Review: VMware Workstation 9 vs. VirtualBox 4.2

VMware Workstation is richer in features and polish than ever, but VirtualBox is still both capable and free

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You need no prior experience with VMware Workstation to appreciate its smartly organized interface. Fire up the program and its default tab provides you with shortcuts to many common actions such as creating a new machine, spinning up an existing one, and setting preferences. The library of existing VMs listed in a left-hand pane can be searched by typing -- handy if you're using Workstation to corral together many VMs.

If you set up a new VM in Workstation and provide it with installation media for one of a number of common OSes, Workstation will automatically detect the OS in question, then prompt you independently for OS-relevant setup information. For example, Workstation will prompt you for the product key for Windows, which edition of Windows to install, and a default user account and password; then it will perform the setup with no user intervention needed.

The resulting VM will even have VMware's guest tools already installed, which enables such goodies as direct copy and paste of files between host and guest. One really powerful feature unlocked via guest tools is Unity Mode, which allows programs from the VM to be run directly on the host desktop. Unity-managed apps are normally distinguished by a red border and an icon next to the buttons, but the icon can be disabled and the border changed to another color or eliminated entirely. Note that Unity can only be used on local VMs, not ones accessed from a remote instance of VMware Workstation.

VMware Workstation's clean and well-organized interface lets you search for multiple VMs in your library -- local or remotely hosted -- by typing into the search box at top left.

Another powerful integration feature is the ability to map a virtual disk to a drive letter on the host so that files can be copied in or out of that drive by hand. Note that drives can only be mapped while the virtual machine that uses them is powered off, to avoid inconsistencies.

When you take snapshots of a given VM, you're presented with a highly readable diagram of all the snapshots you've taken and which one you're currently using. This removes a lot of the confusion from such a useful feature, and it makes it harder to accidentally delete or jump to the wrong snapshot. The AutoProtect function can make snapshots of a given VM on a schedule, which amounts to VMware's own version of System Restore.

Aside from the regular VMware interface, VMs can also be remotely accessed via the open source VNC protocol or shared out to other VMware Workstation users on the same network. Virtual machines can also be uploaded to or from an instance of VMware vSphere -- a neat way to make Workstation into a local staging ground for to-be-deployed machines.

In the category of "most oddly useful cool feature," there's the "capture movie" function. Audio and video output from a given VM can be piped directly to a movie file -- a great way to create demos, walkthroughs, or documentation.

VMware Workstation's main window presents you with quick shortcuts to many common tasks. Note that some, such as virtualizing a physical machine, are available only through external products.
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