- Wide variety of customization options
- Support for multiple host and guest operating systems
- OpenGL, DirectX support
- Disk image encryption
- Clone virtual disks
- Some features require additional software and/or steps
- Issues with Retina display support
Picking a preference out of virtual machine software is a hard decision when there are two or more similarly priced solutions. Free software, however, simplifies things, and this is precisely how VirtualBox helps users to get their job done: namely, running multiple operating systems at the same time without the cost of a whole new computer or the hassle of a Boot Camp reboot. Although having the software match the highest expectations will require a few extra steps and further reading of how-tos and the user manual, VirtualBox is worth the time investment because the result is a safe and solid environment where it is easy to perform any desired task in the selected operating system. Behind VirtualBox is the Oracle Corporation, a well-known American technology corporation based in Redwood Shores, California. Oracle specializes in developing services for software, platforms, infrastructure and data – which all come together with VirtualBox to help make it a very intriguing prospect.
Whenever opting to use free software, users have to accept both the advantages and necessary drawbacks that come with it – and the same goes for Oracle’s VirtualBox. There is a basic package which nicely isolates the guest software (for example: Windows 10) from the host operating system (in our case macOS). Those looking to further extend the functionality of the virtual machine need to download an additional extension pack, available for free from Oracle. This includes support for USB 2.0, 3.0, VB RDP, disk encryption NVMe and PXE boot for Intel cards.
Lots of Customization Options
Available for Windows, macOS, Linux, and Oracle Solaris (host) operating systems, VirtualBox supports a wide range of guest platforms. Packed into an easy-to-understand user interface and boosted with a scriptable command-line interface, VirtualBox is a well-designed virtual machine program to create a multi-platform test and development environment, or just to try out new platforms. However, deployment it isn’t as quick and easy as its commercial competitor solutions.
One standout aspect of VirtualBox is its various customization options, however this can quickly become a hassle for rookie virtual machine users or those that are less computer-savvy. The first step in the setup process, for example, provides four disk image file options, which requires the user’s attention. Without any further reading of the otherwise very helpful user manual, users are unlikely to understand which to pick.
The biggest challenge is getting started with the guest operating system. Fortunately, the Expert and Guided modes will help here, as will having the desired disk image or DVD to hand. Patience will be an important trait for the user when installing Windows 10 using VirtualBox as the finishing touches seem to be endless, particularly when you are short on time.
VirtualBox runs its guest operating systems sandboxed, so the option for deep integration isn’t plausible. This, however, is a major advantage for privacy conscious users since an increased vulnerability to viruses in any guest OS won’t compromise the host system. In the case of hosting a Windows installation on a Mac, for example, Windows apps running in a VirtualBox VM won’t be visible in the Launchpad and the option to open a file with Windows-only software will not be there.
Operating systems running in VirtualBox lack some of the highly convenient automated features that paid competition often provides. In our tests, we were able to connect to the internet without any further input from us, but the guest OS didn’t recognize the network printer – which could be a problem for many.
Perhaps the strongest element of VirtualBox’s virtual machines is the attention to privacy. To overcome the restrictions imposed by default and enable the features that users expect when running two operating systems at the same time, further steps are required to enable file sharing. Shared folders, copy and paste, and drag and drop functions are available, but it isn’t as streamlined as some would hope and so reading tutorials is highly recommended.
Unlike its competitors, VirtualBox doesn’t leverage the default macOS user folders to enable quick access between the two systems, but instead requires the user to create or specify a certain folder to share with the guest operating system and vice-versa. Also, shared folder users will need to activate network discovery, which is off by default.
Once again, VirtualBox shines when it comes to customization. It doesn’t take bidirectional sharing between the two operating systems for granted, but instead asks the user to instruct the software regarding which direction they want to share a file or the copy and paste function to work, which is quite neat for those who want control over how their different systems interact.
VirtualBox’s Seamless mode is akin to the Coherence mode of Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion’s Unity, but not on the same level. If you don’t expect the level of integration provided by paid software, then you’ll be fine with this mode, but the best user experience in our testing was achieved by using either the full screen view or the auto-resize guest display.
The issue is that Seamless mode is a bit rough around the edges and that affects the overall user experience. For example, when running in Seamless mode, the video player and photo viewing app controls disappear and the only way to get them back again is by switching this view mode off.
Interestingly, you’ll get both the macOS menu bar and the Windows taskbar on the same screen, which feels like a half-baked way of displaying two operating systems running in tandem.
There seems to be some sort of a bug with VirtualBox’s Retina display support, too, because when switching to Seamless mode the Windows desktop takes up roughly 65% of the screen, leaving the rest for macOS apps.
In our tests we didn’t find VirtualBox to be lagging behind any of the paid virtual machine software packages. Although it did sometimes feel sluggish, the boot time of the Windows operating system’s and the launch time of its various apps matched that of other programs in this category.
What you’ll notice, however, is that the usual Command + Tab control to switch apps doesn’t work while using Seamless mode in VirtualBox until you click on a Mac app. The software puts the same degree of CPU and memory pressure on hardware resources as any of its competitors and, despite lacking energy-efficiency settings, it will detect inactivity and automatically suspend the guest operating system.
Installing VirtualBox and a guest operating system is an easy process for computer-savvy users. Inexperienced Mac users – and even Windows users – will have to spend some time reading through the user manual to understand the options that VirtualBox provides if they hope for a manageable user experience.
When it comes to pricing, Oracle offers packages for two different types of customer: free for regular users and packages between $1,000 and $5,000 for enterprise customers. The latter of the two Enterprise Oracle VM options is a commercial license for the VirtualBox Extension Pack which includes Oracle technical support. The price differs based on the number of users as Oracle charges $50 per named user for a VirtualBox Enterprise license. The other Enterprise tier charges enterprise customers $1,000 per socket.
The free tier – which is the one we tested – is available for download from its dedicated website and requires no additional steps from the user other than downloading and installing the software.
Issues or questions while installing a guest operating system via VirtualBox will likely appear pretty frequently – especially for novice users – and so it’s likely that there will be a need for great, helpful resources in order to find answers. Fortunately, VirtualBox comes with a good user manual and you’ll need to read it when first using the software.
Alongside the user manual, there are further options for assistance such as reaching out to the VirtualBox community or a VirtualBox page called bug tracker where users report faults found in the software and can keep track of the status of each one. Finally, there is the Oracle website: here is the option to chat live with an Oracle sales representative or call the company directly.
There are two things that make VirtualBox a great option as a virtual machine. First, it’s free software and so you’ll save the $80 or so that you’d otherwise be paying for a competing product. Secondly, Oracle has packed VirtualBox with lots of customization options, which give users various ways to optimize the guest operating system and its performance.
In other words, VirtualBox will definitely help you create a safe and solid environment for your daily tasks. This, however, comes at the cost of your time and the willingness to accept all the hurdles that come with free software: reading forums and user manuals and following how-to instructions just to get it to work as you’d expect is sadly a necessity when using such freeware. It doesn’t matter what the purpose of running multiple operating systems might be, however, whether that’s running legacy apps or gaming on a Mac, VirtualBox will get you through the task.