PC EmulationHaving been very impressed in the past by the performance of Virtual PC on my G3, I was keen to see how well Virtual PC 5 would allow me to transgress over to the dark side. Connectix is keen to emphasise that Virtual PC is not designed with the playing of games in mind, and of course anyone who wants to play PC games should buy a real PC. An emulator is very useful for lots of things, but there's no way it could compete with real hardware for demanding applications like games.
Nevertheless, many Mac users do want to try out at least a few older or less demanding games through Virtual PC, and, depending on the game, that can be a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Trying to run the latest 3D action games would be an exercise in futility, but adventure and strategy games with simpler 2D graphics can work well even on an emulator.
Being a fan of the Heroes of Might and Magic series, I had previously tried running Heroes II (which suffered a notoriously poor Mac conversion) in Windows 98 via Virtual PC 4 on my G3. It worked very well; it was a little on the slow side, but was certainly playable. I therefore tried to run the PC version of Heroes III (a significantly more demanding game than Heroes II) in Virtual PC 5.0.2 on the iMac. Given that the iMac was basically over twice as fast as the G3, I hoped that it would be able to cope.
I set up two virtual machines, one with Windows 98 and the other with Windows XP Home, and tried running Heroes III in both to see what (if any) difference the emulated operating system made to the speed.
The first observation I made was that Windows XP was in itself virtually unusable; it was very markedly slower than Windows 98 under emulation. Nevertheless, I persevered and was eventually surprised to find that Heroes III ran at least as well in Windows XP as it did in Windows 98. But having said that, it wasn't really usable in either case. The excellent music was garbled to the point that it was impossible to make it out, and the game performed so slowly as to be unplayable.
I was aware that Virtual PC didn't work as quickly in Mac OS X as it does in Mac OS 9, though, so I rebooted the iMac in Mac OS 9 and tried Virtual PC again. What a difference! I had expected some improvement, but not a complete transformation!
For a start, Windows XP started to border on usable in general operation. It certainly couldn't be called fast, but it was bearable. Windows 98 performed well. As for Heroes III, whereas it had previously been unplayable, it now became very usable. The audio was back to normal and the game played properly, if not exactly quickly. Certainly it plays a slower game than the native Mac version on my G3, but it's fast enough to be acceptable.
So there's a clear message here: Virtual PC will let you play some PC games quite well, but you'll probably have to reboot into Mac OS 9 first. It's to be hoped that the performance penalty can be reduced in future revisions of both Virtual PC and Mac OS X.
Of course, one of the advantages of emulators is that they sometimes give you access to tools that you can't get on the Mac. For example, the (otherwise excellent) Mac conversion of Heroes III unfortunately lacks the map and campaign editors that are supplied as part of the PC version of the game. So if you're prepared to fork out for both versions, you can share your maps folder with Virtual PC and use the Windows game editor; it works well under emulation.