A Cheaper Way to Emulate Windows on a Mac Desktop

imageI’m been using Mac desktops for a number of years.   Back in 2006, my wife and I decided to purchase some computer based learning software for homeschooling our kids that only ran on Windows.   I wasn’t crazy about buying another computer ‘just for school’ so I looked into options emulating Windows.

At the time there were a couple of options:  Parallels Desktop, Virtual PC and a fairly new product from Apple called BootCamp, a way to dual boot a desktop in either Mac OS or Windows.   I ended up buying Parallels Desktop for the learning software database server and leveraging BootCamp for the kid’s iMac.    That configuration served us well for a number of years.  There were some challenges getting the family used to the two server setup (e.g. both computers had to be running to use the learning software) and attaching devices (printers, CDs) to Parallels.

While Parallels was fairly easy to use, one thing always annoyed me.  The company would come out with a new release almost annually, sometimes as a required release to be compatible with newer Mac OS software.  For example, to run Mac OS X 10.9 (Mavericks), you have to install Parallels 9, which retails for $79.   This translated into spending another $49-$79 each year to keep up pace.  Almost like how a software subscription works.  In addition, you also had to pay extra for complicated issues that required phone support.

Not too long ago, I had the display go out on the ‘database’ iMac where I run Parallels.   I ended up buying a new iMac which meant moving software around.   I didn’t have an easy way to restore my Bootcamp on the Kid’s ‘new’ iMac, so I considered buying another copy of Parallels.   While looking at free alternatives, I came across a great piece of free software from Oracle called Virtualbox.   I wasn’t sure how well it would work but after a fairly simple install of it and Windows/XP, I was hooked.  Not only did the software work, I was surprised at how well it performed, only being a little slower than BootCamp.

Virtualbox, is very similar to Parallels.  You have a control panel for managing your images and settings within each image.   You can start, suspend or shutdown images.  I like the suspend capability so you can pick up where you left off (no waiting for Windows to boot up).   I was able to mount a CD to install curriculum without any problems.  I didn’t test printing because I didn’t have a locally attached printer, but I have no reason to believe it wouldn’t have worked.

What I can’t believe is that Virtualbox is absolutely free with no strings attached.   There’s no annoying banner ads and I have yet to receive any email from Oracle.   Going with Virtualbox not only saved me the $69 to purchase Parallels 9, I also didn’t need to buy a copy of Windows 7 (or 8) to try and install the current release of BootCamp.  If you’re looking for a cheaper alternative to Parallels Desktop, Oracle’s Virtualbox is worth a look.  -MC

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