January 13, 2006

First look: VMware Player

Author: Tina Gasperson

Last month VMware released a free product called VMware Player. With the Player and one of the free images that run within it, users can explore new operating systems and environments without going through the inconvenience of formatting or partitioning a hard drive or configuring unfamiliar software. I tested the player by running Ubuntu Linux on a Windows host, and got good results with only a few glitches.

I'm typing this review from AbiWord in Ubuntu Linux on my Windows XP machine, which has an AMD Athlon XP 3200 chip, a 2.21GHz processor, and 384MB of RAM. A virtual machine, which according to VMware's definition is a virtualized x86 PC environment on which a guest operating system and associated application software can run, makes this arrangement possible. The VMware Player runs in Windows or Linux, and can host any operating system or environment configured as a virtual machine image.

VMware is offering the Player, a scaled-down version of its Workstation product, free of cost, along with a virtual machine image it calls a Browser Appliance. This is a minimally featured Ubuntu Linux 5.10, optimized for browsing, that automatically starts up a copy of Firefox 1.0.7. There isn't much else included with the operating system image in the way of applications, other than a range of system administration tools, basic text file viewers, and the GAIM instant messenger client. It looks as if VMware is planning to market the Browser Appliance as a safe and private way to surf the Internet, without fear of catching viruses or spyware or leaving browsing tracks in the cache, since the appliance can be set to revert to its original state every time it shuts down.

But no true geek is going to be content with just a Web browser. So, pretending to be a true geek, one of the first things I did was start installing other applications. I could have downloaded one of the full OS images conveniently provided at VMware's site, such as Fedora Core, Minix, or OpenBSD. But it was more fun to do it myself. This stripped-down version of Ubuntu includes a copy of gnome-app-install, which lists available applications for me to select, then downloads and automatically installs my selections. I installed games, office productivity software, Evolution groupware, the XChat IRC client, and even the GRAMPS Genealogy System.

But first things first. After downloading the compressed VMware Player installation package and the zipped Browser Appliance image, it was a simple matter to install the player and unzip the image. When I ran the Player, it asked me to locate the desired image file, opened it, and started booting up Ubuntu Linux just as if Windows weren't already running on the hardware. Once Ubuntu was running, it automatically opened the Firefox browser.

I found that the Ubuntu image ran better if I remembered to close all Windows applications and terminate as many processes as I could before firing up the virtual machine. The Web browser ran smoothly and quickly, loading pages with no hesitation, almost as though they were locally cached. My Windows version of Firefox isn't as good, and that's on the host. XChat worked flawlessly, as did Evolution, AbiWord, and all the other programs I installed. I was even able to save files on the virtual drive and retrieve them after rebooting the virtual machine. The whole environment had the authentic look and feel and the quick response of GNOME on Linux.

The virtual machine runs in its own window on the host desktop. You can switch from the virtual machine (or guest) to the host (the operating system running on the actual hardware) just by clicking outside the window. But be careful about switching if you are concerned with keeping the Internet connection within the virtual machine alive; the player seemed to drop the connection if I switched back and forth between guest and host too many times, and I could fix that only by either rebooting the host machine or opening a terminal within the virtual machine, gaining root access, and shutting down and restarting the network card.

The audio worked fine, and I had no problems with the mouse or keyboard. The player "saw" my CD-ROM drive and various media slots, as well as a USB-connected digital camera, but had a hard time mounting them. I wasn't able to get them working with the virtual machine during the limited time I spent trying to configure it, which would be a problem if I decided to work exclusively from a virtual machine environment for any length of time. VMware does not offer any official technical support for the free player, but the community has rallied around this project and provides answers, experience, support, and even virtual machine images to download in the forums at VMware.com.

I heartily recommend the VMware player to those who have never used Linux before but always wanted to try it, and to people who prefer to browse the Internet and run some basic applications on Linux, but who find themselves in a situation where they must run Windows.

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