One of the problems with upgrading to a new computer every few years is that you often must upgrade to a new version of Windows. This time around, it's Windows 7. Last time was the quirky Windows Vista. Many businesses chose to hold on to the older but more familiar and stable Windows XP operating system, avoiding Vista altogether. Those older XP machines are probably now due for replacement. Thankfully, Microsoft has considered that large base of XP users and has provided an upgrade path that does not force you to completely abandon Windows XP and all its familiarity and good points.
Some versions of Windows 7 include the Windows XP Virtual Mode. This feature allows you to run older XP software on your new computer without being forced to upgrade to new Windows 7 versions. Or, as Microsoft puts it: "Windows XP Mode provides you with the flexibility to run many older Windows XP applications right from the Windows 7 desktop, helping to extend the life of your software library."
This was one of my gripes with Windows Vista. I had several applications that required new, Vista-compatible software packages. The older XP versions simply would not run properly. Additionally, I had several older pieces of hardware, a scanner and a printer, that did not have device driver software that was compatible with Vista. With XP Mode, I can once again use this equipment on the newest computer in the office.
The versions that provide for this XP Mode are, of course, the more expensive ones. Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate editions include the ability to operate your new computer as if it were an XP machine. Watch for these versions when computer shopping. Many off-theshelf computers come only with Windows 7 Home Premium, which does not include this feature. But, not to worry, you can buy or directly download an upgrade to Windows 7 Professional for about $90.
Once installed, Windows XP operates as a computer-within-a-computer. This means a fully functional version of XP Service Pack 3 runs in a separate window on the Windows 7 desktop. The graphics and interface inside the virtual XP computer are identical to the XP desktop you are already familiar with. You can access the DVD drive, load programs, save files, and do nearly everything you could with your old XP computer. There are a few caveats in the fine print about certain hardware devices and some graphicsintensive programs having compatibility issues, but I have had no problems yet. The fact is you really won't know if there are quirks until you try it.
The hardware requirements for running a virtual PC in XP Mode are substantial, but almost any new computer should make the cut. I would recommend a CPU with an Intel quad core processor. Any new computer that comes pre-installed with Windows 7 Professional should work. If you are upgrading to Professional from a computer with Home Premium, then double-check that you meet the hardware requirements by running the "Hardware-Assisted Virtualization Detection Tool" found at microsoft.com.
The reason that a powerful quad processor is necessary is because you are essentially going to carve out one-quarter of its computing power to run the XP virtual machine. The geeky-est thing you might have to do is change a computer setting to advise your motherboard to allow this processor sharing. This is all well documented at the Windows XP Mode Help pages at microsoft.com.
One immediate benefit I gained by using XP mode was the ability to continue using an older version of Adobe Acrobat, Acrobat 7.0. Windows 7 requires the use of Acrobat 9.0. While Acrobat 9.0 does have some attractive features, and I will eventually want to upgrade, I was able to set aside the need to purchase that newest version by running with my computer-in-a-computer.
Windows 7 with the Windows XP Mode and Virtual PC provides you with the best of both worlds. You get the newest computer hardware and operating system plus your old familiar operating system; you can continue to work with your existing XP software packages and only upgrade to newer versions when and if you are ready. You can continue working with the familiar XP desktop and interface while you transition to the Windows 7 interface at your own pace.
In the long run, Microsoft obviously hopes that you will get comfortable with Windows 7 and appreciate all the improved features it has to offer, eventually abandoning Windows XP. But for once at least the upgrade to a new operating system doesn't come with the arm-twisting typical of the forced change-over to a "new and improved" operating system, whether you wanted to or not. Maybe Microsoft got it right this time. Buying a new computer/operating system perhaps is now not as daunting a task as it was previously.
Stephen Bour (email@example.com) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, the Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author.