business PC software on a Mac.

But rather than surrender to the smug suggestions of your Wintel tormentors and toss out your Mac, you can buy a compromise.

The two companies that make Windows-emulation software for the Mac have recently upgraded their programs -- Insignia Solutions' SoftWindows95 ($199) and Connectix's Virtual PC 2.0 ($145).

Insignia has announced that SoftWindows98 will be available in August for about the same price. Upgrade pricing has not been announced.

Because Virtual PC's emulator is independent of the Mac operating system, a Virtual PC owner can upgrade to Windows98 by buying a copy (about $90) and installing it.

Both emulators give you the ability to run DOS and Windows software on your Mac, although neither performs at anywhere near the speed of the latest PCs.

In fact, benchmark tests performed by the folks at MacWorld and MacWeek indicate these programs roughly match the speed of a creaky Pentium running at 110 MHz. That was state of the art in the PC world in 1994.

Your alternatives aren't terribly inviting. Orange Micro makes a series of PC expansion cards that range from $400 to $1,000 and put a real Pentium chip inside your Mac. Apple discontinued its PC Compatibility Card last year.

Of course, once you're in the $1,000 range, you can buy an entire Windows PC system.

But unless you intend to run demanding programs -- such as PC games that rely heavily on Microsoft's DirectX technology -- software emulation is the cheapest, most practical way to get your Mac to do Windows.

To compare the two emulators, I spent two weeks testing them on my home Mac, a Power Computing PowerTower Pro sporting a 604e processor running at 180 MHz.

Before you consider purchasing either program, be warned that they devour system resources. If you own a 68K Mac, forget it. If you own a first-generation 601-based PowerMac, don't bother. Tolerable Windows emulation requires at least a 603-based PowerMac running at 180 MHz or faster. The faster your Mac, the better off you'll be.

Even if you own a spiffy new G3, you'll need plenty of RAM. Virtual PC requires 24 MB of memory, with 32 recommended; SoftWindows requires 16 megs, with 24 recommended. I would recommend at least 48 megs of RAM.

If your hard drive is low on space, prepare to clean house. Both emulators create a huge file that acts as a simulated C: drive on a PC. SoftWindows asks for at least 200 MB of hard drive space. Virtual PC wants at least 150 MB, but you'll need more if you want to install PC programs of any size.

Insignia and Connectix say their programs can use any peripherals attached to your Mac, including printers, modems, and CD-ROM drives. Generally this was true, but I did need to tweak some settings, especially with Virtual PC.

While I eventually got everything to cooperate, neither program offered serious documentation to help me.

Both programs can read removable media such as Zip disks, but you must take the extra step of designating them as "shared folders." You can also designate any folder on your Mac's hard drive as a shared folder, making the same files accessible to Mac and PC programs.

Running several common Windows programs produced acceptable results on both emulators.

I installed America Online for Windows, signed on through my modem and even surfed the Web. I installed Microsoft Office '97 and could run every module -- Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access -- with no problems.

Windows programs with moderate system requirements such as Word ran fairly smoothly on both emulators, free of the sluggishness the multimedia titles I tried. Likewise, the Windows95 operating system was reasonably responsive when accessing files, opening folders and handling other routine jobs.

Games were another story. Tests of a demanding Windows game, Comanche Gold, were dismal. On SoftWindows it was unplayable; on Virtual PC I was able to play the game, but had to shrink the game screen to the smallest size possible to achieve worthwhile speed.

While some PC games such as Tomb Raider have tested impressively on Virtual PC, I doubt that in most cases serious gamers will find the performance of either program sufficient.

Speaking of performance, third-party benchmark tests indicate that SoftWindows has about a 15 to 20 percent advantage over Virtual PC. I honestly found it hard to detect the difference.

When printing, SoftWindows clearly did a better job. Both printed my test document successfully, but SoftWindows got the colors right while Virtual PC printed brown as red and purple as pink.

In Mac-to-PC file swapping, Virtual PC has the edge. You can drag and drop files from either environment to the other to make a copy instantly, something SoftWindows doesn't do. Both programs, however, let you cut and paste text and graphics from a Mac program to a PC program and vice versa.

So which package should you buy?

It's a close call; each has features I'd like to see in the other. If cost is most important to you, buy Virtual PC. Otherwise, SoftWindows is a bit faster and bit less fussy.