Want to test Vista risk-free? Try virtualization

Three virtualization programs let users try out Microsoft's new operating system without having to formally install it

Living together is a pretty accepted way for modern couples to test a relationship before marriage. So shouldn't there be a way for modern computer users to test Microsoft's Windows Vista before making the deep commitment of buying and installing it on their PCs?

There is, using virtualization software. Virtualization is one of the hottest server-side trends today. The technology lets IT managers run multiple applications, with each encapsulated in its own "virtual machine" -- a setup that protects them from crashing one another and minimizes security risks. By letting servers safely run multiple workloads, IT managers can save bucketloads on hardware purchases.

Maximizing CPU usage is less important for desktop users. But virtualization can still be useful, letting users try out applications and even operating systems without having to formally install them.

There are three main virtualization options, all of which support Vista to varying degrees. All are free or offer free trial versions. We take a quick look at each, and then explain issues potential Vista testers face now that the operating system is completed but not yet released to the public.

VMware Server and Player: Feature-rich and free

Longtime virtualization market leader VMware Inc. offers both its VMware Server and VMware Player products to users for free. Using both products is necessary, says Srinivas Krishnamurti, director of product management at VMware, since VMware Server actually creates the Vista "guest" -- also called a "virtual machine" -- in a process very similar to installing the operating system on a PC. Users then install VMware Player on either Linux or any version of Windows up to and including XP, to run the Vista virtual machine.

Going with VMware has several advantages, says Krishnamurti. Users can create Vista virtual machines for either 32- or 64-bit CPUs, and those with multicore PCs can allocate up to two CPUs worth of processing power to a single virtual machine. VMware also lets users create a Vista virtual machine once and run it on different PCs without tweaking. Finally, Krishnamurti claims that VMware, as the veteran in the marketplace, handles device drivers very well. "We've tested this pretty extensively," he said. "But if you plug in some random USB device, and it doesn't work, we want to know about it."

Krishnamurti does admit that the latest official versions of its Server and Player products support only USB 1.1, though beta versions out now do offer USB 2.0 support. Those updates will be released officially by the first half of next year, probably after Vista's Jan. 30 launch to consumers.

Parallels Workstation: Fast and furious

Another offering is Parallels Workstation for Windows & Linux from Parallels Inc. The Renton, Wash.-based firm made a splash earlier this year when Workstation's sister product for the Mac was the first to allow Intel Mac owners to run Windows simultaneously with OS X. (VMware has subsequently released a similar product, while Apple's Boot Camp lets users run either Windows or OS X, but not both at the same time.)

Parallels announced last week that the latest update to Workstation, Version 2.2, will run Vista virtual machines. Workstation 2.2, which leverages virtualization technology built into newer AMD and Intel processors for faster performance, will be able to run Vista Ultimate and Vista Business, which cost $399 and $299, respectively.

Parallels Workstation itself costs $49.99, though it can be downloaded for a free 15-day trial.

But why pay for Parallels when VMware comes for free? For one thing, Benjamin Rudolph, marketing manager for Parallels, claims his company's software runs much faster. "We think their product is a dump truck and ours is like a pickup truck," he said. "Ninety-nine out of a hundred times, we offer all that customers need."

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