April 10, 2014, 9:26 AM — If the imminent end-of-support deadline for Windows XP has finally spurred you to make the update to Windows 8, you might be concerned about whether you'll still be able to run your old programs. And while most Windows XP software works just fine in Windows 8, some applications do indeed have compatibility issues. Fortunately, there's a way you can run any Windows XP software at all, using virtualization.
With virtualization, you can run a whole Windows XP desktop inside a window on your Windows 7, 8 or Vista PC. Any Windows XP software you have should run in the virtual machine, and because the virtual computer can't make changes to your real computer's hard drive, you won't have to worry about end-of-support security issues.
If you have legacy software you need to run, or just want to run a virtual Windows XP PC, read on--we'll show you how you can get a virtual machine set up in under 15 minutes.
What about XP mode?
"XP mode" was a feature included in Windows 7 which allowed you to run Windows XP programs natively in a virtual environment, or to run some XP software directly in Windows 7. However, there are a few limitations with Windows XP mode. First, it only works in Windows 7--if you're still using Windows Vista or have updated to Windows 8, then Windows XP mode won't work on your system. Further, it's only available on the Professional, Enterprise, or Ultimate editions of Windows 7, rather than the more common consumer versions.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Microsoft will be ending support for XP Mode on April 8th, the same day they end support for XP itself. It's not entirely clear what the security ramifications of running XP Mode after support is cut off are, or if Microsoft will continue to host the free download that allows you to use XP mode.
In light of all this, we recommend that you skip XP Mode in favor of a more flexible solution for accessing Windows XP--running the operating system in a virtual machine.
Install Windows XP in a virtual machine
If you're unfamiliar with the concept, a virtual machine is pretty much what it sounds like: a simulated computer that runs within your main operating system. It borrows some of your host computers resources, like hard disk space and RAM and uses those to run the virtual computer. With a virtual machine, you can have a full-fledged Windows XP computer running in a window on your desktop, or even one running Linux or Windows 95.
Setting up a virtual machine isn't very complicated, but it does involve a number of steps. Don't worry--we'll walk you through them, one at a time.
Before we can begin, you'll need to make sure you have the following three things:
VirtualBox: Other virtual machine programs are out there, but this one has a lot going for it--it's got all the features you need, it's easy to set up and use, and (best of all) it's totally free for personal use. You can pick it up at www.virtualbox.org. Once you're at the site, just click on the download link, then click on the link that says "x86/amd" next to the line that reads "VirtualBox [version number] for Windows hosts."
Windows XP Installation data: In order to install windows on your new virtual machine, you'll need your Windows XP installation disc, or a downloaded .ISO file with the data that comes on that disc.
A Windows XP Serial Key : Just like any other Windows machine, you'll need a serial key to use Windows XP in your virtual machine. If you bought your PC with Windows XP already installed, the product key is most likely on a sticker somewhere on your PC or with any documentation that came with it. If you installed Windows yourself, then hopefully you kept the product key that came with the installation disc. If you didn't, you can still recover your CD key by running Magical Jelly Bean Keyfinder on the system running XP.
If you've got all of the above, start by installing VirtualBox. There's a few choices you can make during the installation, but you can just leave the default options selected for everything and click through. When the installer is done, VirtualBox will start up, and you'll see a message informing you that you don't have any virtual machines created yet. To remedy that, click on the blue New button in the top left corner.
You'll now go through several pages of setup for your new virtual machine. On the first page, choose a descriptive name (such as "Windows XP Virtual Machine") and select what make and model of operating system you're going to install. Conveniently, Windows XP is the default choice, so unless your dropdown menu looks different, stick with that.
The second setup page asks you how much of your system memory you want to devote to the virtual machine while it's running. Windows XP's memory requirements are very low, but for better performance you'll want to increase this higher than the recommended 192 MB. Depending on how much memory you have to spare, you can allocate from 512MB to 2GB. Click Next.
On the next page, leave "Create a virtual hard drive now" selected and click Create. A new setup window will open, with choices about virtual hard drive files. Leave the default "VDI" option selected, and click Next. On the following page, choose Dynamically allocated, which means that you can allocate, say, 25GB of hard drive space for the virtual machine, but that space won't actually be used up on your physical hard disk unless you actually use it for something in the virtual machine. Click Next again.
You'll now be asked to pick the size of the drive. 10GB is enough to install the operating system with room to spare, but you should increase it a bit if you plan to install anything more than basic software. Remember that you won't be immediately forfeiting all this space on your main drive--it'll only be claimed if you actually use it for something in your virtual Windows XP PC. Click Create.
Setting up Windows XP in a virtual machine
Now, your virtual machine is ready to go. But just as if you'd built a brand new physical PC, you have to install an operating system on it. If you attempt to run the PC by double clicking on its tile on the left part of the screen, VirtualBox will automatically start the new machine wizard, and it will ask you to select a startup disc. You can click the little file icon next to the file field to browse your system for the Windows install data. If you have a physical disc, put it in your CD or DVD drive and select that drive. If you have an ISO, simply select that file.
Your virtual machine will start up, and you will see the familiar Windows installation process. Even if you've never installed Windows XP before, the installation process is very straightforward--just click through each screen, filling in any of the basic info it asks you for. It will restart at one point in the process, and then after several minutes of installing you'll find yourself looking at a small version of the Windows XP desktop, in a window.
Before you can start using your virtual Windows XP machine, there's one more step to complete. VirtualBox includes a set of software utilities to install on the virtual PC, which make it a lot easier to work with and control the virtual PC. To install these, click on the VirtualBox menu bar item labelled Devices, then select Insert Guest Additions CD Image.
A new wizard will pop up, this time inside the Windows XP virtual machine. There aren't any complicated decisions to make here, just click next a couple times, and allow the computer to restart when it asks.
With Guest Additions installed you will have a number of new options available to you in the "Devices" menu of VirtualBox. Most useful is the option to add a shared folder, which will allow you to easily transfer files from your host computer to your virtual computer. To do this, click Devices, then Shared Folders Settings, which will open the virtual machine settings.
On the right side of the window there's a small icon of a folder with a green plus. Click this, then select a file location to use as a folder. Make sure to click the boxes marked "Auto-mount" and "Make Permanent." If you only plan to transfer files to the virtual machine and not from it, click "Read-only" as well. VirtualBox can be a little finicky with what it accepts as a valid file name here--we found the easiest way to make sure the folder path works is to manually create a folder with no spaces or special characters on the host machine, then copy and paste the address into the folder field.
Now, restart your virtual machine, and when it starts back up you'll see your shared folder as a drive on the virtual machine. You can use this to transfer software to the virtual machine, and then install it inside Windows XP.
One final note--by default the internet should work fine in a virtual machine, but sometimes that isn't the case. With our setup, running Windows XP on a Windows 8.1 host PC, we had to make some changes in the network settings to get the internet working in the virtual machine.
To make these changes you have to turn off the virtual machine, then open the network settings menu in VirtualBox. There, change the Attached To field to "Bridged Adapter", and the Adapter Type to "PCnet-Fast III." With that, you now have everything you need to run a Windows XP program without ever leaving the comfort and safety of Windows 7 or 8.1.