What it is: A virtual machine is a way of running a different operating system simultaneously with a computer’s native operating system.
In the old days, most people bought a Windows PC because Windows has the largest software library in the world. By buying a Windows PC, you could find practically any type of software you needed such as astrology programs, horse race prediction programs, or dental office management software. No one really cares about the specifics of a particular operating system. They just want to run the software they need and then they find the operating system that lets them run that software.
While Windows still offers the largest software library in the world, you can use a virtual machine on a Macintosh to run Windows at near native speed. Unless you’re doing heavy duty number crunching through massive spreadsheets or video rendering, a virtual machine will likely run at least 90% the speed as if you were running it on a regular PC. For most people, that’s more than enough speed to run the software they want.
Virtual machines let you run one or more operating systems in separate windows on your Macintosh. In the world of virtual machines, OS X would be considered the host operating system since that’s the operating system that boots up, and any operating systems running in a virtual machine would be called guest operating systems.
A virtual machine fools each virtual machine into thinking it’s the only operating system running on a computer. Since processors are so fast and powerful today and few people use all that power, the processor can divide its time between the host operating system (OS X) and any virtual machines you may have running at the time (Windows, Linux, etc.). When running a virtual machine on OS X, you can have Windows or Linux running in a separate window while OS X runs in the background. This gives you the ability to rapidly switch between using an OS X program or using a program running in a virtual machine such as Microsoft Excel for Windows.
Besides letting you run another operating system in a window, virtual machines can also share files with your host operating system. That means you could load Microsoft Excel for Windows in a Windows virtual machine, and save and modify files directly on your Macintosh hard disk.Now you can seamlessly share files between your host operating system and your virtual machine. Virtual machines give you the chance to run any type of software regardless of the operating system needed. Just as long as you load the proper operating system in a virtual machine, you can access the software library of OS X, Windows, Linux, and any other operating system. That gives you a huge amount of software to choose from.
For legal reasons, it’s not possible for a Windows PC to run OS X, but it is possible for OS X to run Windows in a virtual machine. You can simply buy a separate copy of Windows to install in a virtual machine, or you can simply transfer an existing operating system (such as Windows) from your old PC and clone it as a virtual machine on a Macintosh. That saves al your programs, settings, and data in the virtual machine so you can gradually transition away from the operating system in the virtual machine and move towards relying on OS X more and more as you feel comfortable.
Virtual machines are perfect for making the transition from one operating system to another. If you’re currently a Windows user, you can clone your current Windows PC as a virtual machine to run on a Macintosh. Now you’ll get the best of both worlds with the smaller malware threat on OS X while running your favorite Windows software. Since a virtual machine consists of a single file stored on the host operating system, you can make backup copies of your virtual machine. Now if the operating system in a virtual machine fails, you can quickly restore it by simply deleting the corrupted virtual machine and replacing it with a single file of a working version of that same virtual machine.
For those familiar with Windows, if Windows crashes or gets corrupted, your entire PC goes down and you may need to spend hours troubleshooting and fixing it. With Windows running in a virtual machine, you can fix the problem in seconds by replacing the corrupted virtual machine file with an untouched backup version. That means you can fix catastrophic operating system problems in seconds instead of hours. That’s less frustrating for you and more productivity and safety using a virtual machine.
With a Macintosh, it’s possible to divide a hard disk into partitions and install Windows or another operating system in that separate partition using a Macintosh program called Boot Camp. However, this gives each operating system total control over the hardware, which means you can only run one operating system at a time. With virtual machines, you can run multiple operating systems at a time and share data between them as well, which is not possible with Boot Camp.
The most popular and currently best virtual machine software is Parallels, but a major competitor targeting mostly enterprise customers is VMWare’s Fusion, which costs roughly the same with similar features. A free virtual machine program is also available called VirtualBox, but it’s not as easy to use as either Parallels or Fusion. Still by experimenting with VirtualBox, you can see how a virtual machine can work at no cost other than your time.
If you need to run software on other operating systems, you could buy separate computers, or just buy one Macintosh, load it with at least 8GB of RAM, and install a virtual machine program on it. Virtual machine software is perfect for developers who need to test cross-platform programs, or for ordinary people who just need a handful of crucial programs on on operating system but want the safety and stability of a Macintosh.
If you really want access to the largest software library in the world, it’s no longer limited to a single operating system but to the Macintosh, which is capable of running all software and all operating systems that run on standard Intel processors. If you want the most versatile computer in the world, you want a Macintosh.