Sure, Macs look great. Apple Computer's OS X operating system is fast, stable and secure. And the number of programs that run on the platform is growing by the day.
Yet there's still a big obstacle for would-be Apple owners in this Windows-dominated universe: Some programs simply aren't made for the Mac.
It's never been an insurmountable problem. For years, companies have offered hardware- and software-based products that create a Windows-Intel environment within Motorola-powered Macintoshes.
But there's always been a price to pay. Hardware solutions are expensive. Software emulation tends to be very slow and can fall short in supporting networks, printers and drives.
In the latest solution, Connectix's Virtual PC for Mac 5.0 offers both reasonable speed and relatively low cost ($199 for Windows 98; $249 for Windows 2000) in an easy-to-install software package. A version that runs Windows XP ($199) is expected early next year.
That's not to say all PC applications, especially games, will run smoothly on a Mac. But for business programs and simple games that do not require 3D hardware acceleration, it works very well.
The Power Mac system I used to test Virtual PC has two G4 processors running at 800 megahertz. A software utility pegged the Virtual PC's speed between 530 MHz and 630 MHz.
After less than 10 minutes _ considerably less time than it takes to install Windows on a PC _ I had Windows 98 up and running on the Power Mac running OS X. (It also works in the classic Mac OS 9.1 and later.)
The PC desktop appears within a window on the Mac desktop. CDs and DVDs were recognized, and I had no problem installing Microsoft Office for Windows, WinZip and other software. (DVDs can be used only for storage, however. DVD video is not supported.)
Network and printer connections piggyback on top of the Macintosh operating system, so there was no need to make any configuration changes inside Windows.
Documents are stored on a virtual hard disk on the Macintosh drive. The structure, however, is transparent. Saving a file, for instance, works the same way on a Virtual PC as it does on a real one.
With the software, I was able to use Microsoft's Access _ its database program _ and FrontPage, its Web editor. Neither are included in Microsoft Office for the Mac.
In one neat feature, text and icons from one operating system can be simply dragged and dropped into another.
You can upgrade your version of Windows. Connectix sells OS Packs for Windows 2000 ($199), Windows ME ($149) and other flavors.
Virtual PC for Mac isn't limited to the OS Packs. In fact, other operating systems can be installed.
I installed Red Hat Linux 7.1 and 7.2 without difficulty, though the drag and drop functionality does not work in Linux.
Even though Virtual PC is no speed demon, I found it worked very well for my home office needs.
My PC connects to the corporate network using virtual private networking software that only runs in Windows.
With only slight modification, I got the VPN software running on the Mac. I quickly downloaded and installed the AP software.
And so this story is being written on a Mac while my PC is taking a needed holiday break.