3.0: Free Virtualizer Is Almost Grown Up
by Alan Zisman (c)
published in Low
July 13 Mac2Windows
users tend to feel (with justice) that the Mac OS is the best desktop
operating system available. Nevertheless, there are times when they
might have need for software that is only available for some other
operating system - Linux or even (gasp!) Windows.
may want to use a Mac but need to create and test code designed for
other operating systems. Web designers need to see how their pages look
in a variety of browsers - both for the Mac and elsewhere. Some users
may have data files that require specific applications - Microsoft
Access database files and Microsoft Publisher page design files, for
instance, require applications only included in the Windows versions of
Then there are games.
For whatever reason, many loyal Mac users need access to something else
some of the time.
Lots of Options
move to Intel-based systems in 2006 gave Mac users more ways to run
Windows, Linux, and other PC operating systems and applications on
their Macs. For instance, Apple's Boot Camp lets Mac users set up their
systems to dual-boot between Mac OS X and Windows XP or later.
a Mac directly to a PC operating system offers the best performance and
may be the only way to get a graphics-intensive game to run on a Mac.
But when booted to another operating system, a Mac user no longer has
access to all the things that made him or her choose a Mac - Mac OS X
and applications designed for the Mac.
The use of Intel
processors on Macs, however, lets Macs run other operating systems
designed for Intel systems virtually - letting Windows, Linux, or what
have you run on the Mac at the same time that Mac OS X is running.
Two commercial virtualization programs - Parallels
have each gained their fans among Mac users. Each, costing about $80,
runs an assortment of non-Mac PC operating systems virtually on any
Intel Mac. The competition between the two has been fierce: Parallels
was first and gained early market and mindshare among Mac users, and
latecomer VMware Fusion claims to have gained the larger market share.
There is a third virtualization software option, though, with the
advantage of being free.
is available for Mac OS X, Windows, Linux, and Sun Solaris operating
systems ("hosts" in virtualizer jargon). Originally developer InnoTek
was purchased by Sun Microsystems, which has continued development.
VirtualBox is available in two versions; both are free for personal
use. A basic edition has been open sourced under the Gnu Public License
(GPL). The closed-source edition is free for personal use and corporate
evaluation under the VirtualBox Personal Use and Evaluation License:
enterprise users are expected to purchase an enterprise support
contract from Sun.
closed-source edition has only a few differences from the open source
version; the most noteworthy is a virtual USB controller. I suspect
most readers will be using the software for "personal use" and will get
the closed-source edition. On the download page, this is the edition
you see first; the open source version downloads are available, but you
need to scroll "below the fold" to find them.
I wasn't sure which version I had installed, and the About Virtual Box
dialogue box didn't exactly enlighten me.
You may notice that the version number is 3.0. I first looked at
VirtualBox in July 2007
, when it was definitely a work in
progress, lacking important features. When I returned to it just over a
year ago, in May 2008
, the program had progressed to version
1.6 and improved quite a bit.
Installing VirtualBox 3
||Version 3 is a 62 MB download. Setup remains
double-click the installer and follow the instructions. Note that a
dedicated uninstall program is included - somewhat unusual for Mac
software. It is not, however, necessary to uninstall older versions
before installing the new version.
been using an older version of VirtualBox, the current
version will happily continue to use any already-installed "guest"
systems. For this review, I had a previously installed Ubuntu guest and
created a new Windows XP installation.
The basic interface is straightforward, and pretty much unchanged from
the version I looked at last year.
the New button opens a wizard that walks the user through steps to
create a new "guest" virtual system. Again, this is only minimally
changed from last year - you can now pick presets for the upcoming (but
widely available in pre-release) Windows 7, for instance.
the picture, I didn't actually create a Windows 7 virtual machine; my
Mac has 2 GB RAM, and that's not enough to allow either Windows 7 or
Vista and Mac OS X to run happily together. I've got a Windows 7
virtual machine installed using VMware Fusion, but when it's running -
dedicating 1 GB of RAM to it - neither it nor OS X are happy campers).
64-bit operating system versions are supported by
VirtualBox, which is also the case with VMware Fusion and Parallels
choosing the operating system, you're presented with dialogue boxes to
set the amount of RAM used, and then to create the virtual hard disk -
a file on your Mac that the guest operating system thinks is a physical
hard disk. You can choose to make that virtual hard disk dynamic or
fixed - the default is dynamic, meaning that it will only take up as
much space as is actually being used; it will expand as needed up to a
And that's it - only a few choices, and you're ready to go.
you start it up for the first time, though, take a moment to click on
the Settings icon; you can change any of your choices and may want to
fine-tune the defaults.
Some of these settings are new. For
instance, like VMware Fusion (but not Parallels Desktop), VirtualBox
now supports multiple processors - up to 32 CPUs.
sharing is turned on by default. Options let you turn it off or limit
to sharing from the host (i.e. Mac OS X) to the guest (i.e., Windows,
etc.) or the reverse. My recommendation: leave it bidirectional - the
3D Video Acceleration is turned off by default - you
might want to experiment with turning this on. None of the
virtualization programs do a great job of supporting 3D video - that's
why gamers are probably best off installing Boot Camp and booting
directly to Windows to play games that are not available for Mac OS X.
new version of VirtualBox does an okay job of supporting OpenGL - as a
result, Linux's Compix eye candy works, for instance. Direct X 8 and 9
support for Windows is "experimental", and there is no Direct X 10
support at this time. As with its commercial competitors, VirtualBox's
3D video support remains a work in progress.
Worth going to in
the settings: Shared Folders. Adding a shared folder - perhaps to your
Mac's Home folder - allows you to access documents saved on your Mac in
your virtual session or to save files to your Mac so that they can be
accessed by your Mac's applications.
Note, however, that the
shared folders aren't necessarily easily accessible in the guest
operating system - in Windows XP, for instance, you can find VirtualBox
Shared Folders listed in My Network Places, and you can "map" your
shared folders, giving them drive letters for access in My Computer,
but you need to know where to look and what to do to make them
Installing a Guest
you're finally ready to start up your newly created virtual system;
you'll need to install an operating system to make it work. You can do
that using a physical install disc (CD or DVD) or an ISO disc image
file. Use the program's Devices menu to mount the image file so it is
recognized as if it were a physical disc.
Pressing F12 at the
beginning of (virtual) bootup lets you choose the boot device. I don't
see an option to boot to a USB device, just the hard drive, CD drive,
floppy disk (!), or network. Too bad.
Installing your choice of Windows, Linux, etc. should work the same as
installing it onto a physical computer.
install, with your virtual system running, it's important to install
VirtualBox's Additions, as with Parallels or VMware. These additions
replace the default video and network drivers and add useful features
like cursor sharing - without this, the mouse is "trapped" within your
virtual session's window, and you need to press the left Cmd key to use
the mouse and keyboard in other Mac programs.
a menu item causes the virtual system to think that the Additions file
is an inserted CD; in Windows, the setup program then runs
automatically. (In order to make use of 3D Video Acceleration in
Windows, the Guest Additions need to be installed while booted to
Windows Safe Mode.)
In Ubuntu 9.04 Linux, I found a CD icon on
the desktop with files for "x86" and 64-bit Linux; the x86 file ran in
the terminal without a hitch, which hadn't been the case doing the same
operation in Parallels Desktop, where I was hindered by Parallels' lack
of support for recent Ubuntu versions.
After installing the
additions, you'll find another neat feature - resizing the virtual
session window changes the screen resolution in the guest operating
system (at least it works in Windows XP and Ubuntu), making it easy to
fit your window to space available on your Mac desktop while having the
guest operating system display at its best. However, it's easy to end
up with odd virtual desktop resolutions.
Desktop and VMware Fusion both include features to break Windows
applications out from the rigid box of a virtual OS window, letting
users integrate them with their Mac desktop. Parallels calls their
feature "Coherence", VMware Fusion's equivalent is called "Unity".
VirtualBox's offers "Seamless mode", and it was usable with both my
Windows and Ubuntu virtual systems.
When chosen, the virtual
system's window disappears, but the Windows taskbar, including start
menu (or the Ubuntu top and bottom bars) remain, floating across the
bottom of the screen just above the Dock. You can open programs; their
windows can be mixed and matched on your Mac desktop with your native
Mac program windows. Frankly, it's not a feature (whether in its
Parallels, VMware, or VirtualBox incarnations) that I'm particularly
A Few Missing Features
me, the big still-missing feature is support for Boot Camp
installations. Both commercial virtualizers recognize a Boot Camp
Windows installation and offer to run it in a virtual session, a nice
way to have the benefits of both Boot Camp (better performance -
especially video performance for games) and virtualization (being able
to run Windows and Mac OS X at the same time) while only requiring
drive space for a single installation.
Also missing is drag and
drop between the Mac and Windows desktops. That's handy sometimes, but
not a deal-killer, in my opinion. With shared folders in place and a
little fussing about, it's possible to put a shortcut to the Mac
desktop on the Windows desktop, for instance, effectively enabling drag
and drop between the two operating system, though not as
straightforward as simply dragging an icon from the Mac desktop and
dropping it into the virtual session window (or vice versa).
than these few features, VirtualBox has pretty much caught up with its
commercial competitors. Performance is pretty snappy, 3D video
acceleration is coming along, and its 64-bit and multiprocessor support
And the price is right.
however, that when you purchase Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion, you
get a license to a Windows antivirus utility as part of the deal. If
you go online, your virtual Window session is just as vulnerable to the
gamut of Windows malware as you would be on a physical Windows computer.
If you install a version of Windows using VirtualBox, you'll have to
get your own antivirus and other security software. AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition
is a good choice. (Widows Defender, Microsoft's free antivirus program,
is included with Vista and is also available for Windows XP SP2.)