I am writing this column using Microsoft Word 97. What's unusual about that is the fact that I'm working on a Macintosh clone, even though the Mac version of Word 97 is still under construction.
The secret is a clever piece of software called Virtual PC from Connectix (800 950-5880) that allows a Mac to do a surprisingly good job of emulating a Windows PC. In these troubled times for Apple Computer, Virtual PC provides a lifeboat for Mac owners. At a minimum, it offers a way around one of the most serious problems facing the Mac: The ongoing reluctance of software publishers to develop new programs for the system.
EASIEST. Running PC software on a Mac isn't new. Add-in cards from Radius and Apple can put a Windows-ready Pentium processor into a Mac for $600 or more. And SoftWindows 95, from Insignia Systems, is a $200 software solution. But Virtual PC, at $150, is the cheapest, easiest, and most complete answer I've seen.
Virtual PC, which includes a full copy of Windows 95, behaves just like any other Mac application. When you click on its icon, a Win95 desktop pops up in a window or, at your option, fills the entire screen. Just about everything behaves exactly as you would expect with Win95. And you can switch back and forth between the Virtual PC window and any regular Mac application with a mouse click.
You do have to make some allowances for physical differences between the machines. The most notable is that the Mac mouse only has one button, while the PC has two, and Windows 95 uses both heavily. You simulate Windows' right mouse button by pressing a key while clicking. The approach is awkward but familiar to button-deprived Mac users. A better solution would be a mouse with programmable buttons, such as the Kensington Turbo Mouse.
Of course, using a Mac to emulate a Windows PC falls short of the real thing in several ways that can't easily be remedied. The most notable is speed. My blazingly fast Power Computing Corp.'s PowerCenter Pro with a 210-megahertz PowerPC 604e processor and 64 megabytes of memory imitated a 120 MHz Pentium running Virtual PC. Nonetheless, Microsoft Office 97, a notorious hog of computer power, performed adequately, if a bit sluggishly, under Virtual PC.
HARD PROBLEM. Another difficulty is that while Virtual PC handled all the software I threw at it, most hardware designed for PCs won't work. Accessories such as scanners, tape backups, or Zip storage drives that attach through a printer port are out because the Mac uses a completely different method to connect to printers. You can, however, use Virtual PC with Mac printers. Accessories that connect through a serial port are a mixed bag. The majority of PC modems will work on a Mac with just a change of cable. So will nearly all digital cameras, but scanners, most likely, will fail.
One area where Virtual PC could be improved is the procedure used to read Mac files in Windows. You have to assign a drive letter, such as "G:", to the Mac folder you want to open in Windows. It works fine, but it's cumbersome to set up. (It's a great deal easier for a Mac program to handle Windows files.)
The main audience for Virtual PC is Mac enthusiasts who need to run Windows programs, such as the Microsoft Access database manager, that don't exist for Mac OS. And for someone on the threshold of buying a new computer, it can make the decision to stick with the Mac platform a little less risky. At this price, that's a pretty good insurance policy.