Windows 7: Say Goodbye to XP Downgrades

By Frank Ohlhorst  |  Print this article Print

The release of Windows 7 RC1 and Windows 7 XP Mode beta eliminates the need to consider any other operating system for a new PC, thanks to Windows 7’s stability and Windows 7 XP Mode’s performance.

More often than not in business deployments, one of the first things done with a new PC is to downgrade from Windows Vista to the more popular Windows XP. A few brave users that need XP compatibility will stick with Vista and install Microsoft’s Virtual PC 2007 software to run Windows XP when needed. Both choices are far from perfect; running XP as a primary operating system opens a system up to security ills and running XP as virtual OS under Vista incurs a severe performance penalty.

Microsoft is aiming to solve those problems with Windows 7 XP Mode, a virtualized version of Windows XP that runs on Windows 7, currently in beta. At first blush, going that route to bring XP compatibility to a PC seems to differ very little from a Vista/Virtual PC hybrid approach. In practice, though, running Windows 7 XP mode is very different than offering a virtual session of XP under other operating systems. Even so, one still has to define "is different better."

For the most part, Windows 7 XP Mode is superior to running XP virtualized on a Vista system. The real question is whether the benefits outweigh the negatives of going with Windows 7 XP Mode. To determine that, Channel Insider took a comparative look at Windows 7 RC1 running Windows 7 XP Mode beta against Windows Vista 64 Running Microsoft Virtual PC 2007 with Windows XP as a virtual session. To accomplish our goal, we set some ground rules to try and level the playing field.

We decided to test only on a brand new PC, simply because it’s the obvious starting point when choosing between Vista or XP – most new PCs come with Vista preinstalled and offer a downgrade to XP. Ideally, the target audience for Windows 7 XP Mode will be those purchasers of new equipment that need to maintain XP compatibility.

We decided to limit the test to a CPU that supports virtualization, simply because that is a requirement of Windows 7 XP Mode. A word of warning: Anyone looking to run Windows 7 XP Mode should make sure that their CPU supports virtualization. Luckily, most of the systems available today feature CPUs that support AMD-V or Intel VT virtualization.

We also decided to focus on high-end systems, since low-end system users will most likely install Windows XP due to the lack of power to effectively run Windows Vista.

The first system we tested was a SuperMicro SuperWorkStation, which came with Windows Vista Ultimate Edition 64 Bit preinstalled. The SuperMicro system was at the extreme end of the spectrum, a high performance, multi-processor workstation designed for CAD/CAM or high-end video editing. Of course, we expected nothing less than outstanding performance from the system. We installed the latest version of Microsoft Virtual PC, and then created a virtual machine to install Windows XP. Installation and configuration took close to an hour and we encountered no problems. To test the performance of the Virtual Windows XP session, we downloaded and installed Passmark Performance Test V7 from Passmark software. The Virtual PC session earned a Passmark rating of 587.8 with Windows XP.

Next, we installed Windows 7 RC (release candidate ) on the system and then we downloaded the files to run the beta version of Windows 7 XP Mode, which consists of two downloads, the beta version of Microsoft Virtual PC and the beta version of Windows XP mode. The two files come as installable MSU/MSI file, which makes installation a snap. From a time perspective, it took a little less than 50 minutes to install Windows 7 RC, Virtual PC and XP Mode.

Windows 7 XP Mode offers several advantages over Virtualized XP. First, users are able to access USB devices. Second, the end user experience is greatly enhanced; users are able to launch XP applications from the Windows 7 Start Menu. XP mode handles the launching of all of the supporting files (Virtual PC, XP VHD, XP) automatically. That eliminates some of the manual steps needed with Windows Vista and Windows Virtual PC with a XP virtual machine. To keep the playing field level, we made sure that the settings for Windows 7 Virtual PC were as close as possible to the settings used for Microsoft Virtual PC 2007 under Vista.

Once we had the system fully configured and an XP session up and running, we again downloaded and installed Performance Test V7 from Passmark software. Running that benchmark delivered a Passmark Rating of 677.3 using Windows 7 with XP Mode, a performance increase of roughly 14 percent. That increase was accomplished with no hardware changes or any other modifications to the system.

We also tested several XP business applications under Windows 7 XP Mode and found no major incompatibilities. Applications such as Quicken 2005, Peachtree accounting and Internet Explorer 6 worked fine under XP mode. XP Mode also makes launching the applications easier – applications installed into XP mode automatically are added to the Windows 7 Start Menu, allowing those applications to be launched with a single click.

We also duplicated these tests on a Fujitsu N7010 desktop replacement notebook computer and the results were pretty much the same, with XP Mode showing an increase in performance of about 11 percent, a little less than what was seen with the SuperMicro workstation, but probably due to the least potent CPU installed in the Fujitsu notebook.

The Fujitsu N7010 did display some incompatibilities with Windows 7 specialized features, such as the integrated 4-inch touch screen did not perform the same as it did with Vista. We had to manually install some drivers to get some other features to work properly, such as the integrated webcam and SATA controller. While those problems are in no way related to Windows 7 XP mode, they are enough of a concern that users should think twice before relying on the Windows 7 and XP Mode combo on that machine.

Several conclusions can be drawn from these tests. First, if a user is on the fence about installing Vista or an XP downgrade, they may want to give Windows 7 with XP mode a try. After all, Windows 7 RC is free to use until August 2010.

Second, IT departments deploying new systems may want to make the leap to Windows 7 RC to improve end users' experience and to offer backward compatibility with XP applications. Third, XP Mode is clearly not meant for gamers or for tasks other than core business applications, where XP compatibility is needed during a transitional period.

With Windows 7 XP Mode, Microsoft is clearly on the right path to reduce the need for Vista or XP on new systems. With some bug fixes and polishing, XP Mode can be a viable alternative to virtualized versions of XP on other platforms.

Frank Ohlhorst Frank J. Ohlhorst is the Executive Technology Editor for eWeek Channel Insider and brings with him over 20 years of experience in the Information Technology field.He began his career as a network administrator and applications program in the private sector for two years before joining a computer consulting firm as a programmer analyst. In 1988 Frank founded a computer consulting company, which specialized in network design, implementation, and support, along with custom accounting applications developed in a variety of programming languages.In 1991, Frank took a position with the United States Department of Energy as a Network Manager for multiple DOE Area Offices with locations at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPL), Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), FermiLAB and the Ames Area Office (AMESAO). Frank's duties included managing the site networks, associated staff and the inter-network links between the area offices. He also served at the Computer Security Officer (CSO) for multiple DOE sites. Frank joined CMP Technology's Channel group in 1999 as a Technical Editor assigned to the CRN Test Center, within a year, Frank became the Senior Technical Editor, and was responsible for designing product testing methodologies, assigning product reviews, roundups and bakeoffs to the CRN Test Center staff.In 2003, Frank was named Technology Editor of CRN. In that capacity, he ensured that CRN maintained a clearer focus on technology and increased the integration of the Test Center's review content into both CRN's print and web properties. He also contributed to Netseminar's, hosted sessions at CMP's Xchange Channel trade shows and helped to develop new methods of content delivery, Such as CRN-TV.In September of 2004, Frank became the Director of the CRN Test Center and was charged with increasing the Test Center's contributions to CMP's Channel Web online presence and CMP's latest monthly publication, Digital Connect, a magazine geared towards the home integrator. He also continued to contribute to CMP's Netseminar series, Xchange events, industry conferences and CRN-TV.In January of 2007, CMP Launched CRNtech, a monthly publication focused on technology for the channel, with a mailed audience of 70,000 qualified readers. Frank was instrumental in the development and design of CRNTech and was the editorial director of the publication as well as its primary contributor. He also maintained the edit calendar, and hosted quarterly CRNTech Live events.In June 2007, Frank was named Senior Technology Analyst and became responsible for the technical focus and edit calendars of all the Channel Group's publications, including CRN, CRNTech, and VARBusiness, along with the Channel Group's specialized publications Solutions Inc., Government VAR, TechBuilder and various custom publications. Frank joined Ziff Davis Enterprise in September of 2007 and focuses on creating editorial content geared towards the purveyors of Information Technology products and services. Frank writes comparative reviews, channel analysis pieces and participates in many of Ziff Davis Enterprise's tradeshows and webinars. He has received several awards for his writing and editing, including back to back best review of the year awards, and a president's award for CRN-TV. Frank speaks at many industry conferences, is a contributor to several IT Books, holds several records for online hits and has several industry certifications, including Novell's CNE, Microsoft's MCP.Frank can be reached at frank.ohlhorst@ziffdavisenterprise.com

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