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

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Zippier performance was also the assessment of our sister publication InfoWorld in its August review of Parallels Workstation.

Parallels' product suffers from some of the same disadvantages that VMware's does. There is no USB 2.0 support today. There may be driver issues. And unlike VMware, Parallels does not support 64-bit guests or hosts at all now, nor can it delegate more than one CPU to a guest or virtual machine. All of those features will be present in the next major update to Parallels, which is due in the first half of next year, Rudolph said.

Microsoft Virtual PC 2007: A blend of both

Microsoft got into virtualization when it bought Virtual PC in 2003. After VMware made its entry-level products free earlier this year, Microsoft followed suit, making Virtual PC 2004 free for all.

While Virtual PC 2004 doesn't run on Vista or support Vista virtual machines, Virtual PC 2007, currently in beta, does. Detailed instructions on downloading VPC 2007 and setting up Vista in a virtual machine are at Microsoft's Vista blog.

Virtual PC 2007 blends the capabilities of the products mentioned above. Like VMware Player, VPC 2007 can run on 32- and 64-bit PCs, though it can only create 32-bit virtual machines at the moment. Like Parallels, Virtual PC uses Intel's and AMD's chip virtualization for faster performance. And while Virtual PC can support a wide range of guest operating systems, it can itself only be installed on PCs running Windows as the base operating system, not Linux.

One similarity between all three products is their inability to support 3-D accelerated graphics. That means you won't be able to test Vista's Aero graphical user interface or play the latest first-person shooter video games. In general, virtualized interfaces tend to look rougher and "paint" more slowly than nonvirtualized ones.

Getting your hands on a test version of Vista

Let's say that you're now convinced to take Vista for a test spin. Is it too late, now that Microsoft has closed its beta programs? Not at all. The release candidates and betas of Windows Vista, while not available from Microsoft anymore, will still work until June of 2007. Microsoft says that millions of people have downloaded and tested Vista. It's likely that some of your friends or co-workers have copies. Craigslist and eBay certainly have copies available.

Otherwise, you can wait until Jan. 30, when consumer versions of Vista will be available in stores. According to Computerworld.com's Scot Finnie, our in-house Windows Vista expert, users can install and run Vista as a virtual machine on top of, say, Windows XP for 30 days without activating Vista. But be sure you know the details of your store's return policies, such as what the time limit is and whether you'll have to pay a restocking fee.

Microsoft officially recommends that users interested in testing Vista virtually buy the Windows Vista Enterprise Edition, which grants users the right to install one copy of Vista on a physical machine and up to four times in a virtual machine on the same device for the same user. But Enterprise Edition is available only to corporate volume license customers, putting it out of reach of any hobbyist or small business owner. And postings on Microsoft's Virtual PC 2007 newsgroup seem to indicate that there's nothing technically preventing you from buying and testing other versions of Vista using Virtual PC.

A final alternative

If you're only interested in testing Vista and don't think you'd ever want to use a virtualization program to test other software, there is an easier solution, said Finnie. You can accurately test Vista -- including the Aero interface -- on your existing PC without uninstalling your current version of Windows, by creating a separate partition of about 20GB on your hard drive and installing Vista there.

This creates a dual-boot situation, so every time you log in, you can choose to run either Vista or your old version of Windows. When Vista expires in 30 days, you can uninstall it without having affected your original operating system. Finnie wrote a story earlier this year explaining how it's done.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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