July 29, 2009

Fun with VirtualBox

 Originally Published on Igneous Quill

For several months now my family and I have been off of Microsoft Windows. I installed Ubuntu 8.10 on the home desktop (click here to see why dual boot didn't work in this case) and the computer I use at work is an iMac. I now also have a laptop running Ubuntu 9.04. Our only contact with Windows has been at the homes of friends. Still, my 7 year old son has complained occasionally about wanting to download games that only run in Windows. Sure, they are probably laden with spyware and adware, but all he knows is that there are things he could be playing but can't. That's where my fun with VirtualBox began.

Someone will ask if I tried Wine, an application which enables users to run Windows programs on computers using other platforms. The answer is yes, of course I did, but it never worked correctly. Games especially froze up, generally before they even started. While Wine may be good for running Excel on a Linux computer (but then, why not just use OpenOffice.org?) and some other office software, from what I have seen Wine is not yet in a place where it really solves the problem for a majority of applications.

Not long ago I used VirtualBox OSE on my laptop to try out the Android Live CD, so it was fresh on my mind as I dug out the re-install disks for Windows XP that came with our desktop. The tag with the Windows product key is still on the case, so I knew I had everything I need on that end of things. I wasn't sure how well Windows would work in this environment, or how VirtualBox would handle it.

After inserting the CD (no reboot, of course) I went through the steps on VirtualBox to set up a new machine. If you don't have a copy of VirtualBox, you can download it here or from the Ubuntu repositories (check Synaptic Package Manager for it). Once everything was in place, I started the machine. It read the CD, just as though it were a computer booting up, and began the install process.It's funny how much the Windows XP install screen resembles the blue screen of death. Installing Windows takes far longer than Ubuntu. The former took me around an hour or so, not counting the half hour of frustration I spent calling Microsoft's automated product registration line the next day, while the latter takes all of 20 minutes, if that much.

When finally it was installed I still had to do some tweaking. Most importantly I had to install the "Guest Additions" so I could expand the screen out to full size and I also had to turn the sound on in both VirtualBox for that machine and verify it in Windows itself. Internet Explorer 6 is what came on the CD, so I upgraded that right away. My wife complained about the ugly Windows field in the desktop background, and since I figured my son would be the one using it the most, I found a cartoon penguin flying with a jet pack. The following is how it looks in full screen mode:

Sitting at the monitor you would have no idea that Windows isn't running fully installed on the computer. It is installed in VirtualBox and behaves so far as I can see just as it would if it were directly installed on the desktop.

Having done all that during some free time over a couple of days (remember, I had to make the registration call and do a little customizing) I realized I could do something similar on my Mac at work.

Although I'm glad my workstation is a Mac and not a Windows PC, I'm not a fan of Mac. I don't like how it looks or functions. A couple of my regular tasks at work requires it, though, so there I am. With VirtualBox I was able to get Linux Mint 7 set up in about 15 minutes during a break. Here's a screenshot of it full screen on the Mac:

This was taken after I had already changed the desktop background and icon style. The menu is open so you can see how that looks. Again, just like Windows XP in VirtualBox on my home computer, when Linux Mint is set to full screen you really would not know that it wasn't the primary OS on the system.

VirtualBox is great for running software that isn't compatible with your primary OS, and for trying out different distros as full installs rather than mere live CDs. I'm having fun with it and finding it to be very useful.

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