Q Gives You Mac Virtualization for Free - And It Works

by Chris Howard Sep 26, 2006

Last week I took delivery of a shiny new iMac. I’ll talk about it next week, but today I want to talk about running Windows on it.

Like most people who want Windows, I used Boot Camp. As it turns out, Boot Camp, appears to be nothing more than an application to non-destructively repartition your hard drive and create a disk of Mac drivers. Unlike the impression it gives that it does something to your Mac to make it possible to install Windows.

I ran and installed Windows on my iMac fine without even the Apple drivers - although of course networking and sound didn’t work and the display was not ideal. But if those things weren’t important II could have had a usable and bootable version of Windows on my iMac without any use of Boot Camp.

I encountered one problem though - you must install Boot Camp on a hard drive with only a single partition. It was then that I discovered Boot Camp isn’t necessary to run Windows. Needing multiple partitions for OS X, I set up a multi-partitioned hard disk and then installed Windows on one partition anyway - something Boot Camp wouldn’t let me do. If you’re interested, instructions can be found on CrossOSS.

Like anyone though, I don’t really want to reboot every time I need to use Windows - despite it being only occasionally.

And like anyone, I was really keen to check out the acclaimed Parallels. That was a GREAT disappointment. It doesn’t work on my new iMac Core 2 Duo. It runs and lets you create a virtual system, but when you try to fire up that system, Parallels cause a kernel panic. The Grey Screen Of Death. It’s quite entertaining the way that grey curtain of death sweeps down from above.!

Q to the rescue
With little optimism, I decided to give Q a go, assuming if Parallels couldn’t have a working version on the Core 2 Duo Macs, what hope would Q have?

A couple of hours later, I had fully working versions of both Windows 98 and Windows XP running in Q. And running quite quickly and quite satisfactorily.

From the Q website:

Q is based on the excellent open source CPU emulator QEMU from Fabrice Bellard. Pierre d’Herbemont from stegefin.free.fr ported QEMU to OS X and initiated a cocoa Version.

That was the initialization for Mike to develop Q. A completely rewritten cocoa port of QEMU, built directly on OS X, making use of Apples Core-technologies like Core-image, Core-audio and OpenGL for in- and output, saving the overhead of cross platform APIs like SDL, FMOD or GTK.

Q in action
Q virtual systems are called Guests. Q provides several default Windows configurations for each version of Windows. If you want to install Linux or another OS, you need to manually configure your Guest.

Q can also emulate non-native CPUs. Thus if you run it on a PowerPC Mac, it will emulate x86, and vice-versa. Other CPUs Q can emulate are: x86-64, PPC PREP, SPARC-32, MIPS and ARM.

Windows 98
Windows 98 runs as fast as any PC I ran it on in the late ‘90s but it did display its legendary instability, with Internet Explorer crashing when it tried to view some websites.

The virtual display driver that Q used for Windows 98 (a Cirrus Logic 5446 PCI) worked fine and gave me 24-bit color up to 1024x768 pixels, and 16-bit up to 1280x1024.

The virtual soundcard Q defaults to is a Soundblaster 16 and this worked well although did stutter if the processor was busy.

The virtual network adapter also works fine, an NE2000.

Notably though, the CD drive (on my system a CD & DVD burner) only configures as a CD-ROM.

Windows XP
Windows XP runs reasonably fast and is certainly quite usable. Like the Windows 98 Guest, sound is choppy and my DVD is only usable as a CD-ROM. Networking and display also work fine.

I successfully installed Freespire. Initial impressions are it is slower than either of the two Windows I installed.

Windows eye opener
Running Windows was an eye opener after three years as a Mac user. So many things you take for granted on Windows when that’s all you know. Things like a plethora of questions, balloons popping up everywhere and restarts for most software installations. They all drive Mac users to distraction.

But still, it served my purpose. My major need for Windows is checking if my website designs work in Internet Explorer. And as so often happens, I discover that my sites don’t work in IE so back to the drawing board. Q make this process simple and has cost me nothing (as I already owned a copy of Windows XP).

Shortcomings and Bugs
The lack of a driver to support CD burning and any type of DVD access is an issue that needs to be addressed by the developer. To install from a DVD requires converting the DVD to an ISO. Use Disk Utility to make an DMG image of the DVD and then the command on this page at Tech-Recipes to convert that to an ISO.

On both Windows installations I encountered a crash on the first reboot of the installation process which required rebooting, but thereafter, had no further problems with the install, or since.

If you “Save the state” of a Guest, when it restores it is hung, and needs restarting. I found this with both Windows and Linux (although I did not have this problem on my PowerBook G4). This is a bit of problem if you intend to use Windows regularly on an Intel Mac - although the boot up time is very fast.

And yes, Q does knock system performance around, especially if you up the memory of your Guest system.

Sure Q has some issues to resolve, but it is still in beta and it is free. From my experience, I sugges you give Q a look before you try Parallels if your looking for a virtualization solution on Intel Macs. If Q meets your needs, why would you bother paying for Parallels? And given Parallels is not even working on the latest Macs, it’d score a zero, while I’d give Q a 7.5/10.



  • Q is not necessarily true virtualization.  It is actually an emulator, but Intel Macs do take advantage of a “Virtualizer” giving a big speed boost, but it is still x86-on-x86 emulation.

    See here:

    Therefore, it’s not in direct competition with Parallels because Parallels take advantage of Intel’s virtualization technology built into their chips, Q does not.  In my experience trying out Q, it feels just like Virtual PC did, no where near as fast as Parallels.

    I do agree, try out Q before you outright buy Parallels.  It’s fine for checking sites in IE.  But if you need a real solution to run Windows on your Mac, Parallels can’t be beat (yet).

    Dan Bedford had this to say on Sep 27, 2006 Posts: 1
  • Thanks for the clarification, Dan.

    Parallels would need to be awful quick for me to need to spend money on it now I’ve experienced Q.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Sep 27, 2006 Posts: 1209
  • I am happy with Parallels even on my tiny MacBook so I do not see a need to even try Q.

    I have used Virtual PC on my PB G417 (still there actually) but I haven’t had the need to use it since Parallels came along.

    Giving Parallels enough elbow room (mine 512MB) and it screams like it was running natively. I have placed my MB13 to sleep/wake cycles for over a week without shutting down WinXP in Parallels and was just amazed how stable Parallels keeps XP behaving as it is - no BSODs or crashes.

    No thanks. No Q for me.

    Robomac had this to say on Sep 27, 2006 Posts: 846
  • Also, Parallels will soon give you Vista compatibility and the ability to run DirectX and OpenGL games.

    If you got the latest iMacs, Parallels should just run as fast any PC out there costing $1500 or less. It is hard to explain unless you experience it yourself. I can’t imagine using Parallels on upcoming 8-core Mac Pros next year. It’s just awesome.

    Parallels is available for a 1 month full trial. so give it a spin. It will not repartition your HD as Boot Camp does so if you don’t like it, take the thing to the trash can…

    Robomac had this to say on Sep 27, 2006 Posts: 846
  • Ah, the difference is Robo, you paid for Parallels. I might not have even looked at Q if Parallels didn’t *kernel panic* my Core 2 Duo.

    As I said, don’t pay for Parallels (unless you already have) until you’ve looked at Q.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Sep 27, 2006 Posts: 1209
  • Parallels needs build 1908 in order to work on the newest Mac. http://forums.parallels.com/showthread.php?s=143b34d62fc37fa5d60257d51bc62d98&t=4487

    I am using this, and although XP’s installation crashed once, it has not crashed since.

    rbeforee had this to say on Sep 27, 2006 Posts: 1
  • Thanks, rbeforee. I had contacted Parallels support last week, but hadn’t heard back from them.

    That build does indeed work on my Core 2 Duo.

    Robo, you’ll be pleased to know I benchmarked XP (using a simple little prog called Prime Benchmark). The results were:

    - Booted from hard disk: 886091
    - Running in Parallels: 873880
    - Running in Q: 247599

    So yes, Parallels is much faster, but I’d still say check out Q before forking out for Parallels if your needs aren’t too intensive.

    I found XP Q quite usable. Nothing like XP on VPC which was almost unusable.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Sep 27, 2006 Posts: 1209
  • So Q runs on both Power PC and Intel Macs?

    I never upgraded Virtual PC when I went from my G4 to my G5 Power Mac. So Q will let me run Win2k on my G5 Power Mac for free?!! That’s pretty cool.

    On an Intel Mac, I’d probably use Parallels, but for just running QuickBooks 2006 on my Power Mac G5, Q may be just what the doctor ordered.

    Thanks, Chris, for the heads-up!

    matters had this to say on Sep 27, 2006 Posts: 21
  • - Booted from hard disk: 886091
    - Running in Parallels: 873880
    - Running in Q: 247599 -CH

    Thanks for the benchmark, Chris. Now, I know that Parallels is very near native speed. BTW, what are the numbers mean, actually?

    Yah, I was fortunate enough as a Beta tester to get it only for $39. Still, the full retail is only $79. That is not so bad for a fully supported sw. wink

    Robomac had this to say on Sep 27, 2006 Posts: 846
  • I found XP Q quite usable. Nothing like XP on VPC which was almost unusable. -CH

    I agree. My PBG4 crawls when I run Office 2003 on the XP host…almost unusable, definitely, even with almost 1GB of memory set aside (I have 1.5GB on that machine).

    If Q is usable to what you need it for and it’s FREE compared to Parallels, then yah give it a spin. Knock yourself out. You can always uninstall (I hope) when it doesn’t meet your needs.

    Robomac had this to say on Sep 27, 2006 Posts: 846
  • Robo, that benchmark is a simple one that just tests CPU only, running a test using prime numbers. But it is useful for a simple side-by-side of the systems

    Now, Mr Robo, are you daring to suggest that Q is not “fully supported sw” because it’s not a commercial application? I suspect the open source community might take umbrage at that.

    Matters, XP on Q on a PPC is just as slow as Virtual PC. Sorry. smile (Although, i guess it’d be a bit quicker on your G5 than it was on my G4)

    Chris Howard had this to say on Sep 27, 2006 Posts: 1209
  • if your looking—> if you’re looking

    vocaro had this to say on Sep 28, 2006 Posts: 3
  • Here’s a snippet from the Q for OSX’s (http://www.kju-app.org/kju/) disclaimer:

    Please remember: At the present state, QEMU is still considered ALPHA software.

    Most open source projects do feel like never-ending alpha codes where the build numbers seems like eternity to reach an eventful 1.0 stage.

    I, as a matter of fact, do use open source software on almost daily basis in my work and leisure. Three of which - VLC, HandBrake, and Mac The Ripper - help me get my job done (encoding/streaming HD). Those are excellent pieces of FREE software. You just need to be vigilant and read the forums prior to taking a chance on a new build, etc, etc…

    What I mean by “fully supported” is you can call a living individual to spill all your beans and complaints. I doubt an open source software, however greatly designed, can afford live support. As such, using open source means supporting yourself most of the time.

    On open source software, you have to rely upon the software’s support forums to get your fixes. Then it is up to the developers to cook up fixes and updates on their own terms and schedules.

    With the case of Q, they are primarily using a technology that already is deemed a dead horse by virtualization in terms of speed and robustness of the architecture. Even MS gave up on VPC some months ago due to VMWare, Zen Source, and now Paralllels. All of which uses virtualization techniques implemented in the Intel hardware.

    I posted this link in Macitt sometime ago but here it is again: http://www.opensourcemac.org/ These are considered the BEST open source apps for the Mac and OSX. Enjoy! There, you can also go the Windows XP section of the site. Cool!

    Robomac had this to say on Sep 28, 2006 Posts: 846
  • As for the benchmark numbers, if the test is only crunching prime numbers then that means it only testing how fast the guest OS in integer manipulations. Then again, most real-world CPU ops are based on integer calculations anyhow.

    Still, if Zen was available for OSX, I wonder how Q would fare against it?

    Anyway, great numbers, Chris! Now, I feel more vindicated plunking $39 for the sucker. wink

    Robomac had this to say on Sep 28, 2006 Posts: 846
  • OMG, it’s literally taking *hours* to install Win2k on Q. And my Power Mac G5 dual 2 GHz fans have been blowing like crazy the whole time.

    This is not a useful tool for PowerPC-based products.

    matters had this to say on Sep 28, 2006 Posts: 21
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