Virtuality

computers-in-computersComputer prices have continued to trend downward in the last few years, such that most hardware has reached commodity status. Which means people might not spend much time picking out a new computer. They’re more or less all the same, aren’t they?

Take a closer look, though, as you walk through the aisles at Best Buy. You’ll see an abundance of computing options, including Windows PCs, ChromeBooks, and Macs.

Even at commodity prices, a computer still remains a relatively costly purchase, so it’s worth doing some research. What’s new and interesting, which machines have better reliability and customer satisfaction statistics, and what value has the manufacturer added that sets one model apart from another? When one finally makes a purchase, that PC will likely be it for years to come.

Features that resonate

Some might like the usability of a particular operating system (OS) over another. Some might consider portability of primary importance. Others might want a touch screen or an ultra-fast processor. Still others will consider price. But what if you could buy a computer that offered all of these features?

Is there a more compelling feature than versatility?

Boot Camp

Boot-campThe ability to run multiple operating systems, and therefore any application one might conceivably want to run is certainly an example of versatility.

Previously in these pages, we’ve touched on the Mac and its ability to run not only Mac OS X, but also Microsoft Windows, using an application called Boot Camp.

Our thesis was that, if you’re not certain about which computer you should buy, doesn’t it make sense to consider a computer that can be multiple computers in one,  thus giving you the most flexibility?

With Boot Camp, you can install, boot, and run Windows on your Mac. And you can switch back by booting into Mac OS X. It’s like two entirely different computers.

When a Mac is booted into Windows, it’s essentially a PC. There is no access to any Mac OS X functionality. For that, you simply reboot the computer and choose Mac OS X. So, going back and forth between operating systems is pretty simple, if a bit time-consuming.

Virtual machines

A slightly more complicated, but eminently more useful, Mac configuration is to run Windows through a virtualization application, such as Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion. In this mode, virtualization is just another app running on Mac OS X. Thus, you can quickly and seamlessly move between Mac OS X and Windows, and access the functionality you need from either operating system.

canstockphoto19216045When using virtualization, you can also easily drag and drop files such as Word documents between operating systems. It’s similar to having a networked machine mounted on your Mac desktop. Open up that mounted “drive,” and you see the file system of the networked machine. In the virtualization space, this is known as a virtual machine.

On the iMac I have in my home office, the virtualization tool of choice is Parallels Desktop ($79.99). I don’t use Windows much at home, but when I do, Parallels Desktop makes it about as simple as it can get.

What Parallels Desktop does is simulate a separate hardware environment through software.

When you install Windows, the installer sees the appropriate environment and behaves pretty much the same as if you were installing Windows on a new Intel-based computer. Of course, you have to purchase Windows separately, or use an OEM version that came with an older PC.

One really cool feature of Parallels Desktop is called Coherence Mode.

coherence

With Coherence Mode, you can run Windows applications as if they were running in Mac OS X. Like any other application, the Windows applications open in separate windows on your Mac desktop. This layer of abstraction simplifies things by seeming to take Windows out of the equation (even though it’s really there under the surface).

Another thing to consider when using virtualization on your Mac is the cost of everything. Obviously, if you also happen to have an older PC, you’d like to capture the applications you previously paid for and the data sitting there, and move them onto your Mac.

Parallels claims that it can move your applications and data from your old PC. I’ve not tried this, so read the documentation, and talk to Parallels support to get the whole story before plunking down your hard-earned cash.

Parallels Desktop also claims to support installations of other operating systems, including Linux and Google Chrome. So, theoretically, you could run every popular desktop OS today on a Mac.

Alternatives

In addition to Parallels Desktop, there are other virtualization programs that run on the Mac. VMware Fusion ($59.99) from VMware is probably the most notable alternative.vmware_fusion

In the IT industry, VMware is the 800-pound gorilla of virtualization. In my day job, I use VMware Workstation extensively. My company-provided computer is a Lenovo laptop running Windows 7. But I also have VMware ESXi installed, and can run virtual machines on the computer, as well.

vbox_logoOn a Mac, VMware Fusion supports pretty much all the same operating systems as VMware Workstation, so it compares favorably with Parallels Desktop, and is actually a little cheaper.

Another option is VirtualBox. This is a free, open source virtualization option that runs on the Mac, and other computers as well. It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that Parallels and VMware Fusion have, but the price is right.

Considering virtualization on other machines

Regardless of hardware manufacturer, most people have grown up using some version of Windows (XP, Vista, Win 7), and there is a wide range of Windows PCs available on the market, some at really low cost.WindowsCyan_Web

If you’ve been a Windows person, ordinarily I’d recommend sticking with the operating system when looking at new computers. Unfortunately, the new version, Windows 8, and more recently, Windows 8.1, have generally been poorly-regarded (and that’s being kind). Check out the Amazon reviews if you’d like to confirm this for yourself.

As mentioned, you can run virtualization on a Windows machine. Microsoft provides its own virtualization environment called Hyper V, but it is really aimed at IT organizations, not individual users. You can also run VMware ESXi on a Windows machine, as I do at work, but technically it’s more difficult for the average user than the Mac options.

chrome_logo_2xA number of manufacturers have recently launched ChromeBooks, inexpensive laptops running Google’s Chrome OS. Chrome OS is a variant of the Linux operating system married to the Google ecosystem. It generally requires a full-time web connection to be of much use. Although Google offers some good web-based applications, the most appealing thing about ChromeBooks, in my opinion, is the price. Decent hardware running Chrome OS can be had for $200-300.

For virtualization purposes, ChromeBooks tend to be underpowered with smaller than usual storage drives.

You can’t run Mac OS X

One thing to keep in mind if you do consider running virtualization on a Windows or Chrome PC: you can’t run Mac OS X as a virtualized operating system. Apple is pretty strict about this, and pretty much prohibits it in its licensing agreement.

From this viewpoint, Mac OS X is the most elegant desktop operating system available today. If you’re going to go to all the trouble of setting up virtualization, you probably want to do it on a Mac.

Full disclosure: I’m not only a Mac user and advocate, I’m also an Apple stockholder. So feel free to question my objectivity. And, if you have a different viewpoint, let me know in the comments.

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