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TUAW Labs: VirtualBox

VirtualBox LogoRunning other operating systems on a Mac is nothing new, and with the advent of Intel-based Macs we've seen a flood of virtual machine software: Parallels Desktop for Mac, VMWare Fusion, and Codeweavers CrossOver Mac. These products enable you to run Mac OS X and another operating system simultaneously.

For many of my consulting clients who are switching from PCs and who already have a licensed copy of Microsoft Windows, I've been using Sun's Open Source xVM VirtualBox product. Why? xVM VirtualBox works very well and it's free.

If you're new to virtual machines and want to know how to do this, follow along as I set up a Windows Vista virtual machine on an "old" 2GHz Intel Core Duo 20" iMac.

This post is continued after the break.

To begin setting up a virtual machine on your Mac, you need to download xVM VirtualBox. Head over to virtualbox.org, read all about this Open Source project, and then download your copy of xVM VirtualBox for Mac OS X from the download page (see below):



Once you've downloaded the app, install it on your Mac, then get ready to build your virtual machine. Launch VirtualBox (see below), then click the New button in the upper left portion of the application window to launch the New Virtual Machine Wizard.



Click Next, and then give your Virtual Machine a name (below). For obvious reasons, I'm calling mine "Vista." Select the OS Type from the pull-down -- you have a choice of 34 operating systems you can create virtual machines for, including such favorites as DOS, OS/2 Warp, Netware, and Sun's own Open Solaris. Click Next again.



As you can see below, now you need to select how much of your precious RAM you want to give up for the virtual machine. Most modern OS's run better with more RAM, so I'm going to give Vista a full 1 GB to play with. Once you have set the slider to your RAM amount or typed in the amount of RAM in MB, click Next.



It's time to select a hard disk image to be used as the virtual machine boot disk. If you're creating a new virtual machine from scratch like I am, just click the New button. Poof! A new wizard appears:



This is the Create New Virtual Disk wizard. Click Next.



Like many of the other virtual machine tools for Mac OS X, VirtualBox can build either dynamically expanding images that grow along with your virtual machine, or static images that keep their original size. Here I'm going to choose to have a dynamically expanding image. Clicking Next, I'm asked for the name and initial size of the disk image.



I keep the name Vista for my image name, and I'm selecting a 20 GB initial image size. I've also chosen to store this on my 1 TB external hard disk. After validating my settings, I click the Finish button to create the virtual disk image.



Now I'm back to the Create New Virtual Machine wizard with my new virtual disk image selected. Once again, I need to validate my settings, and then I click Finish to start loading my new virtual machine.



As you can see in the screenshot above, the virtual machine is powered off and the CD/DVD-ROM drive is disabled. I'll pop into the settings on my virtual machine and change the initial boot order to CD/DVD-ROM (so it loads Vista from the installation DVD), then Hard Disk. I'll also mount my Mac's SuperDrive so the virtual machine becomes aware of it. With that done, it's time to power up the virtual machine the first time. To do this, I click the Start button.



Whooops! One more screen to look at (see screenshot above). VirtualBox wants me to know that I'm going to be giving over control of my Mac keyboard to the virtual machine while it's running, and that I'll have to press the left Command key to get control back. I acknowledge this message, and then Vista begins to load.

It actually shows me a boring black screen initially, but then a configuration screen appears. I select the language, time and currency formats, and keyboard or input method, and then click the Next button. When the next screen appears, I click the Install Now button.



As you can see in the screenshot above, you must have a properly licensed version of most operating systems in order to install them. Here, Vista is asking me for the 25-character Product Key that will activate the OS. I type it in, then click the Next button.

I accept the license terms for Vista, then click Next. I am asked if I want to do an upgrade or custom install of Vista -- if it's a new install, I can only do a custom install. Once I've selected custom, I need to select my virtual drive image as the target for the installation (as seen below), and then click Next.



The installation is on its way! The SuperDrive starts spinning like a madman at this point, and the Vista installer (below) shows that progress is being made.



After a while (I think it took about 30 minutes in my case), the installation is complete and you just need to create a user name, enter a password, and then choose a desktop background and computer name:



Vista then asks you to set up security tools, and you can then set your time zone and the current time. A click or two later you're using Vista in a new virtual machine.

Vista does a quick check to see what kind of performance your computer has so it can determine what sorts of goodies to deliver for you. On my first boot, I noticed that I had no sound and no network connection with my virtual machine, so I shut it down, went into the setting for the virtual machine, enabled sound, and changed the network adapter to an Intel model so it would work with Vista. On the second boot, I had sound, a network connection, and I was able to then download my browser of choice (Firefox 3.0.1) and set the home page to a good starting point (see below).



Windows Vista found a few new drivers for me to install, some of which were recommended by the xVM VirtualBox team. All in all, the setup and operation of xVM is as easy and fast as either Parallels Workstation or VMWare Fusion, both of which I've used extensively. In terms of performance, I did not run any benchmarks but it seems slightly faster than a Vista virtual machine running in VMWare Fusion 1.1.2.

While vMX VirtualBox may not have all of the special features that you see in Parallels or VMWare Fusion (i.e., the ability to use Boot Camp partitions, Unity or Coherence modes, etc...), it has several great features -- it's free, it's stable, and it has a small footprint. How small? The application is only 55.6 MB in size, compared to 132.1 MB for VMWare Fusion and 77.9 MB for the Parallels Desktop folder (the actual Parallels application is only 24.1 MB, making it the tiniest footprint of them all).

I'm sure that our readers have plenty of opinions about which virtual machine environment is the best, so be sure to leave a comment and let the battles begin!

Thanks to Matt Emmi and Tony Walla for their input on application size.

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