Sunday, March 16, 2008

Making a Virtual Virtual PC

Before the transition from PowerPC to Intel CPU's by Apple, Mac users had to rely on various other means if they needed to run the occasional Windows app on their computer. The most popular and practical solution was the commercial software package, Virtual PC. It was created by the company, Connectix, but subsequently purchased by Microsoft. Virtual PC would emulate a full Pentium II computer system. Unfortunately, translating instructions between processors is time-consuming and fraught with errors. The program worked for the most part, but was slow at best.

Recently, some of my friends conspired to get me voice recognition software. As I have posted in the past, here and here, my ability to type has been greatly decreased, and I have sought ways to make entering information into the computer faster and easier. Dictation is certainly a good option. It so happened that my friend had gotten a free copy of IBM's ViaVoice for Windows. The system requirements call for a 600MHz Pentium III. Obviously, my emulated Pentium wouldn't cut it.

The native Mac options for speech recognition are very limited. The company, MacSpeech, makes a product called iListen that would run on my G4 PowerBook. There is also a Mac version of ViaVoice. Unfortunately, these products have gotten fairly negative reviews and cost between $50 and $100. A new, superior product called Dictate is being released by MacSpeech, but it will only run on Intel Macs. The answer to this conundrum, my friends figured, was to just send me another computer.

So I have inherited my friend's Gateway 1.6GHz Pentium 4 with Windows XP. Since he wasn't using the computer, this became the most economical option. However, there were a couple of issues to overcome in order for this system to be useful to me.

Issue one: No wireless
First of all, my computer is set up in the garage, far away from any physical network cabling. I use the Mac's Airport card to connect to our wireless network. The Gateway, being an older desktop model, has no wireless available. Thanks to OS X's amazing networking, though, this problem was easily resolved. The first step was to connect the Gateway and the Powerbook with an ethernet cable. Normally this kind of direct connection would require a crossover cable, but I recalled reading that Mac network adaptors automatically detect when a crossover cable would be needed and adjust accordingly to use a regular cable, so I gave it a try. The next step was to enable Internet sharing in the Mac's System Preferences. This was as simple as choosing Airport from the drop-down list and clicking Ethernet for the other computer's connection. I hooked up the cable, started the sharing, and it just worked.

OS X Tiger Internet Sharing

Issue two: Only one monitor
The second issue was that I only have one monitor available (and really no room for another). Normally, I could just use my laptop's display and hook the monitor to the PC. Unfortunately, due primarily to some very rough treatment by its previous owner, my Powerbook's hinge broke, disconnecting the LCD from the computer internals and effectively rendering the display useless. Therefore, sharing the one monitor was the only option.

For several reasons I decided to continue using the Mac as my main computer and run the Gateway remotely as needed. To facilitate this I installed VNC on both systems. For the Windows VNC server, I used Alkit VNC, which allows the sharing of a single application window or the whole screen. I figured this would enable me to just have a ViaVoice window or IE window displayed within the laptop's applications. On the client side I used JollysFastVNC. Though technically just an Alpha release, this app eliminates the biggest problem in using VNC; this client is actually fast. In my limited use I have not had any problems with it. You can see the Gateway's XP desktop running half size in the screenshot beginning this post.

Final issue: No disc!
After getting everything set so I had a virtual Virtual PC, a real PC in a VNC window, it was time to install ViaVoice, the whole reason for all this effort. When I opened the box, I found a nice USB headset mic and a directional desktop mic, a user manual, and an empty CD case! When I asked my friend about it, he said he had never opened the box. Someone must have taken the disc before my friend got the package.

This last problem was one I couldn't overcome. I had successfully set up the computer, but obviously couldn't do dictation with no software. In the end I have a surprisingly responsive "virtual" Windows computing solution. Now I just need some reason for using Windows.

1 comment:

Michael B. said...

CRAP! Here, I thought it was all going to work out. Now we'll have to find another set of software. That really is a pisser.

I'm betting it provided some fun distraction for a while, though. And maybe now we can play some games over the interweb. I have an old PC as well, and there are some games that aren't out for Macs yet.