VirtualBox 2.0.6 review

Those who want to run Windows (and other operating systems) on an Intel Mac are probably familiar with Parallels Desktop for Mac and VMware Fusion 2, the leading OS X virtualisation solutions. VirtualBox from Sun Microsystems is a third option that, unlike its competitors, is completely free.

If you want to use your Boot Camp partition as a Windows virtual machine (VM) or play DirectX 3D games inside your Windows VM, you’ll need Parallels or Fusion – VirtualBox doesn’t support either of these features. Neither does VirtualBox the use of more than one virtual CPU. If you don’t need any of the above requirements, VirtualBox is a very good (if somewhat feature-limited) virtualisation solution, and incredible value given that it’s free.

VirtualBox supports about 35 different operating systems, including Windows Server 2003 and 2008, and many varieties of Linux. When running the Microsoft Office suite within a Windows XP Pro SP3 VM, we found the speed of VirtualBox to be fine; documents and spreadsheets opened quickly, and scrolling speed wasn’t an issue. We also tested OpenOffice in Ubuntu Linux 8.0.4 and Fedora Core 9, and found that basic office functions worked just as well in both Linux variants.

For a more strenuous test, we played some high-definition 720p Windows Media videos in the Windows XP Pro VM. These videos played reasonably well on a 2.66GHz Mac Pro, with no visual distortion and just a bit of choppiness when viewed in full-screen mode. The videos did, however, put quite a strain on CPU usage. We played the same videos on a 15in 2.6GHz MacBook Pro (non-unibody), to see how it compared with the Mac Pro, and the results were about the same: no dropped frames, a bit of choppiness, and relatively high CPU usage.

Like Parallels and Fusion, VirtualBox includes a set of extensions (for both Windows and Linux) that improves graphic and mouse performance. Installing the tools is done via a menu item in Windows and Linux, though you must also use a Terminal window to complete the job in Linux. When installed, the mouse cursor moves seamlessly from Windows to OS X and back, and you can resize the VM’s desktop by dragging the corner. Resizing was slow on both test machines, but after it redrew it looked fine.

We were impressed with VirtualBox’s snapshot (backup) capabilities. Although it lacks the automated snapshots found in Fusion 2 and Parallels 4, you can create multiple snapshots, and those snapshots are small: a snapshot of our 10GB Windows XP Pro VM, for instance, took up just 120MB of drive space. Thankfully, we didn’t have to use any snapshots, as we only experienced one VM-related crash (Fedora Core 9 crashed while running GIMP, an image manipulation program), and that one didn’t cause any permanent issues in the VM.

What’s missing?

If there’s one area where you notice the difference between VirtualBox and the paid-for alternatives, it’s in what we call the niceties. These are the aspects of the programs that make working with VMs easier, and it’s in this area that VirtualBox falls short of the competition.

VirtualBox offers Seamless mode, which is much like Fusion’s Unity or Parallels’ Coherence modes, in that it hides the VM’s desktop and leaves its windows intermingled with the OS X windows. However, unlike the others, all windows in Seamless mode are on one ‘layer’. If you enter Seamless mode with both Internet Explorer and Outlook running, for instance, then click on one of those windows, both will come forward. Similarly, you can’t minimise a Windows (or Linux) window to the OS X dock, nor will Seamless mode work with multiple monitors. (Full-screen mode has the same one-monitor restriction.)

You can’t drag and drop files or folders from a VM to OS X, nor can you launch VM apps from OS X (or vice versa). Setting up shared folders is possible, but it’s less intuitive than it is in Fusion or Parallels. Finally, VirtualBox won’t automatically remap your keyboard shortcuts, so you’ll have to remember to press control-C to copy, instead of C-C.

OUR VERDICT

If your virtualisation needs don’t include top-shelf performance, DirectX support, or multiple CPU support, VirtualBox is a viable alternative to Fusion or Parallels. You’ll spend a bit more time setting things up, and you may miss some of the niceties of Fusion and Parallels. Once you’re up and running, however, VirtualBox’s VMs work quite well, and we found them more than capable of handling routine tasks in both Windows and Linux.

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