How to Run Windows XP Mode in Windows 7

By now, you’ve probably read quite a bit about what’s new and interesting about Windows 7, from the overhauled user interface to things like Libraries and the improved search feature. You may even be considering an upgrade to Windows 7 especially if, like most firms, you’re still predominantly running Windows XP on your employees’ PCs.

But before you plunge into Windows 7, it’s critical to determine how all of your organization’s important applications will work with the new operating system. Even though most contemporary programs will generally work with Windows 7, small businesses often rely on older and/or specialized software that may not run properly — or at all — because it was designed for Windows XP. Indeed, incompatibility with many so-called “legacy” programs was one of Vista’s major shortcomings.

Thankfully, Windows 7 offers a way around the application compatibility problem in the form of its new Windows XP Mode. Through the magic of operating system virtualization, Windows XP Mode lets you run a copy of XP — and just about any XP-compatible program — right from within Windows 7.  

Windows XP Mode is based on Microsoft’s Virtual PC 2007 software, but it offers a number of notable enhancements. Foremost is that Windows XP Mode provides a pre-installed and licensed copy of XP Professional. Normally with Virtual PC — say, if you run it on Vista — you need to supply your own XP installation disc, install the operating system into the virtual environment, and then license the copy of XP as if it were a separate computer. But you don’t need to do any of those things with Windows XP Mode. Moreover, Windows XP Mode integrates into Windows 7 so you can run older apps right from the Windows 7 Start menu.

What You’ll Need

Windows XP Mode is an add-on feature that doesn’t officially come “in the box” with Windows 7, but if your system came with either Windows 7 Professional, Ultimate or Enterprise pre-installed, the manufacturer may have elected to pre-install Windows XP Mode as well. To find out, search for XP Mode at the Start menu. If you don’t already have Windows XP Mode, you can still get it — it’s available as a free download to properly licensed owners of the three aforementioned Windows 7 flavors.

To use Windows XP Mode, you’ll need a PC with a processor (either Intel or AMD) that does hardware-assisted virtualization, which most systems built within the last three years or so should have. If you’re not sure, use the HAV Detection tool found in Step 2 of the Windows XP Mode download page, which will check your processor for virtualization support and make sure it’s enabled in the system BIOS. (If you have virtualization support but its disabled, you’ll need to reboot your system to turn it on via the BIOS.)      

Install and Configure XP Mode

Once you’ve verified you have a compatible processor and an appropriate version of Windows 7, you’re ready to download the Windows XP Mode software. There are actually two separate downloads — Windows XP Mode and Windows Virtual PC — which must be installed in that order. (If you have a poky Internet connection, be advised that the former is a rather large 469MB file.)

Post-installation, you’ll find a new Windows Virtual PC group in the Start menu, and within it, a Windows XP Mode program icon, which you need to run to complete a few final configuration steps. These include choosing a password for the generic XP user account (click Remember Credentials so you don’t need to enter it again), and deciding whether to allow XP Mode access to the system’s storage devices. The answer should generally be yes, since that’s where your program’s data files will likely be stored.

It will also ask whether you want to enable Automatic Updates, and here too, it’s advisable to say yes. Since XP Mode is essentially no different than XP running on a physical system, it has the same maintenance and security needs.

In fact, it’s a good idea to install anti-virus software on to your XP virtual system, particularly if you ever expect to browse the Web with it (XP Mode gets Internet access through a virtual network adapter.) Incidentally, Microsoft’s newly released Security Essentials software is one of several good — and free — anti-virus/anti-malware utilities you can use.

Upon completing your configuration selections, you’ll be greeted by good old Windows XP, running in a window right on your Windows 7 desktop.

Load and Run Programs

Now that XP Mode is up and running, you’ll want to install any applications you need into it. You can do this a variety of ways, including via CD/DVD disc or USB storage drive.

When you use XP Mode’s Start button to visit My Computer, you’ll be able to access the host system’s physical CD/DVD drive along with any internal/external hard drives, USB drives, or mapped network drives. (Hard drives, USB storage and mapped network drives will look like network drives in XP Mode, and have names that reference their drive letter on the host system.) See Figure 1.

Install your program(s) in XP as normal, and when you’re finished, use the Start button to log off XP Mode. Finally, close the XP Mode window to put XP Mode into hibernation. Now if you return to the Windows Virtual PC group in the Windows 7 Start menu, you’ll see a new subgroup called Windows XP Mode Application containing all the programs you’ve installed.  See Figure 2.

When you launch one of these programs, it won’t run in a separate XP operating system window.  Rather, it will run in its own window as if it were a native Windows 7 application, even though XP Mode provides the underpinning behind the scenes.

Since your XP Mode programs integrate with Windows 7, you can do things like search for them from the Start menu, or Pin them to the Start menu or Taskbar as if they were native programs.  Better yet, you can print from XP Mode programs to any printer available on the host system and, thanks to a shared clipboard, copy and paste between XP Mode and Windows 7.

Performance Considerations

XP Mode will consume about 1.6 GB of disk space when you install it — and possibly more depending on the size of the apps you install — and uses a portion of system resources (i.e., processor and memory) while running. In most cases you shouldn’t experience a noticeable performance impact while using XP Mode — it only commandeers 256MB of memory, enough to run a single program or possibly two in a pinch.

One downside to XP Mode is that essentially turns one PC into two, effectively giving you extra systems to keep track of. XP Mode doesn’t offer any centralized monitoring or management, so deploying and maintaining it on lots of desktops can be somewhat of a chore. But for situations when you don’t want an older but critical application used by a handful of employees to prevent you from moving to Windows 7, Windows XP Mode may be just the ticket. 

Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.

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