Virtualization alternative VirtualBox version 4.0.0 released
Parallels and VMware may have the more popular virtualization solutions, but Oracle's free VirtualBox solution may be a useful alternative for those who need to run other operating systems on their Macs.
Topher KesslerMacFixIt Editor
Topher, an avid Mac user for the past 15 years, has been a contributing author to MacFixIt since the spring of 2008. One of his passions is troubleshooting Mac problems and making the best use of Macs and Apple hardware at home and in the workplace.
Oracle has released a new version of VirtualBox, which is a free virtualization solution similar to offerings by Parallels and VMware that was initially developed by Sun Microsystems before Oracle purchased the company. The release is the next major version of the program, and offers a number of enhancements and bug fixes.
The key new features in the program are the following (see the entire changelog):
Installation reorganization into a base package with extensions
Enhanced portability of VMs
New VirtualBox Manager GUI that includes guest previews, sorting of VMs, editing of VM settings, and shortcut options for VMs
Support for more than 2GB RAM on 32-bit host systems (most Intel Macs are 64-bit)
New Intel ICH9 virtual hardware with more PCI enhancements
Intel HD Audio integration
Improved Open Virtualization Format options including archiving, performance bottlenecks, and importing
Options for limiting system resources used by the VM
In briefly testing the new version of VirtualBox, we found the enhancements are nice additions and the program feels more robust and integrated than before; however, there is one feature that is still missing, which is the dynamic allocation of RAM to the virtual machine based on its uses.
When you set the amount of RAM the VM uses, the program will allocate it all at once, which will prevent the RAM from being used by other applications even when it is not being used by the VM. This can result in unneeded performance issues when running multiple VMs on a system with limited RAM. In my brief testing of the new version I attempted to set up a FreeBSD VM with 1.5GB RAM allocated to the VM on my system with 4GB of RAM. VirtualBox began to hang and lag during the installation, eventually failing with a "Bad Media" error. Reducing the amount of RAM allocated to 512MB resulted in a successful installation and a much smoother experience overall.
With dynamic RAM allocation such as that done by Parallels Desktop, you can set the RAM size for the VM, but the program will then only allocate the amount needed to currently run the VM (up to the maximum amount set in the VM settings).
Without any Windows installers available I decided to test the new version of VirtualBox by running FreeBSD as well as the latest Ubuntu distribution, and when RAM allocation was not an issue they ran perfectly well.
Overall, when running and performing installation and setup tasks for these distributions the VM used between 20 and 50 percent of the CPU, and the setup took between about 10 minutes and half an hour to complete, depending on the options set for the installation. The Mac was still quite responsive when performing standard office routines such as browsing the Web, running word processors, e-mail, and calendaring.
In terms of day-to-day virtualization routines, the latest version of VirtualBox should be perfectly fine for running most office programs. Tests on older builds of the software have shown it to be comparable in speed to VMware and Parallels for some tasks, but for more advanced graphics applications the program has lagged behind other options. Recent tests on early beta releases of the 4.0 release show that 3D gaming performance still lags in VirtualBox, but then again if you are looking for a good Windows gaming experience your best bet would be to run Windows natively in Boot Camp.