Using Windows 7′s XP Mode — step by step

Fred langa By Fred Langa

Looking for a sure-fire way to keep your oldest Windows applications alive while living in a Windows 7 world?

You’ll find it with Win7′s XP Mode, a free and fully functional version of XP Professional SP3 that runs entirely inside Windows 7. And even if you don’t have ancient apps to support, you gotta admit: keeping XP around for those times you want to indulge in a bit of nostalgia is pretty cool.

XP Mode is a free add-on for Windows 7 Professional, Ultimate, and Enterprise — Win7 Home Premium and Starter don’t qualify. For those versions, or in any case where Microsoft’s XP Mode doesn’t work, there are other alternatives I’ll discuss at the end of this article.

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Windows 7′s XP Mode runs within a virtual PC (VPC). It’s not a dual-boot setup, which lets you run only one OS at a time; a VPC lets you run a second operating system within your current OS, giving you access to both simultaneously.

In a VPC, all the hardware (video boards, hard-drive controllers, etc.) an OS needs is emulated or moderated by the VPC’s software. In Win7′s XP Mode, the virtual hardware boots and runs XP Pro SP3 within a Win7 window (see Figures 1 and 2). It’s sort of like having a second monitor, but on your Win7 desktop.

XP mode
Figure 1. In this example, the large black area is the Win7 desktop. (Note the Win7 Properties dialog in the background.) The blue foreground area is XP — with its own start button, taskbar, and other standard XP features.

XP mode properties
Figure 2. An enlarged view of the XP Mode System Properties window (seen in Figure 1) shows the emulated hardware under Computer.

Let’s walk through the download, installation, and first use of XP Mode so you can see what it is and how it works. I strongly recommend reading through the entire article before starting.

Setting up XP Mode for the first time

Follow these four steps to get XP Mode up and running:
  • Step 1: Download and run XP Mode’s core files.

    To start, go to Microsoft’s Windows Virtual PC Help & How-to download page. There, you can select the files for Windows XP Mode with Virtual PC — or download what you need for a Virtual PC only (useful if you want to run some other OS within Windows 7). Use the page’s pull-down menus to pick your version of Win7 and your preferred language. You’ll see a window pop up, similar to the one in Figure 3.

    XP mode info/download page
    Figure 3. Although it does not provide much information, this page downloads all the necessary files.

    (You can skip Step 1 on that page; I’ll cover everything you need to know.)

    Moving on to Microsoft’s Step 2, click the Windows XP Mode Download button. Choose either Run or Save (the download file): it’s up to you. Select Run, and the XP Mode setup will start automatically after the download finishes; click Save, and you’ll have to manually double-click the downloaded file to start setup.

    The Microsoft site runs a validation check to ensure you’re running a legit copy of Windows 7, before it allows the download. Just follow the prompts. When the download starts, you might as well take a few minutes to stretch your legs — XP Mode is about a 500MB-file.

    When the download is finished, you’ll see the usual Win7 permissions dialog boxes (yes, you do want to run the file you just downloaded) before XP Mode will install its core files.

    When this initial setup ends, XP Mode is on your system. But before you can use it, you have to install the Virtual PC software.

  • Step 2: Set up a virtual PC.

    Go back to the Microsoft download page and click the Windows Virtual PC Download button under Microsoft’s Step 3.

    The download process might revalidate your PC yet again, and you’ll have to accept another round of download permissions — just follow the prompts — before the VPC software (a relatively small 15.3MB file) downloads and installs.

    After VPC is installed, you’ll need to reboot your PC. You should see several “Configuring updates …” screens, because Microsoft’s Virtual PC software is packaged as a Windows Update (KB 958559).

  • Optional Step 3: There’s one more download for non-SP1 Win7 systems.

    If you’ve already installed Service Pack 1 for Windows 7 (info/download), skip this step and go on to my Step 4, below.

    If you’re not running SP1, you’ll need to return to the download page and run the Windows XP Mode Update listed under Microsoft’s Step 4.

  • Step 4: Set up XP Mode for first use.

    Although you now have all the XP Mode pieces in place, it’s not ready to run just yet. Navigate to Win7′s Start / All Programs / Windows Virtual PC and then select Windows XP Mode, as shown in Figure 4.

    finish setting up
    Figure 4. Launch the final XP Mode setup by drilling down to Windows XP Mode in the Win7 Start menu.

    When XP Mode first launches, you’ll see an abbreviated series of setup screens, very similar to what you see when you first turn on a preconfigured, store-bought PC. There’ll be dialogs to accept the licensing, establish a user password, permit Automatic Updates, and so on. The setup also shows a brief tutorial (see Figure 5).

    tutorial slide show
    Figure 5. The information in XP Mode’s short tutorial slide show isn’t deep, but it’s worth reading for general background.

    It’s all very straightforward — just follow the prompts. I usually just accept all the offered defaults.

    When setup’s done, you’re ready to run XP on your Win7 system.

    But wait! It’s not required, but I strongly suggest you now shut everything down. Close the XP Mode Window (it’ll say it’s hibernating) and restart your main system to make sure no loose ends are left hanging.

    When your system restarts, click back to the Win7 All Programs menu and relaunch Windows XP Mode — you’ll hear the familiar XP startup sound, and your virtual XP PC will open in a window on your Win7 desktop.
Congratulations! Your Windows 7 is now running a virtual PC with a complete copy of XP. You’re running two OSes at the same time! How cool is that?

Important first steps with your new XP Mode

Running one operating system inside another obviously creates new opportunities for confusion, so read through this section carefully before trying any of the described actions or commands.

First, take note of the extra toolbar across the top of your XP Mode virtual PC window (shown in Figure 6).

menu bar
Figure 6. An XP Mode window adds a special toolbar across the top to help manage the VPC and its operating system.

Here’s what these new tools do:
  • The toolbar’s Action item offers options to switch to full-screen mode (don’t click it yet!) or to restart, sleep, or close (exit) the XP Mode virtual PC.

  • The USB item lets the virtual XP Mode PC connect to USB devices that are, in reality, connected to your real Win7 computer.

  • The Tools item offers advanced control over the VPC features. You won’t normally have to do anything with this.

  • The Ctrl+Alt+Del item sends that keystroke combination to the XP Mode virtual PC, bringing up XP’s Task Manager — not Windows 7′s.
You can resize, drag, maximize and minimize the XP Mode window — all that works normally, with one exception: when you maximize the XP window, you can’t see any part of your Win7 desktop. So how do you get back to Win7? When in full-screen, XP Mode places a small, fly-out toolbar at the top center of the screen (see Figure 7). It lets you control the VPC or minimize the VPC window and return the Win7 desktop.

If or when the fly-out toolbar retracts, you can always make it reappear by placing your mouse cursor anywhere on the top-center edge of the screen.

fly-out menu
Figure 7. When set to full-screen, XP Mode puts a small, fly-out toolbar at the top of the screen.

The fly-out toolbar offers the same Action, USB, and Ctrl+Alt+Del options described earlier, and it adds a pushpin icon to pin the toolbar in place so it’s always visible. I recommend you pin the toolbar in place; it helps avoid any “which OS am I using now?” or “how can I get back to Win7?” confusion.

If you’re an avid XP user, just now switching to Win7, you may be tempted to load up XP Mode with all your old apps and leave it set to full-screen. But that’s not the best use of XP Mode or your apps — if you let it, Windows 7 will give you seamless integration with all applications running in XP Mode.

This is easiest to understand when you see it in action.

Installing and using software in XP Mode

You install software onto an XP virtual machine just as you did on your XP-based PC. For this example, I dug out the oldest mainstream software I could find — a decade-old copy of Microsoft Office XP. That software doesn’t actually need XP Mode (it runs fine inside Win7 natively), but let’s pretend that it runs only on XP.

Win7 lets XP Mode have controlled, but easy, access to the system hardware. I put the Office XP setup CD in my Win7′s optical drive and then, inside the XP Mode window, clicked on XP’s Start button, opening XP’s My Computer. The Office XP setup disc was displayed there, ready for use on the virtual PC.

Still inside XP Mode, I clicked the CD to launch the Office XP setup — and it ran to completion just as it should. (See Figure 8.) As far as Office XP knew, it was running on a completely standard XP box. (Software on an XP Mode PC doesn’t see the Win7 environment that’s really running the show.)

installed office xp
Figure 8. I had no difficulty installing Office XP on the XP Mode virtual machine.

With Office installed, I now have two ways to run it — or any other XP Mode app. In XP Mode, I can launch it the same way I would on any standalone XP PC (click on XP’s Start button, click to All Programs, and select Microsoft Word). That works fine, but it’s a lot of clicks.

Windows 7′s seamless integration reduces that all to one click! As Figure 9 shows, Win7 adds your installed XP Mode apps to its own Start menu. This gives you one-click access to your XP Mode apps instead of having to first launch XP Mode and then manually launch the app.

one-click access to xp mode apps
Figure 9. XP Mode apps are automatically placed in Win7′s All Programs directory under the heading “Windows XP Mode Applications.”

Launching XP Mode applications directly opens them on your Windows 7 desktop — just like any Win7-based app (see Figure 10).

seamless integration
Figure 10. Win7′s seamless XP Mode integration hides the VPC’s underpinnings.

Not only does this integration allow quicker access to XP Mode apps, it helps reduce any potential confusion arising from multiple desktops (one for Win7, one for XP) open at the same time.

And when you do want access to the full XP virtual machine, it’s no problem — just click Win7′s Windows XP Mode menu item, and XP Mode launches normally in its own window.

Gotchas? Of course there are gotchas!

Running a complete OS inside another OS isn’t a trivial task. It takes a lot of CPU effort and other machine resources.

For example, XP Mode’s virtual hard drive lives as a .vhd file in the Appdata folder on your for-real drive. A basic XP Mode installation will occupy between 8–10GB of drive space. Install XP Mode apps, and the .vhd file grows accordingly. And, of course, all XP Mode disk activity is really carried out by Win7 on your real drive. There’s an inevitable performance hit.

For these reasons, XP Mode shouldn’t be your first choice in running older software.

Instead, try to install your older software normally in Windows 7. (Most programs run fine.) If you do have trouble, try Win7′s compatibility mode to see whether you can get the software working directly, without the overhead of launching an entirely separate operating system. (See the Microsoft Help & How-To, “Make older programs run in this version of Windows.”)

XP Mode is best reserved for those few programs that simply can’t be made to work in Win7 by other, simpler means. (Note: XP Mode won’t help keep older, Win7-incompatible hardware working.)

Another gotcha: XP Mode isn’t set and forget — it’s a whole separate operating system, and it needs to be kept up-to-date and otherwise maintained just as if it were installed on a standalone system. For example, it should have its own malware protection. (I installed Microsoft’s free Security Essentials [info/download].)

Your well-developed XP skills should make setting up and maintaining your XP VPC a breeze. But if you run into snags or find your XP know-how getting rusty, you can search the Windows Secrets archives for a wealth of information on almost any XP-related question you might have.

It’s not every day you get a free, 100-percent legitimate copy of Windows to use. Enjoy your new XP virtual PC! These additional sites can help with other questions that might come up:
  • Windows 7 Help & How-to , “Install and use Windows XP Mode”
  • Windows 7 features page, “Windows XP Mode”
  • Windows Help & How-to, “Windows Virtual PC”
Third-party, virtual-PC software that works on all Windows versions:

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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.