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A Fourth Way to Run Windows Programs on Your Macintosh: VirtualBox

written by: eastman•edited by: Michael Dougherty•updated: 8/11/2008

Most computer “experts” will claim that Windows users have a wider variety of programs to choose from. Actually, I could argue the opposite. In fact, I will contend that Macintosh users have the widest variety of programs to choose from.

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    I use a Macintosh computer most of the time, but I also recognize that many popular programs are written only for Windows. To be sure, most computer “experts” will claim that Windows users have a wider variety of programs to choose from.

    Actually, I could argue the opposite. In fact, I will contend that Macintosh users have the widest variety of programs to choose from. Anyone using a modern Intel Macintosh computer manufactured in the past two or three years can run all the Macintosh programs as well as all of today's Windows programs. Try that on your Windows computer! Yes, Macintosh users have a wider variety of programs to choose from than do Windows users. All they need is a modern Macintosh laptop or desktop system with the Macintosh operating system, appropriate virtualization software, and a copy of Windows.

    Apple includes a free Macintosh program called BootCamp that allows you to boot your Macintosh computer into either the Windows operating system or the Macintosh operating system. However, BootCamp will not allow you to operate both operating systems at the same time. I tried BootCamp but quickly discarded it as being too limited for my use.

    I have been using an $80 program called Parallels on my MacBook laptop that allows simultaneous operation of both operating systems. I first boot the Macintosh as normal and then boot up Windows as a “slave” operating system that can run at the same time. I can run most any Windows program at the same time that I run Macintosh programs, word processors, web browsers, and other applications. In fact, it is even easy to copy-and-paste text and graphics from Windows programs to Macintosh programs or vice versa.

    A similar program is VMware's Fusion, also available for about $80. Like Parallels, Fusion also requires a copy of Windows. Both of these programs will operate with any version of Windows, including the latest Windows Vista. They will even allow you to load the old Windows 3.1 version or any newer version. Both products also allow you to load and operate MS-DOS, Linux, OS/2, BeOS, OpenBSD, or other PC-based operating systems on your Macintosh. If you have enough memory and fast enough processors, you can even run three or more operating systems simultaneously!

    Using Parallels or Fusion virtualization software is a great way to squeeze two computers into one: you can use Windows and Macintosh programs simultaneously while using only one computer: a Macintosh. Now another virtualization program has entered the marketplace, and this one is very price-competitive: FREE!

    VirtualBox is a newer product produced by Sun Microsystems. VirtualBox works well and has most, but not all, the power of Parallels and Fusion. The VirtualBox application is a 21-megabyte binary file and it runs quickly. Compare that to Parallels' hefty 88 megabytes and Fusion's huge 171-megabyte file sizes. VirtualBox uses the standard Apple Installer, and I found it to have a very clean user interface.

    On the downside, VirtualBox does not yet support USB ports, and the networking software only performs basic network access. The software does not yet have the capability to share its own files on a network in the manner of the other products mentioned earlier. However, the developers expect to add those functions soon.

    VirtualBox should be able to run any version of Windows. Once both VirtualBox and Windows have been installed on your Macintosh, you should be able to install and use most any Windows programs.

    I downloaded and installed VirtualBox easily. I decided to install Windows XP Pro on the Macintosh, using a Windows CD that I had available. I first launched the VirtualBox installer. The installation and configuration of VirtualBox was so simple on a Mac Mini that I was able to complete it in a minute or so.

    Next, I launched VirtualBox and then started the installation of Windows. The Windows installation required a lot longer time, about 45 minutes. Of course, it requires the same amount of time when installing on a PC. Nothing is different when installing on a Macintosh.

    When trying to install Windows XP as the guest operating system, you must press the F8 key to accept the Microsoft Terms of Usage early in the installation process. However, VirtualBox wouldn’t let me for some strange reason. Pressing the F8 key had no effect. Admittedly, I do not use a standard Macintosh keyboard, and that may have been the cause of the problem. After poking around for a bit, I pressed Function Lock and then pressed the F8 key. It worked!

    Nothing else unusual happened; the F8 key was the only abnormality that I experienced. I watched the same screens that I have seen many time before when installing Windows XP. The only difference this time is that those screens were being displayed inside a Macintosh window. It was a bit amusing to watch Windows XP Pro's normal installation screens running in a window on the Macintosh system.

    Once completed, I had a fully working Windows installation on the Mac Mini desktop computer. Windows can operate inside a Macintosh window or in full-screen mode. I happened to use Windows XP Pro, but Sun Microsystems reports that VirtualBox also works with Windows Vista, Windows 98, and Windows ME, as well as all other versions of Windows.

    I have now used VirtualBox for several weeks and am pleased with it. I do not have the audio working just yet and, as expected, the USB ports are not available to Windows. Such limitations are common with beta software. I have installed several Windows programs. So far, they all work perfectly. In fact, they seem to work the same on VirtualBox as they do on Windows. Not bad for free software! (A copy of non-free Windows is still required, however.)

    If you would like to read more about VirtualBox or to download it and use it yourself, go to http://www.virtualbox.org. Note that the company gives away virtualization software for several operating systems. Make sure that you grab the Macintosh OS X version.

    In short, Macintosh users now have no less than four different Windows solutions to choose from:

    1. BootCamp, a free but simple solution from Apple. BootCamp is limited in that it does not allow simultaneous operation of both operating systems. For more information about BootCamp, look at http://www.apple.com/macosx/features/bootcamp.html
    2. Parallels, the $80 program that I use on a MacBook laptop computer. For more information, look at http://www.parallels.com.
    3. VMware Fusion, another $80 program that works well. For more information about Fusionlook at http://www.vmware.com/products/fusion/
    4. VirtualBox, the free solution from Sun Microsystems that I am now using on my desktop Mac. For more information about VirtualBox, look at http://www.virtualbox.org.

    Any one of the above solutions will allow Macintosh owners to use most any Windows applications. Again, you now can have two boxes in one: Windows and Macintosh. Indeed, Macintosh owners do have the best of both worlds.