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What’s A “Virtual Machine” & Why Would I Want One?

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015 by | Filed Under: Computer Terms, I've Always Wanted To Know...
 
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Many of you have questions about virtual machines, like Lamar from Los Angeles , who writes: I’m a retired, average, at-home PC user. Why would I (or anyone else) want a ‘virtual machine’? How is that application used, what advantages does it offer??

virtualxp

Although it sounds like some sort of sci-fi cyborg monstrosity, a virtual machine is actually just a program that emulates another operating system. Ever wonder how tech magazines and anti-virus companies manage to test out so many programs on so many different operating systems? Rather than having dozens of computers with every possible operating system installed, instead its easier to make use of virtual machines. These are also helpful for businesses who are juggling different platforms across their computer network.

If for instance you’ve got Windows 10 but you want to try out a piece of software made for Ubuntu or Linux, a virtual machine is there to let you play around in another operating system’s sandbox. So why’s it called a virtual machine? Because the software emulates everything needed to run a particular operating system – even the hardware. Basically you are running a software version of a new computer on your current computer, thus you have a “virtual” “machine.”

stealth-vm-installer

All you need to do is pop in the installation disc or a USB installation stick for an operating system and your computer will use the emulated hardware to create a virtual version of that OS. After the installation is done, you can pull up your virtual computer as a regular old application on your desktop, creating a computer within a computer that doesn’t require you to restart and choose a different hard drive. You could potentially even run multiple operating systems side by side in different windows to see how each one handles specific programs.

There’s a catch though for anyone with dreams of running every operating system on one computer. The virtual machine uses up a lot of system resources, and it won’t run as smoothly as if you were using an actual computer. While a virtual machine is great for say testing out a word processing program or seeing what something like Ubuntu is all about without fully dedicating your machine to a different operating system, it’s not going to work well for anything memory-intensive. Specifically computer games are going to run very poorly in a virtual machine, so it’s unlikely you’re going to get Fallout 4 to work well in a Windows virtual machine while using a Linux computer, for instance.

Why go through all that trouble when you could just install a second operating system on your computer? For starters it means you don’t have to partition your hard drive or buy a second hard drive. There’s also the added benefit that you can just delete the virtual machine like any other program if you find you don’t actually care for Linux or Mac OS X or whatever you are trying out. If the latest and greatest graphical wonders are what you are after, it’s better to just do a dual boot operating system setup, or switch operating systems entirely.

Another major selling point for a virtual machine is that they let you safely test out programs that might cause problems. A virtual machine is self-contained: anything you do in the emulated operating system won’t affect your real hard drive. You can freely test out programs that could potentially have malware involved and never actually put your real computer in harm’s way.

virtual-box

There are of course high end paid programs for making virtual machines, like VMWare and Parallels (for Mac users), but there’s also plenty of free applications if you want to try out a virtual machine on your computer, such as Virtual Box or QEMU.

~ Ty

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One Response to “What’s A “Virtual Machine” & Why Would I Want One?”

  1. jerry Wi. says:

    I hope you can help. Sometimes you have to get into you bios in order to make a Linux distro install and bootup. How do you get into your bios and when you do, what changes should be made so it’ll bootup to Linux and how do you revert back to the original bios if you want or need to? Is it necessary to get into your bios if you use a USB stick or a virtual Linux distro? My old XP laptop crashed and a new hard drive was put in, then they tell me there’s no operating system at all in it because the crash took it out but for $130 they could reinstall XP on my compiter. After all I spent I certainly didn’t want to spend another $130 on an reinstalled XP system, just so I can install a Linux distro. Without an XP operating system or any operating system can I intall a Linux system? Thanks for your help Cynthia, I really need someone I can trust for correct information. I hope you will email me or post this on Computer Tips. A email to me would help because there’s not too many people out there trying to accomplish this. Again Thanks!

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