VirtualBox for Mac Now a Virtual Contender
by Alan Zisman (c)
published in Low
21 July 2008 Mac2Windows
Mac users who need to run Windows are aware that with the switch to
Intel processors, the Mac now has a variety of options. Apple has
provided Boot Camp, offering the option for Leopard-users to choose
Windows or Mac OS X at startup. And commercial virtualizers Parallels
Desktop and VMWare Fusion let Intel Mac users install a wide range of
PC operating systems and run them - or a Boot Camp Windows installation
- in a virtualized session as a program within OS X.
There's a free virtualization alternative, VirtualBox
which is available for Mac OS X as well as for a range of PC operating
systems. But when I looked at it last
it was a work in progress - with the then-current Mac version offering
fewer features than the Windows version. The Mac version lacked support
for networking, for instance, meaning no Internet access (among other
things). In the end, while it ran Windows and other PC operating
systems, the lack of networking and Internet support was a deal-breaker
for me; it just couldn't do what I would want from a PC running
(virtually) on my Mac.
One Year Better
a year can make a big difference in software development. Over that
time, the VirtualBox project gained the support of Sun Microsystems,
and a new version (1.6) was released in May 2008, promising - among
other enhancements - "new Mac support". So it's time for another look.
is available in standard binary versions (for Mac OS X, Windows, a
variety of Linux distributions, and Solaris/OpenSolaris) and in source
code form in an open source VirtualBox Open Source Edition. The binary
versions come ready to install and includes "closed source" proprietary
code for a number of functions including the virtual USB controllers
and remote desktop protocol. These versions are free for home and
personal use. Note that version 1.6 is the first Mac version to be
described as out of beta; the current 1.6.2 Mac version is a 28 MB
Like commercial virtualizers, Parallels Desktop and
VMWare Fusion, and like Apple's Boot Camp, VirtualBox is only usable on
Intel Macs; owners of older PowerPC Macs will have to use slower
emulation software like GuestPC
if they need to run Windows on their Macs.
Installing VirtualBox on
takes up some 56 MB in your Mac's Applications folder - of course,
drive space needed will skyrocket once you start creating virtual hard
drives. Start it up and click the New toolbar button. You'll be walked
through the process of creating a virtual PC on your Mac. I was going
to install Ubuntu Linux 8.04.
was first asked to give my new system a name and select its type from a
fairly comprehensive dropdown list that includes Windows versions from
3.1 through Vista and Windows Server 2008, OS/2 (various versions),
many Linux distributions (and generic Linux kernel versions), BSD,
Solaris, and even plain old DOS.
Pick an amount of RAM to
dedicate; the default for Ubuntu is 256 MB - I increased that to 519
MB. Then create a virtual hard drive. There are a few steps to this - I
went with the default of creating a dynamically expanding image, which
saves space by only requiring as much space on your Mac's hard drive as
is actually used at any given moment, up to a maximum that you set. I
also accepted the default 8 GB dynamic image; but at the moment, it's
only actually using about 3.5 GB of drive space.
Once you've made those choices, you're ready to click Start and install
your virtual PC's operating system.
wait! Before starting it up (and installing your operating system), you
probably should poke around the default settings of your new virtual
system. You can do that either by clicking the Settings button or by
scrolling through the Details listed in the right-hand pane in the
VirtualBox window, and clicking on individual items.
start with, check the CD/DVD-ROM item; if you are planning to install
from a CD or DVD, make sure the Mount CD/DVD Drive item is checked and
is pointing to your optical drive. Alternatively, if you've downloaded
an image file, for instance, for a Linux distribution, you can select
the ISO Image File item, pointing it to your image file's name and
of the other defaults are worth a look, as well. The Audio default
enables audio, by default virtualizing an AC97 sound card; you can
switch that to a Sound Blaster card if you prefer - or if your OS lacks
AC97 drivers, like Windows 2000. The defaults also use a "null audio
driver" - the result is that your virtualized PC operating system
detects audio hardware but doesn't actually make any sounds. Maybe you
want that. If not, switch from the null audio driver to the option
labeled "Core Audio".
network adapter is enabled by default; you can choose between several
network adapter models, again handy if your operating system lacks
built-in support for the default model. Some trial and error may be
required - you can always change it after installing your operating
system, though your virtual PC needs to be shut down to make any
USB Is Off by Default
controllers are disabled by default; I turned on the USB and USB 2.0
controllers. With USB enabled, you still need to click on the Devices
menu - after starting up your virtual session - then click on USB
Devices to enable specific hardware like printers.
also set a shared folder, browsing to my home folder on my Mac. When
you choose a folder to be shared, a note appears pointing out that this
feature requires Guest Additions to be installed (post OS-installation)
and telling you how to make use of the shared folder in Windows and
Linux installations. In fact, I lacked the Linux-smarts required to
actually make this feature work in my Ubuntu installation.
Installing Your Guest
Finally, it was time to insert my Ubuntu installation CD and click on
the green Start arrow. A Sun splash screen popped up as my new virtual
PC started its boot process.
Within a few seconds, it started reading the Ubuntu CD to begin
half hour or so later, I had a working Ubuntu Linux session. Unlike
last year's VirtualBox version, networking worked, meaning I had
Internet access right out of the (virtual) box. As well, that meant
that moments after startup, Ubuntu informed me that there were 236
updates that it wanted to install.
The Importance of Guest
there was one task I wanted to do first; like commercial virtualizers
Parallels and Fusion - and like older Virtual PC or Guest PC -
VirtualBox includes Additions, software to integrate the virtualized
operating system with its host and to provide better-than-standard
video and other functions.
For instance, prior to installing
these Guest Additions, when you're working in the virtual session, your
mouse and keyboard are captured by that session and not readily
available if you want to click in another program window - or even to
access the VirtualBox menus. You need to press a key - by default the
left Cmd key - to pass control back to the host system.
the Additions starts off easily; just click on the Devices menu (after
pressing the left Cmd key so you can move the mouse there!) and choose
Install Guest Additions. This opens a window to a pre-made virtual CD
disc, containing software for Windows and Linux. There's even an OS/2
version. Installing the Windows version seems straightforward, though I
didn't try it. Software installations in Linux can be trickier. Here's
what I did:
- I dragged the VBoxLinuxAdditions.run file to the
- I opened a Terminal window and typed: CD \Desktop
to go to the desktop
- In order to run the Additions file, I typed: sudo
worked - sudo is needed in Ubuntu to run as an administrator; you'll be
asked for your password. (Other Linux systems may require root access;
in Ubuntu, you use your personal password instead.) And the ./ is
needed to make the command work, though I don't really understand why.
Just trust me!
I could seamlessly move the mouse between the guest operating system
window and the rest of the Mac without problem. And enhanced video
drivers allowed my Ubuntu session to support a higher screen resolution
- up to 1280 x 800 (though I ran it at 1280 x 768, which fit better on
my 17" iMac desktop).
After clicking on the program's Devices
menu's USB Devices item and enabling the printer plugged into my Mac, I
was able to set Ubuntu to print to that printer without problem; it was
also able to locate and print to the printer shared by a Windows system
on my home network.
I lack the Linux smarts to mount the shared
folder on my Mac, despite the hints given in the Settings dialogue.
Since I have file sharing enabled on the Mac, however, I was able to
connect to the same location using Ubuntu's standard Connect to Server
option. That's handy since, unlike Parallels or Fusion, you can't just
drag files between the Mac and guest desktops (even after installing
the Guest Additions); this way, I can move files between the Mac and
can run your guest operating system in a window or full-screen; after
installing the Guest Additions, Windows guest OS's can also run in a
"Seamless Mode" that apparently displays running programs in the Dock
(I didn't have Windows installed and hence lacked the opportunity to
Unlike Parallels or VMWare Fusion, VirtualBox does
not allow you to access a Boot Camp installation in a virtual session -
it needs dedicated virtual hard drives. And its seamless mode isn't as
sophisticated as Parallel's Coherence Mode or Fusion's Unity feature,
both of which make the operating system window seem to disappear,
leaving free-floating application windows (this only works with
Windows). And while both Parallels and Fusion offer limited DirectX
support, allowing users to run some (but not all) 3D Windows games,
VirtualBox lacks DirectX support entirely.
But VirtualBox for
Mac has grown up; while it lacks every feature available in its
commercial virtualizer competitors, it offers good performance,
networking, and USB support. It should give many users the ability to
get work done in Windows, Linux, or other PC operating systems without
having to leave the comfort of OS X.
With that, the additions started installing. Afterwards, a restart was