Windows 8.1 in VMware and VirtualBox

Virtual Duel

Article from Issue 158/2014
Author(s):

For occasional Windows users, a virtual machine is the ideal solution. But will Windows 8.1 work in VirtualBox and VMware?

Life without Windows just doesn't work for many users. Some tools simply don't have a Linux equivalent, and other situations require Windows for compatibility with co-workers or clients. One easy solution is to run Windows applications directly on Linux using the Wine API. However, Wine doesn't support all versions of all programs. Another alternative is to dual boot, but a dual-boot configuration requires you to restart your computer whenever you want to switch systems.

The most popular alternative on today's networks is to run Windows in a virtual machine on a Linux host. VM technology is so mature that, in normal use, it is difficult to tell the difference between Windows on a virtual machine and on a physical system. (One exception is gaming, which tends to work better without virtualization.)

The biggest players in the market for Windows desktop virtualization on Linux are VirtualBox [1] and VMware Workstation [2]. I took a look at how these leading virtualization alternatives work with the latest Windows.

VMware

In September 2013, VMware published the 10th release of its commercial VMware Workstation software. The price for a new license is EUR 225, whereas an upgrade costs EUR 110. As a major innovation, the company advertises support for Windows 8.1; however, the matching device profile is still missing.

In this test, I used the profile for the 64-bit version of the 8.1 predecessor, Windows 8 (Figure 1). The subsequent installation of Windows completed without any problems in our lab. On a positive note, Windows 8.1 comes with rudimentary VMware support: The mouse and keyboard seamlessly move into the virtual machine, as soon as the mouse pointer touches the Windows pane.

Figure 1: Version 10 of the VMware desktop only comes with a profile for Windows 8 but worked well with Windows 8.1 in our lab.

Extensions

To leverage the full potential of the system on the virtual machine, you still need to install the guest extensions. After booting the system, select VM | Install VMware Tools. This tells the software to mount an ISO image containing the guest extensions on the virtual machine's DVD drive.

To start the installation, just click Setup. In the dialog that follows, you can define which drivers and features you want to install (Figure 2). The software includes specially adapted drivers for more or less all areas of the system that not only significantly improve handling but also promise a substantial performance boost, including dynamic resizing of the guest to the format of the surrounding window. To enable this feature, choose View | Autosize | Autofit Guest. In contrast, selecting Center Guest fits the size of the window to match that of the guest system.

Figure 2: The VMware guest extensions offer a range of additional drivers specially designed for cooperation between Windows 8.1 and the virtual machine.

If you want to work directly with Windows applications, you can do so in Unity mode by pressing the button of the program name in the menu bar. It isolates the running programs from the Windows desktop (Figure 3) and provides them on Linux. To let you access any program on Windows, VMware has created its own launcher, which appears top right when you enable Unity.

Figure 3: If you prefer to see your Linux desktop while you are using Windows tools, Unity will let you do so. Additionally, this mode offers an application launcher that Windows 8.1 now lacks.

However, this mode only works in the desktop view. If you run it in the Tiles view, it occupies the full screen. Unity doesn't work perfectly in desktop mode, either; for example, if you click on an image in Explorer, a full-screen app pops up and shows you the image. If you close it, you first go back to the tiles and only then back to the desktop.

Dragging and dropping files to and from the guest system worked perfectly. Data transfers in the opposite direction, however, did not work at all on openSUSE 12.3, and Windows 8.1 behaved well in cooperation with the shared clipboard.

VMware Workstation easily transferred both individual files and entire directory trees from the host to the guest and back. Text or URLs are exchanged in this way by copying and pasting between the virtual and real machines.

The World Outside

Integrating host folders on the guest system was also painless. You will find this function in the Settings for the virtual machine below Options | Shared Folders. When you specify the name, the desired folder appears in the guest directory.

However, VMware does not mount this as a drive directly, but as a vmware-host on the Network. To assign the share a drive letter, right-click and select Connect network drive from the context menu. For an even easier approach, enable Map as a network drive in Windows guests in the configuration described above. In this case, VMware itself assigns a drive letter to the share and mounts it directly.

Another important point for virtual machines is how cleanly the software passes through the physical USB interface to the guest. VMware Workstation works almost flawlessly here. The guest system immediately detected fairly exotic devices such as smartphones and allowed access to them, as with a physical PC (Figure 4).

Figure 4: VMware easily handled even comparatively complicated USB connections via MTP.

Of the five USB sticks tested, VMware immediately detected all of them and mounted them on the system, and the connected webcam was ready for use within just a few seconds. Only a DVB-T stick by Pinnacle refused to cooperate for want of an appropriate driver. VMware also supports a USB 3 interface.

If a plugged-in USB device is not directly available on the virtual machine – for example, because it is in use by the host – click on VM | Removable Devices. In the bottom half of this drop-down menu is an option that lists all the identified USB devices. To enable one of them, point to it and then select Connect (Disconnect from host) from the submenu.

VMware does not currently offer 3D video support for Windows 8.1, and integrated printer support that is supposed to let you print on network printers, for example, is also not too brilliant. After enabling the function, Windows lists all the printers on the network (Figure 5) and lets you print. However, the output in our lab was unusable plaintext Postscript.

Figure 5: Appearances are deceptive: Although the extension allows you to print from the virtual machine, it does not keep the original format. The printouts were plaintext Postscript code in each case.

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