Monday, March 8, 2010

Missing the Hidden Boot Process in Windows Virtual PC? SHIFT-ESC!

Windows Virtual PC sure has some nifty improvements over Virtual PC 2007. Take USB support, for example. Without it, I would have had to get a new scanner at home, since the only drivers available for my scanner are for XP. Now, instead of getting a new scanner, I just have to explain to my spouse the complex process of why when she scans something and saves it to the desktop it’s not really on a desktop she can see, but it’s on another desktop hidden behind the scenes… hmm. Maybe I should have just bought a new scanner. I digress.

Now let’s get to the meat of this post. If you are a power user of Virtual PC like I am, you are going to love and hate Windows Virtual PC. First off, there is no longer a Virtual PC “application” per say where you can list your virtual PCs and their current running states and configure them. Instead, this is all integrated into Explorer. Unless it’s broken like it was on my machine… if that is the case then see here: Fixing a missing “Create Virtual Machine” option.

Well almost right away I ran into some issues because I was trying to boot a virtual machine from a CD (using an ISO) and I needed to see the boot menu, before Windows started up. I had some fancy new dialog box telling me that the virtual machine was starting, even though clearly it was not:


So I did the logical thing – hit F1 for Help – but I couldn’t find anything useful. I tried to search for documentation for Windows Virtual PC on Microsoft’s web site, but all I could really find was high level marketing mumbo jumbo about great Windows Virtual PC is why I am going to simply LOVE XP Mode. This wasn’t very helpful. I even scoured through the Virtual PC Guy’s blogs and MSDN forum postings to no avail. Then finally I found an obscure post somewhere with the magic bullet!

Press SHIFT+ESC to get from the “Starting the virtual machine…” dialog to the REAL virtual machine display behind the scenes. Now fast forward from a few months ago to this week, when I was tackling a similar problem, and I couldn’t remember the key combination! I rolled up my sleeves and searched again for a complete list of keyboard shortcuts, etc. I even went Googling (er, Binging?) and STILL couldn’t find it. I sat on it for a couple days, hoping it would come to me in a dream, and I scoured the Internet one last time. And finally, once again, I found a hint somewhere in a comment buried deep in an arbitrary blog posting. Woo hoo!

This time I decided to dedicate an ENTIRE blog posting to Windows Virtual PC SHIFT-ESC just so I would never forget it again, or least if I did, I would know where to look ;-)

This can help you with all kinds of trouble. For example, let’s say you accidentally had a bootable CD in your CD drive and you went to startup XP Mode for the first time, and XP mode failed to setup after a half hour or so and you didn’t know why. You could use SHIFT-ESC to see the boot screen (and maybe even get into the BIOS of the virtual machine) and find out that the new XP Mode virtual machine was booting from your CD and not from Windows!

Another use might be that you want to run some Linux utilities on your virtual machine – perhaps CloneZilla, ntfsresize, GPartEd, or any other number of useful goodies out there. Well if Windows thinks your virtual machine is a Windows machine, its going to hang on that dialog box thinking that Windows should be starting any minute now, while the whole time there is some command prompt from Linux awaiting your every input. Or maybe Windows keeps starting and you need to adjust the BIOS on the virtual machine to let you boot from your fancy Linux tools ISO. SHIFT-ESC to the rescue! Just be sure to hit it really fast after the dialog pops up. Then have a finger ready to hit DEL to get into the virtual BIOS.

Just for fun I hit SHIFT-ESC (should I use a dash or a plus between those two?) while booting a Windows XP virtual machine:


… and while booting a Windows 7 virtual machine:


Interestingly, although you can also hit SHIFT-ESC when you are shutting down, I just seem to get a black screen on the virtual machine instead of the “Windows is shutting down” message. Also you have to be pretty quick the with the SHIFT-ESC if you want to get into the BIOS.

Now why isn’t this documented anywhere? And better yet, what other goodies are buried away in Windows Virtual PC on Windows 7? If anyone from the product team is reading this, PLEASE improve the documentation, and keep us old Virtual PC 2007 power users in mind, not just the new Windows 7 XP Mode target market.

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