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Once Windows 7 ships, Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate edition users will be able to download a free Windows XP Mode upgrade from Microsoft, WinSuperSite's Paul Thurrott reports. What Thurrott calls XP Mode will enable these versions of Windows 7 to be almost perfectly compatible with Windows XP applications. Essentially, Windows 7 will have "Windows XP inside" when XP Mode is installed.
What is XP Mode? Officially known as Virtual Windows XP, it combines a hardware-accelerated host virtualizer based on Virtual PC with a fully licensed copy of Windows XP Professional SP3 which the user must supply [updated 4-29-09]. While, at first glance, this might sound like little more than a more convenient replacement for downloading a copy of Virtual PC 2007 and scrounging up a Windows XP Pro disc and license from a dead PC, there's a lot more to Virtual Windows XP.
As the WinSuperSite screenshow reveals, Virtual Windows XP will be able to share your system's USB drives, and when you install apps to Virtual Windows XP, your Windows 7 menu will automatically be updated with shortcuts, enabling you to run Windows XP programs in separate virtualized windows on your desktop. Although the virtualizer used by Virtual Windows XP is a host-based virtualizer, these features put it miles ahead in usability compared to Virtual PC 2007 plus Windows XP. And, because Virtual Windows XP's virtualizer requires hardware virtualization support, it won't bog down your system the way an unaccelerated virtualization host will do.
Any catches? Unless Microsoft changes its mind between now and when Windows 7 is released, it looks as if most home users who want a fast virtualized Windows XP running on Windows 7 will need to pony up for an upgrade to Windows 7 Professional. The good news is that Windows 7 Professional includes all of the multimedia goodness of Home Premium plus essential business features.
The second possible catch is the need for hardware virtualization support. Make sure your system includes a processor with hardware virtualization support. The Core i7 family includes VT-x hardware virtualization, but support in other processor families is spotty, and the low-end Pentium Dual-Core and Celeron processors don't support VT-x at all. Over on the AMD side, current versions of the Turion 64, Phenom, and some older Athlon 64 and X2 processors include AMD-V hardware virtualization.
If you've been on the fence about moving your personal or business PCs to Windows 7, how does Virtual Windows XP change the picture for you? Hit Comment and sound off!
Update 4-29-09: For more information, see our latest story http://www.maximumpc.com/article/news/more_about_xp_mode_windows_7.