UTM Emulator testing: Windows XP

I’m trying out UTM, a new virtual machine app compatible with Apple’s new M1 architecture on newer Macs, to emulate an operating system from my childhood.

Note: This test focuses on the desktop version for macOS.

I came across UTM in a roundabout way. It all started when trying to get my IBM ThinkPad T42 up and running to use with OpenMPT. I was unable to get the T42 going, but I decided to try to find a virtual machine capable of running Windows XP without a lot of fuss. Even though Windows XP is no longer supported by OpenMPT, it was a long goal of mine to get Windows XP going on the T42.

Windows XP has a sentimental place in my heart for being the first contemporary operating system I used as a child. In 2006, my elementary school overhauled its computer lab – then filled with clunky beige boxes running Windows 98 – with sleek black Nobilus towers mated to Acer LCD “flat screen” monitors. Being a kid used to bulky CRT monitors (and TVs), it was a pretty considerable upgrade.

A photo of my elementary school’s computer lab, c. 2013. The original Nobilis desktops had been replaced with newer Dell OptiPlex machines, which were still running Windows XP.

While those machines didn’t provide me with my first taste in computing (we had a Gateway 2000 x486 running Windows 3.11 before), they did provide me with my first taste of the internet. I can remember using Microsoft PowerPoint 2003 to create a presentation about the Liberty Bell, which required me to use the internet (I believe ask.com was the search engine we used at the time) for research and gathering graphics. They were also the first computer I actually got to see the inside of, as well, as I watched a technician replace a motherboard.

Surprisingly, those Nobilus computers – along with Windows XP – were used by the school all the way until I moved away in 2010. Two computers, featuring the same Nobilus towers and monitors, were moved into classrooms around the time I was in fourth grade. (My fourth-grade teacher also acquired some Windows 2000 Compaq desktops for her classroom, which were still quite usable at the time.) The school continued to use Windows XP far beyond the time my parents purchased our family’s first new computer – a HP Pavilion running Windows Vista.

A pair of Nobilus desktop computers, running Windows XP, identical to the ones from our computer lab in elementary school. (These computers were spotted in 2015 at the American Royal Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.)

Since I left the school in October 2010, I haven’t used Windows XP much since. I got to play around a little bit after I acquired the XPavilion – but unfortunately that machine died shortly after I acquired it thanks to leaky capacitors. This brings me back to the present day: the IBM T42.

I’ve thought about installing XP on the T42 since the day I received it. Unfortunately, those plans never came to fruition. Following the T42 dying on me, I decided to try a virtual machine.

My first option was VirtualBox, but I quickly found it wasn’t compatible with the M1 architecture on my Mac mini. From there, I asked around on the 68kMLA forums – and quickly got a response pointing me in the direction of UTM.

UTM: The ultimate solution?

UTM is an iOS app based on the QEMU emulator, which allows you to emulate a variety of architectures, including x86 and x86-64, along with PowerPC and RISC-V. Many open-source and “abandonware” operating systems – such as Mac OS 9 and many Linux distros – can easily run in UTM without the need for downloading files and setting stuff up. (The macOS/desktop version can be found here.)

The UTM launcher. Installed virtual machines are displayed on the left.

Windows is different, obviously. A Windows XP disk image is available for download on the Internet Archive. The setup process for creating a Windows XP virtual machine is fairly straight forward, especially if you download the Windows XP UTM file from UTM’s operating system gallery. It needs the disk image to boot, but has all the parameters ready to go.

This post is a first in a series I intend to write testing various operating systems using UTM. I also have Mac OS 9 running, and hope to get a couple Linux distributions (not Linux Mint) running for testing.

Mac OS 9 running in UTM.

Windows XP: The Long Life Operating System

For some, the Windows XP operating system just wouldn’t die – including at my elementary school.

Windows XP was released to manufacturing in 2001, and served as the main version of Windows all the way until January 2007, when it was replaced with the ill-fated Windows Vista. (Fun fact: Vista was released to manufacturing in November 2006, but wasn’t generally available until Jan. 30, 2007. Our first home computer – the aforementioned HP Pavilion – was purchased just a couple days after Christmas in 2006 but came with Vista installed, meaning we were one of the first to experience the Aero theme. Unfortunately, that also meant we were the first plagued with the many issues Vista came with.)

Speaking of issues, Windows XP is known for being one of the more reliable versions of Windows, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have its flaws.

Many complained older software, written for MS-DOS, would no longer work. XP was the first version of Windows for both “consumers” (or “home”) and “professionals” that were based on Windows NT. Previous consumer versions – such as Windows ME, 98, and 95 – were all still based on top of MS-DOS. (The model of Windows being an “operating environment” making MS-DOS look pretty and interactive, which debuted in 1985 with Windows 1.0, died with XP.)

There were other issues: Some complained Windows XP was too “childish” and could be obnoxious. While not as bad as Microsoft Bob, Microsoft’s failed attempt at over-simplifying computers nearly a decade earlier, XP still had guides some could consider too helpful, to put it nicely, or even obnoxious.

In fact, some could consider XP and Clippy, the assistant found in Microsoft Office 2000, the inspiration of ObnoxOS, a parody operating system in a short video.

Some also criticized Luna, the default theme for XP. Luna offered a welcome refresh of the appearance of the Windows UI, which had the same basic appearance between Windows 95 and 2000/ME.

Microsoft praised Windows XP’s new design language, Luna, in marketing material, including screens display touting the new features as the operating system installs. Luna received mixed reactions, with some people considering it childish.

As a child, I always preferred Luna (XP) over the Aero (Vista) theme at home. Luna was far more colorful and aesthetically pleasing, in my opinion, than the classic theme. However, as I grew older and started messing with XP on the XPavilion, I was more fond o the classic theme and the increased customizability it offered.

Windows XP in the default Luna theme, which incorporates the infamous “Bliss” desktop wallpaper and lots of blue. In addition to the default Luna theme, there were other variations of the Luna theme, substituting olive green and silver for the sea of blue.
For those who preferred the classic design language, which had been used since Windows 95, there was also the classic option. The classic setting allowed you greater customization over appearance of the UI, including changing colors, fonts, and other settings. While I loved Luna, I was also a fan of the classic design language, preferring it over Aero in Windows Vista and Windows 7.

Overall, however, Windows XP was well received. Stability improved with later versions, which ended with Service Pack 3.

XP’s consumer-level predecessor, Windows Millennium Edition (ME), and successor, Windows Vista, weren’t so lucky. Both had a lot of stability issues and were quickly replaced as complaints and bad reputations developed. ME was released just a year prior to XP, and Vista – released to manufacturing in 2007 – was replaced in 2009 by Windows 7. 

Extended support for most versions of desktop Windows XP ended April 8, 2014, marking the official end to an era.

The emulation experience

As previously mentioned, getting Windows XP up and running in UTM is straight forward. Only two downloads are needed to get it up and running – a UTM emulator file available from their OS gallery to be loaded in UTM, which contains the parameters; and the Windows XP installation disc image.

Once Windows XP is installed in the virtual machine, you can install software to further provoke nostalgia. For me, Microsoft Office 2003 was a must. (In fact, I’m writing this post in Microsoft Word 2003 in the Windows XP virtual machine.) Not only did I spend many hours creating PowerPoint presentations, writing in Word, or creating brochures in Publisher, but I remember wanting Microsoft Office for our home computer. (The story of my strange “love” for Microsoft Office, even as a kid, is a prime candidate for a future TBT post.)

One of the newer Dell OptiPlex computers, running Windows XP, with a brochure I created for the Everglades National Park in the fourth grade open in Microsoft Publisher 2003.
The Microsoft Publisher 2003 brochure I created in elementary school.

As much as I enjoyed toying around in PowerPoint and Publisher, as well as actually working on assignments for classes, there was also time for fun in XP.

At the time, most of the games we played at school were online. However, there were a couple exceptions. One popular offline game at school was 3D Pinball: Space Cadet.

3D Pinball: Space Cadet was a pinball game included with Windows XP.

My elementary school had other “edutainment” games of the era – such as a long-forgotten typing game and many of the Putt-Putt games. (Specifically, I remember Putt-Putt Travels Through Time.)

In the fourth grade, I discovered “animation” using Microsoft Paint and Windows Movie Maker at home. After showing the class a short video I made (which has long been lost to the sands of time), I remember helping my classmates produce their own videos during free time. We took turns cycling between the two Windows XP Nobilus computers, which had Windows Movie Maker, and the five other Compaq Windows 2000 machines in there. (On the Windows 2000 machines, we would use MS Paint for creating the frames to put into our video.) A cheap plastic microphone – which rarely worked and sounded like garbage when it did work – was used to record voice-over. Needless to say, the result was horrible but it did work.

Windows Movie Maker was a staple in Windows XP-Windows 7.

While writing this post, I learned UTM isn’t completely stable. Windows XP, and even UTM itself once, crashed multiple times while I worked on this post. Thankfully, even Microsoft Office 2003 had decent (at least existent – unlike what you’d find in Word 4.0, which is what I normally use to write posts) recovery options.

Outside of those random crashes, Windows XP performs exceedingly well in emulation on my M1 Mac mini with UTM. Software loads extremely quickly and the system is very responsive. The virtual machine Windows XP runs in “has” a 1 GHz “processor” and 512 MB of RAM.

I was never able to get the shared directory to work, either. I created a special folder and pointed UTM to that folder, but I couldn’t access it in the virtual machine.

Despite some minor troubles, UTM is a nice way to get Windows XP going to experience some fun, nostalgic sights and sounds.

The best part about UTM is it can also work on “jailbroken” iPhones, although it can also be side-loaded on older versions of iOS. Although it’s more sophisticated to install on iOS than in macOS, it is the only “universal” open-source emulator I know of supported by iOS.

This post being written in Microsoft Word 2003 in the UTM virtual machine running XP.

Written using Microsoft Word 2003 in a Windows XP virtual machine hosted in UTM on a 2020 Apple M1 Mac mini.