Vol. XVII, No. 3
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Winter, 2005

Virtual PC® and AutoCAD® on CSA's MAC Computers

Harrison Eiteljorg, II

Before my last trip to Athens I was bemoaning to myself the need to take my PC (which had a dead battery at the time, not a big problem and since repaired). The PC has none of the files I routinely use and is a part of CSA's stable of computers only because a Windows machine is required to run AutoCAD; all other files and programs I use regularly are on my MAC desktop and/or PowerBook portable, both of which are running MAC's OS X.® Taking only the PC on such a trip therefore leaves me without email files, articles I am currently working on, and any other document I might need. Some of those files can be copied onto the PC and used there, but that is not an ideal solution, especially if I am using software written for the MAC to work on the particular file(s). One potential solution to this problem is a program called Virtual PC -- a program that emulates a PC's hardware on the MAC and thereby makes it possible to run Windows® and Windows programs -- in CSA's case, AutoCAD. I had used Virtual PC in the past and found it to be very slow. (I think the first such use was in 1991 or '92, and I can remember rather too vividly cursing the slow speed of the computer as I tried to run the PC version of FoxPro® on my MAC PowerBook in a hotel room in Izmir while trying to keep ice on my sprained and swollen ankle.)

The new version of Virtual PC (now produced by Microsoft) had reasonably good reviews and at least some suggestions that it could be used to run Windows programs at acceptable speed. So I decided to purchase a copy for the trip to Athens. (I chose the version with Windows XP Professional® -- and ordered it far enough in advance to do some testing before putting my faith in it and leaving for Athens without a Windows PC.) The installation was simple and straight-forward, taking perhaps 20 minutes, and installing my copy of AutoCAD was equally simple.

To my surprise and delight, AutoCAD ran very well, without noticeable delay or lag, and I felt very comfortable using it on the MAC. As a result, a single computer could go with me to Athens with the array of programs I have and use regularly on the MAC as well as AutoCAD, the one program I use regularly on a Windows machine. (I hasten to add that not all users have been so pleased, according to reports on the web. This is my experience only.) The reaction of my colleague in Athens who witnessed AutoCAD running on the PowerBook was a combination of amazement that I would try such a thing and surprise that it worked so well.

The results were so good that I purchased a second copy of Virtual PC for the office MAC. Installing it was equally simple, but there was one problem. I was unable to get the network connections to work correctly. The PowerBook is a G4 MAC with OS X version 10.3,® and the office MAC is a Dual G5 with OS X server version 10.3. Perhaps the minor differences were key. I could find no answer to the problem on the Microsoft support site, and there seemed to be no free support at all, even for a new purchase such as this. That astounded me, and I finally used the 800 number for pay-per-call support. I was able to get technical support without a fee, and the problem was solved -- after I had spoken with technical support people on at least two continents.

On both machines I have been able to set the screen resolution high enough to take advantage of the size of the MAC monitors I use. (Important to me, the utility called Virtual Desktop,® which I use on the MAC to provide multiple desktops àla Linux, was also unaffected by the installation of Virtual PC.) All in all, I have been very pleasantly surprised with Virtual PC. The one recurring glitch is an irregularly-shaped cursor in AutoCAD, which can be annoying but causes no other problems.

When writing the article concerning AutoCAD and pseudo-parametric modeling in this issue of the CSA Newsletter, ("Parametric Modeling in AutoCAD® -- Almost," http://www.csanet.org/newsletter/winter05/nlw0501.html). the requisite experimentation with AutoCAD was carried out on the MAC rather than a separate computer running Windows. AutoCAD worked as it normally does on the PC I had been using, and the ability to work on a single computer was a significant benefit. I was even able to save an image of an AutoCAD window while running Windows (using the familiar alt-print-screen key combination) and then paste that image into PhotoShop® running in OS X -- to create the two small illustrations used in the AutoCAD article. I will confess to being a bit surprised myself that it worked so well and so easily. While I will probably revert to the Windows machine when working for long periods with AutoCAD, I certainly will not bother to do that when doing simpler tasks. And I suspect I will not be thinking at all about taking a PC with me on the road in the future.

-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II

For other Newsletter articles concerning applications of CAD modeling in archaeology and architectural history, consult the Subject index.

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