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Run Windows, Dos or Linux on your Mac

Part 1: Introduction and installation of VirtualBox

Part 2: Install Windows Vista in your VirtualBox

OS X is a great operating system and many people regard it as the best one available on any computer. However, it's also true that there are certain applications and tools that are only available on other operating systems. There are occasions when you might need to use another OS, such as Windows or Linux in order to use one of those tools or applications, or to ensure 100% compatibility with other systems you are connected to. What can you do?

There are several solutions and there's no need to buy another computer with the OS you want to run or to format the Mac's hard disk drive and try to install another OS. There are far simpler solutions that enable you to run a guest operating system without affecting OS X that's already installed on your Mac and running quite happily.

One solution is Boot Camp, which is a utility that is provided with OS X 10.5. It enables you to create a partition on the hard disk drive and to install Windows on it. When you boot up the Mac you can choose which operating system you want to start. It's a great tool and Windows runs exceedingly well, so if you need maximum performance then Boot Camp is the best solution by far.

Sometimes you need to access both OS X and Windows applications and Boot Camp does not permit you to switch from one operating system to the other very easily. You have to shut down and reboot the computer in order to select the other OS. Parallels Desktop is a clever utility that enables you to run Windows within a window on your Mac's OS X desktop. It's an amazing sight being able to run both Windows and OS X apps side by side and to switch from one to the other.

Parallels Desktop is a great way to run Windows within OS X, but it's a commercial product that costs around 50 ($100). Fans of open source software and freeware might be wondering if there's an alternative. There is, it's called VirtualBox and while it may not be quite as clever and feature-packed as Parallels Desktop, it is pretty darned good for a freebie.

A virtual computer

VirtualBox lets you run an operating system within an operating system in a sort of virtual computer environment. It sounds strange thing to do, but VirtualBox is actually a regular OS X program that emulates a standard PC. Retro gamers will be familiar with this idea and they'll have Spectrum and Atari emulators that turn your brand spanking new Mac into an '80s classic computer. VirtualBox is the same idea and it gives you a BIOS (Basic Input Output System), video card, disk drive, sound system, network card, CD/DVD-Rom drive, mouse, and so on. All emulated, of course.

Mac OS X VirtualBox Mac OS X VirtualBox

When you run VirtualBox and emulate a computer you can install an operating system on its virtual hard disk drive, such as various flavours of Linux, or Windows 98, ME, 2000, XP, or Vista. The new operating system runs within the VirtualBox PC emulator, but it works just like the real thing and it can be used as if it was really installed on your computer.

It might be a bit difficult to imagine, but here is a screen shot of Windows Vista running within VirtualBox on a MacBook. In the screen shot Vista is being displayed in a window on the desktop, but there is an option to run it full screen, which makes it even more realistic. In fact, it's hard to tell from the real thing!

You can switch back and forth between OS X and the guest OS, such as Vista, using both operating systems simultaneously and even swap files, copy to the clipboard in one OS and paste it into an application in the other OS, and so on.

You might expect the operating system in VirtualBox to run very slowly, but it is more responsive than you might think. Vista is quite a demanding OS and it isn't exactly fast in VirtualBox, but it is certainly usable. Older or less demanding operating systems will run much quicker in VirtualBox of course.

System requirements

So what do you need to run VirtualBox? The system requirements for VirtualBox are actually quite minimal, but you have to bear in mind the minimum requirements of the OS you are installing, so you only need 64Mb of RAM and 0.5Gb of disk space for Windows 98, but to set up Windows Vista Ultimate or a modern feature-packed version of Linux you'll need at least 512Mb of RAM and 15Gb of disk space.

Don't forget that you are running an OS within an OS, so if you're running Vista in OS X you'll need a minimum of 1Gb of RAM because you must allocate 512Mb to VirtualBox to run Vista and you need 512Mb For OS X. The more powerful a Mac's processor and video card, and the more memory it has the better the guest OS will run. A 1Gb MAc is fine for Windows XP, but 2Gb is recommended for Vista.

It's not essential, but it is useful to have a large screen too, so you can run the guest OS in a reasonably large window. Full screen is an option, but windowed mode is useful because you can switch back and forth between OS X and the guest OS in VirtualBox. (You set the resolution in the guest OS in the same way you normally would and the window size is adjusted accordingly.

If you want to install a guest OS in VirtualBox you will need to have a CD or DVD setup disc. You can download a Linux distro and burn it to a disc for free, but if you plan to run Windows then you will need a full installation disc and not an upgrade version.

Installing VirtualBox

Your first task is to download and install VirtualBox and the free open source software is available at the VirtualBox website.Mac OS X VirtualBox The software was originally developed by a company called Innotek, but it has been passed from company to company, but each time development has continued and it keeps on getting better.

Download it, open the disk image and drag the application to the Mac's Applications folder (there's an uninstall tool provided should you ever want to remove it.). You can now double click it and you're ready to start creating virtual machines.

Create a virtual machine

Mac OS X VirtualBoxClick the New button to create a new virtual machine (you can create as many as you want and have a different operating system running in each one).

The New Virtual Machine Wizard appears and this guides you though the process step by step. You will be prompted to enter a name for the virtual machine and select the operating system from a drop-down list.

Choose the one you want to install and in the next step you can set the amount of memory to allocate. The default may be OK, but if you have lots of memory in your Mac you should increase the memory allocated so that the Virtual machine runs better.

With Windows Vista, for example, 512Mb is only just adequate and it will run much better if you can allocate more, which is perfectly possible with a 2Gb Mac.

You will be prompted to select the boot disk for the new OS - a virtual disk and not a real one. As this is the first time you have used the program you must click the New button and create one before you can select one.

Mac OS X VirtualBoxYou have a choice of a dynamically expanding disk that automatically gets bigger as you need more space, or a fixed size disk that sets aside a specific amount of space on your Mac's hard disk drive for the virtual machine. The first option is best because it minimises disk space usage.

Enter a filename and set the amount of disk space you need, such as 20Gb. Don't forget that it must be big enough to install the operating system and any applications you want to install and run on it.

For example, Windows Vista Ultimate needs 15Gb just to install, but a small Linux installation might only need half that.

That's it, the wizard finishes with a few more clicks and the virtual machine appears in the VirtualBox window. It's initially powered off, but it's ready for you to install an operating system on it.

Go to Part 2: Install an operating system in VirtualBox