Software is in a novel situation right now. Windows 7 will be available soon, but Windows XP is still so popular it can't be ignored. Linux OSs are seeing some level of acceptance by IT departments, and the variety of web browsers and other software in frequent use is staggering. An OS virtualization application can let you use a large variety of this software on one piece of hardware, and VMware Workstation is an excellent choice.

Workstation installs using a typical installation wizard and, after a reboot, is ready to go. I tested Workstation on a Windows Vista 32 bit system with only 2GB of RAM—what I'd consider a minimum to get good performance from Vista alone, not to mention a second OS.

Windows XP

Summary
VMware Workstation 6.5
PROS: Easy OS installations; guest applications can integrate with the host OS; useful VM snapshot and recording features.
CONS: Costs more than other OS virtualization products; performance suffers when you push a system too far.
RATING: 4.5 stars
PRICE: $189
RECOMMENDATION: VMware Workstation is a mature product that will serve you well whether or just need to run applications from multiple OSs or want to test applications on a variety of platforms. Be sure to investigate free alternatives to Workstation, however, as they may be able to meet your needs.
CONTACT: VMware • www.vmware.com • 877-486-9273

Installing OSs in Workstation requires less effort than installing them on physical hardware and goes roughly as quickly. You can install OSs from physical discs or ISO files. I installed Windows XP from a DVD in under an hour. Workstation's easy install feature detected that I was installing XP and took my product key and name. With that information, it completes all the setup questions for you. You just have to let the installation finish on its own. Other than choosing the wrong time zone, the installation applied correct settings and completed smoothly.

Once XP was started, Workstation automatically installed VMware's tools in the virtual machine (VM) and rebooted it. These tools enable some impressive features. You can drag and drop files between the host and VM. If you're running the VM in a window, when you resize the window Workstation automatically changes the VM's resolution to match the new size. USB storage devices work perfectly—when you plug in a storage device it briefly appears on the host then vanishes and reappears inside the VM. If you want the host to see the device, click a button in Workstation and the device will leave the VM and appear on the host.

My XP VM was allocated one CPU core and 512MB of RAM and performance was excellent, definitely on par with XP running on physical hardware with those same specs. Performance of the host was hurt somewhat by running the VM, but I was still able to multitask without problems while the VM was running. I could install applications in the VM just like I would on a physical system, and Windows Update behaved the same, too. VMs can be configured to see the host's network, but the XP VM was automatically configured only to use the host's Internet connection.

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Windows 7 Release Candidate

Workstation 6.5 isn't officially compatible with Windows 7, but I gave it a shot anyway. Workstation incorrectly identified the Windows 7 ISO as Vista, but its easy install feature was able to automatically configure and install Windows 7 anyway. The installation took less than 35 minutes, including a reboot of the VM to install the VMware tools.

I allocated the Windows 7 VM 1GB of RAM, and performance of the VM was surprisingly good, considering that I was running Vista and Windows 7 on the same machine at the same time. Other than a tendency to freeze up for a few seconds every once in a while, the VM was completely usable. Workstation doesn't support 3D graphics except in a limited sense for XP, so there were no Aero features enabled, and the Windows 7 startup animation played only as an odd display of garbled colors, but otherwise performance was fine.

The host didn't fare as well, however. With half its RAM dedicated to the VM, Vista was sluggish and unresponsive. This isn't surprising considering how resource-intensive Vista is, but remember that if you plan to multitask with VMs running you'll need plenty of memory.

Beyond Running Windows

In addition to Windows OSs, I installed a VM running Ubuntu 9.04 Desktop Edition. Workstation wasn't able to install the VMware tools for Ubuntu, though it did recognize the OS and was able use easy install to set up the OS. I don't blame Workstation for failure of the tools, however—this version of Ubuntu isn't officially supported in Workstation and I lack all but the most basic Linux skills, so it's possible I did something to the OS that made the installation fail. Without the VMware tools I couldn't drag and drop between the VM and host and I couldn't set up a shared drive, but I was still able to use USB devices in the VM and the VM's performance was excellent.

On top of its abilities for simply running OSs, Workstation has other useful features. It can save a snapshot of a VM and record a sequence, allowing you to replay it. You can use Workstation's Unity mode to run applications in a VM but display them as integrated into the host OS. Workstation supports importing and using VMs from other versions of Workstation and other applications.

Workstation's excellent integration with OSs that it supports and ability to handle OSs it doesn't fully support demonstrate that it's a mature, technologically advanced product. Free OS virtualization products are available, so you should check if they'll meet your needs before buying Workstation, but Workstation's features and capabilities make it a worthwhile investment.