As promised, on Thursday, April 30, 2009, Microsoft made the Windows 7 Release Candidate (RC, see my review) available to MSDN and TechNet subscribers. But it also made an updated (but not yet rebranded) version of XP Mode for Windows 7 and Windows Virtual PC available via the same distribution points. Since Rafael and I gained access to the first external build of XP Mode (then as in this beta called Virtual Windows XP, or VXP), we've been eager to see a more updated version. So what do we see here?

First, Microsoft is formally describing this technology as Windows Virtual PC, "a new optional component for the Windows 7 operating system that you can use to evaluate and migrate to Windows 7 while maintaining compatibility with applications that run on older versions of Windows." Windows Virtual PC includes a number of new features, one of which, of course, is XP Mode.

Windows Virtual PC is available in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions, so you'll need to version that is correct for your OS. However, you can only run 32-bit virtual machines inside of Windows Virtual PC, as was the case with the previous version of this product, Virtual PC 2007.

Windows Virtual PC will be delivered to Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate customers via a web download that includes two executables. The first, Windows6.1-KB958559-x86.msu (32-bit) or Windows6.1-KB958559-x64.msu (64-bit), depending on your platform, updates Windows 7 and actually provides the expected Start Menu entry points. And then you reboot.

Windows XP Mode Beta for Windows 7

When that's done you must also run a second EXE, VirtualWindowsXP_64_en-US (or VirtualWindowsXP_32_en-US) to install XP Mode and its Windows XP with SP3 virtual machine (VM). Once you've done that, you'll be prompted to run Virtual XP (XP Mode).

Windows XP Mode Beta for Windows 7

Now, you're prompted to configure a password for the default user (creatively named User and not changeable during Setup), and configure Automatic Updates. Then, Setup configures the virtual machine. This phase takes a long time and involves setting up the VM for first use, initializing the VM, starting the OS, and enabling integration features. What it's really doing, of course, is running through the XP Setup process in silent mode.

Windows XP Mode Beta for Windows 7

Windows XP Mode Beta for Windows 7

Windows XP Mode Beta for Windows 7

Windows XP Mode Beta for Windows 7

Windows XP Mode Beta for Windows 7

Windows XP Mode Beta for Windows 7

Eventually you'll hear the familiar strains of the XP startup sound and Windows XP springs to life in a window. Voila! It's time to do some XP configuration, install AV and any third party apps, and then shut down the VM and access those apps from the Windows 7 Start Menu.

Windows XP Mode Beta for Windows 7

Windows XP Mode Beta for Windows 7

Windows XP Mode Beta for Windows 7

Of course, Rafael and I have already thoroughly documented all this. So if you've been reading along since we first revealed this feature, you know by now that nothing has changed. That's both reassuring and alarming, since the build we originally got is well over a month old by now. Presumably, between now and Windows 7 RTM, Microsoft will rebrand these components as needed.

Of more interest here is what's going on under the hood? How does Windows Virtual PC differ from its predecessor?

First, the integration components now support XP with SP3, Vista with SP1, and Windows 7, so you're free to install these other OSes in VMs if you'd like. As per previous Virtual PC versions, you get seamless mouse movement between the host and VMs, can access a combined host/VM clipboard, access physical drives and printers on the host from within VMs, and, in a new twist, some USB devices. (This was a notable missing feature in Virtual PC.) Microsoft says that USB-based printers, storage devices and smart card readers are now automatically shared with virtual machines. You can also redirect other USB devices to VMs via the new USB menu in the VM window; each attached USB device on the host is listed.

Windows XP Mode Beta for Windows 7

And don't forget Rafael's secret about getting built-in Windows XP applications to appear in the Windows 7 Start Menu. Just drag and drop them into the All Users Start Menu and they will appear. Voila!