Tuesday, October 19, 2010

VMWare and Virtual PC: Playing Age of Empires on Windows 7

Recently, I decided to install Age of Empires on my computers.  The game came up in a conversation with someone who periodically hosts AOE parties.  Anyway, it was one of the few PC games I played growing up, and also one that my wife used to play.  When I got home, I discovered that, indeed, I did still have the original discs for Age of Empires, the Age of Kings Expansion, and Age of Emprires II.  I believe my sister salvaged them for me from the boxes left when my parents moved from a house to an apartment.

In any case, I had the software that I needed, so I installed it on my wife's PC running Windows XP.  That done, I had a couple of old PCs running Windows 2000, but those are on the same KVM with my wife's PC, so they couldn't be used for multi-player.  The problem was Windows 7.  I had heard that it wouldn't be pretty (you have to shut down Explorer to play), so I decided to virtualize.  That way, I wouldn't need to give up any part of Windows 7, even Aero, and it would run seamlessly.

I had used VMWare before, so that's what I started with.  VMWare Player is free to download, and so I did.  The installation went pretty smoothly.  I chose to install the option to install the OS using the VMWare wizard, which turned out to be a problem later on when I had to manually eject the virtual floppy drive in order to be able to install VMWare Tools (VMWare thought that the OS installation wasn't complete, when it was.)  Next time, I'll choose the option to install the OS after creating a blank virtual machine.

After installing the OS (I used the original XP that came with my laptop), I updated to SP3, and then had Windows Update install all of the latest patches.  Once everything was updated, I installed the Age of Empires games and applied the appropriate patches.  I also created a small subset in my list of software suitable for a minimalist virtual machine. 

After that, I was good to go, so my wife and I fired up the game and played a few matches.  We had to brush up on our skills first, but it didn't take us long to get back into the swing of things.

I used Bridged mode for networking, but even so, I had to disable Windows Firewall on the XP VM in order to host an AOE game, even after creating a firewall exception, and expanding it to the whole subnet.

Of course, it wasn't perfect.  Even though I had VMWare Tools installed, the mouse was a bit unresponsive, and VMWare Player tends to release the mouse if you cross the edge of the screen.  For this reason, and because I also wanted to try another option for virtualization that I hadn't used before, I decided to also try out Virtual PC. 

It took some doing to find the download link for the latest version of Virtual PC.  I think that Microsoft doesn't want anyone running Windows 7 Home Premium (which is what I have on my laptop) to find the file.  I kept being redirected to Microsoft Virtual PC 2007, which is the appropriate version if your host operating system is Windows XP or Vista, or to upgrade to Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate.  I finally found the right link for Windows Virtual PC, which only supports Windows 7 as a host OS.  This is also the basis of Windows 7's Windows XP Mode.  Indeed, when I installed Windows Virtual PC on my Windows 7 Home Premium, it created a link in the Start Menu for Windows XP Mode.

The link doesn't work (it only displays a message that it won't work in this edition of Windows), and the only other item in the Windows Virtual PC start menu folder opens a folder.  At first, I couldn't figure out how to create a virtual machine in this folder, but then I noticed the bar at the top of the folder window.  When I created a new virtual machine, it stored only a small data file in that folder, with the virtual disk files buried out of sight in my hidden AppData folder.  This approach is different from that of VMWare, and it reflects the fact that Microsoft does not expect me to move this VM, back it up, or access its underlying files.  It's supposed to "just work", and I'm supposed to treat this small VMCX file as a proxy for the whole VM.  With VMWare, I can easily move or back up the VM by moving or copying the folder containing all of its files: to a different drive, or even a different machine. 

Windows Virtual PC with the Integration Tools installed has almost perfect mouse movement, which is essential for playing a real-time strategy game such as AOE.  It wasn't difficult to get used to hitting Ctrl+Alt+Left to escape input capture, instead of VMWare's Ctrl+Alt.

I do have a license for Windows 7 Ultimate, so I would like to check out Windows XP Mode.  However, this license is currently installed on our living room media PC.  It will take a few hours to set up, so it will probably have to be a free afternoon on a weekend.  If I installed the key currently on my laptop on the media PC, I might be able to use "Anytime Upgrade" to install the newly-unused Ultimate key to my laptop without doing a re-install.  We'll see.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

My Take on Windows Live Essientials

Microsoft just released their Live Essentials suite of software downloads for Vista and Windows 7 machines.  I've been using them since January 2009.  Here are my thoughts.

You shouldn't install them all, first of all.  When you download and run the installer, you get the choice to install everything, or pick and choose.  Make the latter selection.  If you have a previous version of something, they won't give you the choice not to upgrade, so if there's something you don't want to install, quit the installer and uninstall it first.
Which programs in particular to install will be an individual choice.  I already had Mail, Writer, Photo Gallery, and Windows Live Mesh installed from the beta.  I had installed Microsoft Office since last updating the software, and so the installer offered me the "Outlook Connecter Pack".  I'm not sure what it is, but it probably won't hurt.

Speaking of hurt, though, unless you really, really want it, don't install the Bing Bar.  It's just a bad idea.  It will try to take over all of your browsers, and seriously, who needs a toolbar in their browser? 
I've never tried the updated Messenger, Messenger Companion, or Family Safety.  I hardly ever use my hotmail account to chat, and I use Pidgin when I do, so I don't really have a use for the Messenger enhancements.

Writer is apparently a very good blogging tool that works with a lot of popular blogging sites (like Blogger, which hosts this blog), but so far, I've stuck with the web interface for composition.
By far the most useful tool is Windows Live Mesh.  If you're like me, you have a bunch of pictures, music, files, and other documents on various computers.  The file sets are simply too large to fit into a free Dropbox account, and you don't really need access to them over the web, at least not most of them, you just want them on your various computers.  It's a hassle to keep all of photos or music organized in more than one place, so you don't.  You keep them organized in one place, and (hopefully) make periodic backups to another computer just in case. Well, Live Mesh allows you to keep it organized the way you want it, everywhere you want it, and it doesn't matter how big the files are, because Microsoft isn't going to store any of them (except for a special 5GB folder, which it will store in the cloud and allow you to access from anywhere on the web.)

Microsoft doesn't upload your files to its servers, but it does keep track of them for you.  Any change you make to your shared folders gets copied to the other computers where that folder is synced, and the copying is peer-to-peer, so if you're at home, it happens at the speed of your home network.  It will also keep your files in sync even if you're not at home, directly from your other computer, not through their servers.

The management interface is pretty simple, though it's easy to miss the "Remote" settings, which allow you to connect to your computer over the Internet if you have enabled it on that device.  Connect is a lot like Remote Desktop, if you're familiar with that.  Basically, it's just like you're sitting at the other computer.  You have to be running MSIE on the computer you're connecting from.

The web interface is a lot like the desktop interface, except in addition to your shared folders, you also have access to all of your devices as well, and you can see which devices sync to each of your folders.

Update:  After installing  Windows Live Mesh on my wife's new netbook, she experienced extremely slow performance.  Her netbook has a 2GHz x64 processor and 2GB of ram, so it wasn't simply the fact that it was a netbook that was making it slow.  I opened Task Manager, and found that the MOE process ("Mesh Operating Environment") was consistently taking up 40 - 60% of the CPU.  I shut down the process, and deleted the "Run" entry from the registry to disable it starting up automatically.  Any syncing that happens will need Live Mesh to be started manually.  I also observed similar behavior on my laptop, but the media PC (which is on all the time) has the MOE process taking only 3 - 5% of the CPU.  It's probably checking the synced files for updates every time it starts up.

Anyway, be warned: Windows Live Mesh is a resource hog on machines that need to turn on and off all the time.