RealPC Review

RealPC is Insignia's answer to Connectix's Virtual PC. Promising performance better than Virtual PC at half of the price, and games performance superior to any previous PC emulator, Insignia has promised a lot. But can they deliver?

The Insignia team should be the obvious choice for developing a project like this. Already the authors of SoftWindows 95, the Insignia team has been developing Windows emulation products since the advent of the PowerPC processor. However, the requirements of high-end games are significantly different from the usual Windows 95 system. Pentium MMX, SoundBlaster support, fluid video, and ultra-fast response times are necessary to please the gaming market.

The RealPC price point is also a selling point for many users. With a price tag of only $79, even the most skeptical of Insignia's claims could hardly resist giving it a try. Of course, you get what you pay for--unlike either Virtual PC or SoftWindows, the only software included is MS-DOS and a cheap, shareware CD-ROM. If you want to use Windows 95, be prepared to install it yourself.

For a large part, Insignia delivers on their claims. RealPC is undoubtedly a capable emulation platform, using several megabytes of Dynamic Recompilation cache to speed emulation performance. Low-resolution video, commonly used in games, has been optimized for gameplay, and SoundBlaster Pro as well as SoundBlaster 16 support is available.

Several tests were performed using RealPC to test its compatibility and performance. Testing emphasis was placed on multimedia tasks, games, video and sound; if you want to run business applications, SoftWindows 95 is Insignia's recommended platform. Some direct comparisons will be made to Virtual PC when appropriate, as that is the obvious competitor to RealPC. Our test system is a Power Computing 604e/200 using a 512K L2 cache, with 40MB of RAM, and 30MB allocated to RealPC.

Test One: Shadow Warrior

Shadow Warrior is a polygon-based action game that uses a game engine similar to Duke Nukem 3D. Performance was decent in general, but far from perfect. When little action was occuring, gameplay was quite smooth, but if more than one or two enemies were nearby, frame drop could make the game quite difficult to control.

Upon first starting the game, I was surprised that there were no sound effects at all. After all, one of RealPC's big new improvements was supposed to be SoundBlaster emulation. I double-checked the RealPC setup dialog to ensure that SoundBlaster emulation was activated, but sound still refused to start. Finally I checked the AUTOEXEC.BAT file; it seems that whenever you turn on SoundBlaster emulation, you are required to alter the AUTOEXEC.BAT file by hand to tell it whether SoundBlaster Pro or SoundBlaster 16 is currently active. Not a very elegant solution.

After restarting RealPC and starting Shadow Warrior again, sound effects began working; however, music still refused to play. Unfortunately, sound effects were extremely jittery and had a noisy echo effect that made it hard to listen to; eventually I ended up turning off sound altogether. I still haven't figured out a solution to the music problem; even reinstalling QuickTime refused to solve the problem (RealPC relies on the Macintosh's QuickTime MIDI emulation for music support). This is not a problem for Virtual PC; on the other hand, Virtual PC does not use QuickTime for MIDI output (if that matters).

Other than that, the only problems I encountered were relatively minor. Whenever the game uses a gamma fade or palette alteration, there is a slight performance degradation; however, Virtual PC experiences a similar slowdown. One other glitch I encountered occasionally caused streaks of colored lines to appear over a rendered polygon; view the second screenshot to see for yourself. Although this is not serious, it calls the reliability of CPU emulation from RealPC into question.

Test Two: Dark Forces

Dark Forces is a polygon-based action game based on Star Wars. This was one of the few entertaining titles from the shareware CD-ROM included with RealPC; other than Dark Forces and Doom, most of the games are pretty boring.

Dark Forces' performance was quite good. In the default window size, graphics performance was relatively smooth, with excellent control. Sound effects, unfortunately, once again exhibited the jittery echo effect described above, and Dark Forces also refused to generate any music.

I experienced one problem that I was not able to repeat. The first time I tried running Dark Forces, the keyboard response was very lagged; after pressing forward, for example, my character would refuse to walk forward for almost a second. Luckily, though, the problem seemed to disappear on its own; I have no idea what caused it in the first place, so I'll dismiss it as bad luck.

In general, Dark Forces was quite a good title for showing off the improvements in RealPC. The faster video updates and responsive gameplay ability are demonstrated well by this title. Unfortunately, it also demonstrates RealPC's weakness in sound emulation.

Test Three: Worms Plus

Worms Plus is an extremely addictive but relatively unknown game in which cute little worms, armed to the teeth with various high-power explosives, join forces into teams and attempt to blow each other into smithereens. Quite a fun game, and one which desperately deserves a Macintosh port--the original Worms had a (very poorly written) Macintosh port that never received the attention it deserved, mostly because it followed on the heels of the original PC version only a scant 2 years or so after the original was released. It was quite a popular pastime in Cheney last year. But I digress.

Anyway, Worms Plus experienced some very odd side-effects when used with RealPC. The most obvious of these is easily apparent by viewing the above screenshots--the video always had a small vertical bar of junk running down the middle. This made gameplay somewhat difficult, but it was easy to overlook.

The second problem turned out to be my mistake, but is something that Insignia should think about changing nonetheless. Originally while playing Worms Plus, I was disappointed that the game's frame rate was much choppier than Virtual PC's. After playing for a while, however, I realized that my monitor had been set to Thousands of Colors inadvertently--by resetting it to 256 colors, the game suddenly became much smoother. In fact, it became more fluid than Virtual PC. RealPC, unfortunately, makes no effort to change your monitor's resolution or color depth to match the on-screen video; it will occasionally place an on-screen warning that changing your color depth may help performance, but I have found the warning to be quite inconsistent and also quite annoying, since adding an option to automatically alter the monitor settings could have been implemented quite easily.

The final problem I experienced was that Worms Plus was never able to output any sound at all. Although I played with the settings many times, I was completely unable to get it working. This was quite disappointing to me, although it shouldn't have come as too much of a surprise--Virtual PC also has problems with sound in Worms Plus, although not nearly as severe (it makes loud crackling noises at certain times, but other than that, sound works).

Other than these problems, Worms Plus was fully playable. Although there are several glitches to be fixed, I believe that a future version of RealPC would be capable of handling Worms Plus quite well.

Test Four: NESticle

NESticle is an extremely popular Nintendo emulator for PCs. Although iNES remains more compatible, NESticle is playable on a slow Pentium or even a 486DX4/100.

NESticle has proven to be a great test-bed for PC emulators, as it has exposed holes in both Virtual PC and RealPC. The Windows version is an extremely challenging test for an emulator, as it makes use of almost all of Microsoft's DirectX components. RealPC had promised excellent DirectX support by using rewritten drivers; however, NESticle 95 proved to be as slow and unusable under RealPC as it had been on Virtual PC. Other reports also claim that RealPC's DirectX performance is only satisfactory at best.

Another strange problem with NESticle 95 was its instability. RealPC allows Macintosh folders to be used by simulating a network drive in Windows 95, so the easiest method for testing a few NES carts was to turn on folder sharing and access all of the NES carts stored on my Macintosh hard drive. However, using this method caused NESticle 95 to crash whenever selecting a file from the shared folder. This also caused Windows 95 video to glitch out massively, to the point where it seemed best to restart Windows. This glitch was consistent; however, it remains to be seen whether the bug lies in NESticle 95 or RealPC (perhaps NESticle 95 is unable to handle any files shared remotely).

The DOS test was much more interesting; playability increased dramatically once in DOS mode. Unfortunately, RealPC's performance with NESticle was disappointing compared to Virtual PC. As usual, sound suffered--almost all the sound effects were reduced to static and buzzing noises. Video performance was also jerky and unresponsive compared to Virtual PC's excellent performance. The most glaring problem, however, was that the emulator disappeared entirely if a resolution of 256x224 (optimal for NES video) was selected. Rebooting via control-alt-delete was necessary to recover from this situation.

Test Five: Windows 95

Since SoftWindows is RealPC's big brother, one could expect good Windows 95 performance from RealPC. Screen redraws, window resizing, application loading, and scrolling are all extremely responsive in RealPC. Much of this can be attributed to a "RealPC Upgrade Disk" that the user is asked to install after performing the generic Windows 95 installation; several patches to the OS are enabled which apparently boost performance greatly.

Unlike Virtual PC or SoftWindows, RealPC forces the user to suffer through the standard Windows 95 installation procedure, since it comes with only MS-DOS preinstalled. This is a tedious procedure, but the blame for that rests squarely on Microsoft's shoulders. After the tedium is completed, however, Windows 95 is quite easy to use under RealPC.

A few quirks came to my attention while using Windows 95, but none of them were serious. I encountered a problem while trying to connect to the Internet. RealPC attempts to supercede the generic Windows 95 Dial-Up Networking by overriding it with the Macintosh's Open Transport/PPP settings. This seems like an elegant solution, but I was unable to get Internet Explorer to work with this hybrid Internet connection. Most likely it is a configuration error that I overlooked, and it's certainly a good idea. Unfortunately though, if you attempt to use non-Internet communications software with RealPC, you are advised to keep port speeds to 38400 or 19200; with a faster connection, data could be lost.

Other than that, Windows 95 was mostly seamless. Macintosh file sharing was very elegant; long filenames were preserved well, unlike Virtual PC. WinAmp, an MP3 player, proved to be a good test of raw computational power; this ran quite well under RealPC, but was barely usable under Virtual PC. Insignia's optimizations for Windows 95 have paid off well in RealPC.

So what results can we draw from all this testing?

RealPC is difficult to judge. On one hand, it's a very capable emulator, and has a lot of very strong points. On the other hand, I'm not sure if game playing is one of them.

It's obvious to me that Insignia has invested much more time in developing a Windows 95 emulator than a DOS-based games emulator. For years, Insignia's development efforts have been focused on speeding up Windows 95, and enhancing Macintosh integration and compatibility with Microsoft Office products. For example, their biggest selling point for SoftWindows 95 is that it completes the Winstone benchmark twice as quickly as Virtual PC. Fair enough.

However, I'm not sure that they have invested enough development into game emulation. SoundBlaster support, quite frankly, is simply pitiful. In the cases where it worked, it was barely worth listening to. And almost every game tested experienced some sort of strange glitch. In fact, several sections of the Read Me file are spent discussing workarounds for problems in various games.

RealPC is also not exceptionally stable. While attempting to configure RealPC, it has crashed several times; sometimes even force-quit was not able to resurrect the Macintosh.

It appears that RealPC is a rushed attempt to compete with Connectix's sudden lock on the PC emulation front. Many promised features, such as compatibility with Virtual PC drive containers, simply don't work at all. And several of the new improvements, like SoundBlaster support, are barely acceptable. RealPC just seems unfinished, almost as if it were still in beta.

However, for all of its flaws, RealPC is, hands down, the best Windows 95 emulation on Macintosh. And you can't argue with the price; at $79, RealPC is a steal. If you can accept RealPC's shortcomings, it's certainly a worthwhile product.

RealPC scores a 70%.

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