88. Free Windows Virtual
By Andrew D. Wright
With Microsoft's decision to give out Virtual PC 2004 for free, a powerful
new tool has been made available to Windows users.
Virtual PC 2004 allows users of Windows XP Professional and Windows 2000
Professional to run more than one Operating System at the same time on the
Each different Operating System, or OS for short, is given its own virtual
computer to run on. This virtual computer acts just like a real computer;
it boots up and has its own hard drive, but it does not see the host
computer or OS. Changes made to the guest OS do not affect the host
computer at all.
What this means is that you can be running Windows XP Pro and in a window
on your monitor you can be running Windows 98. Or you can have another
copy of Windows XP running which you can use for test purposes, say to
check out new software before you put it on your main computer. Or you can
let visitors on your computer use the virtual machine; when they are done,
close the virtual machine and everything's erased like they were never
The host computer should have a fast processor as well as lots of RAM and
free hard drive space. A 1 GHz CPU is recommended with 500 MB or more RAM.
Each virtual hard drive can be several GB in size depending on the OS.
When you start Virtual PC 2004 you can create a new virtual machine. Give
it a descriptive name and select what OS you want to install. Virtual PC
2004 supports hosting all versions of Windows up to Windows Server 2003 as
well as IBM's OS/2. Select Other if you want to install another OS such as
Linux. Use a new virtual hard disk for each virtual machine you create.
When you hit the Start button on your new OS, a window will open and the
new virtual machine will look in your floppy drive and CD/DVD drive for a
Installing a new Operating System works the same as doing it on a real
empty computer. The virtual hard drive needs to be partitioned and
formatted before the new OS can be installed.
Allow a lot of time for installing the OS. Installing Windows then
updating it with all the current patches can take three to four hours. You
can use your computer at the same time as you are installing a guest OS
but there will be a lot of disk writing going on so it will be a bit
Some Operating Systems such as Windows XP may require online
activation to be fully functional, just as a fresh installation on a real
When you are done you will have a .VHD file on your host computer under
/My Documents/My Virtual Machines/ which you can copy to another folder
for safety. Windows XP with all the patches will make a .VHD file about
4.2 GB in size while Windows 98 SE fully patched comes to around 640 MB.
You can use these files to create duplicate virtual machines so you only
need to go through the tedious install process once per Operating System.
Microsoft Virtual PC 2004 (free):
Operating Systems that work with Virtual PC 2004 (more than 1400 entries):
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Originally published 16 July 2006