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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.