VirtualBox - The Free Competitor to VMware and Parallels Desktop

I've always had a soft spot for running Linux.  How could anyone not be attracted to the idea of running a complete OS, with office suite, Internet browser, VOiP clients, and virtually everything a computer user needs... for FREE?

Well, part of the problem is that I haven't yet spent enough time delving deeply into Linux and other open source operating systems to really get a feel for how to be productive within them, and how to duplicate the functionality I get from my Mac.  That being said, I'm always feeling compelled to try out new flavors of Linux as they come along, if for no other reason, just to learn about them.

Recently, given the number of virtualization options available for Mac OS X, I decided to give Linux another try.  For those who may not be familiar, virtualization programs allow you to run an entire operating system within a window, as its own entity, safe from the rest of your system.

The two most popular options for Mac are VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop, which are both excellent programs.  I thoroughly tested them both, and liked them both, and although I had some problems with Parallels, they were minor.  Overall, however, I was reluctant to drop the coin on either program, being that each one is well over $50 USD.

After a little searching, though, I hit gold with VirtualBox - an open source virtualization solution.  Of course, the best part about VirtualBox is that it's FREE.  It also runs on Windows, Mac, Linux, and OpenSolaris - making it a great solution for virtually everyone!  I've been enjoying it so much, I wanted to share a little bit of my experience with this program, and hopefully encourage others to try it!

Setting Up VirtualBox

NOTE:  This installation was performed on a Mac computer.  I'm guessing that the setup in other OS's is similar.

All I had to do was install the program, which on a Mac is quite easy, and run it.  That's it!

Of course, all you've done so far is install it.  The tricky part is getting your first guest OS set up and running properly.  I would first snag a distro of Linux from DistroWatch or another website.  A good one to start with is the newest version of Ubuntu, since it is directly compatible with VirtualBox.

Here's the initial screen that you will see when you set up a new virtual machine.  You'll be able to create a new machine using either an .ISO containing the Linux installation disk, or an installation CD/DVD.  I chose to use an .ISO to save a blank disk :)  You'll be presented with some simple options, such as how much space you'd like your virtual machine to have (I picked the standard 8GB). 

You'll also have a number of options of what OS you'll be installing.

After you go through all of this, you can tweak the options of your virtual machine before booting into it for the first time.  Depending on your setup, I would recommend allocating 1GB of hard-wired RAM to your virtual machine, as well as 32MB of video memory.  (I have a MacBook with 2GB of RAM and a 64MB Intel GPU, so it's exactly half.)

Also ensure that you have the audio set to "Core Audio," else you will not get any sound!

Running VirtualBox

Once you have all this set up, you can boot into your virtual system for the first time.  I chose to install Ubuntu right off the bat, rather than run a LiveCD.  This went smoothly, and after a restart I had a working Ubuntu system!

VirtualBox, like the other virtualization options for Mac, will automatically translate your network connection, so you should be automatically connected to the Internet inside your virtual machine.  I also had sound on the first boot, which you should have as well, if you set the proper sound options.

To gain maximum functionality of VirtualBox, you'll need to install the "Guest Additions."  These will allow you to seamlessly move your mouse pointer from your main OS to your guest OS and back again, along with other enhancements.  One of the coolest features is "Seamless" mode, which allows you to superimpose the Ubuntu toolbar (or whatever OS you're using) onto the Mac interface, as seen in the photo above. Installation in Windows guests is easy (merely executing the file) and on Linux, it's a bit more tricky and calls for a basic Terminal command.


If you're looking for a way to dabble with Linux, or run multiple OS's side by side, VirtualBox is a great option.  Not only is it free, it performs well and is pretty consistent, at least it has been in my week or so of testing.  It's enabling me to enjoy Linux on my Mac with no commitment, no Boot Camp, no hassles.  If you need a professional solution, I would definitely recommend VMware Fusion as the premiere option - but VirtualBox is perfect for dabblers like myself.



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