Step by step: How to safely test-drive Win8

Fred langa By Fred Langa

Using safe, free virtual PC software, you can set up and run the Windows 8 Consumer Preview inside your current PC without affecting your other programs or your installed version of Windows.

This method lets you test-drive Windows 8 without having to make potentially risky changes to your current setup. There’s no need for dual-booting, special partitions, and so on.

Setting up Windows 8 in a virtual PC requires numerous steps. I’ll take you through all of them, one by one, to help ensure that everything works right the first time.

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First, however, let’s make sure we’re on the same page. A virtual PC (VPC), sometimes also called a virtual machine (VM), is a desktop computer that’s fully emulated in software. You can install a variety of operating systems, applications, and utilities on VPCs and use them just as if you’d installed them on a standalone system.

The operating system (or guest software) installed on a VPC thinks it’s running on a normal, physical system. But it’s not; it’s running inside a protected memory space on the host system. In a VPC, special emulation software masquerades as the BIOS, motherboard, hard drive, CD drive, display adapter, network card, and other components of a physical machine. In other words, VPCs provide all the normal hardware of a standard PC — entirely in software.

VPCs are great for experimenting; the test environment is fully isolated from your real PC’s host operating system and applications. If the test system crashes, the host PC generally won’t even notice. (After years of use, I have never experienced a software crash inside a VPC that affected the host PC in any way.)

All of which typically makes a VPC the simplest, easiest, and safest way to test-drive Windows 8 — for free!

This article breaks the setup process into three major steps: installing an Oracle VirtualBox VPC on a Windows 7 system, setting up a new VPC within VirtualBox, and tweaking and tuning the setup to run Windows 8 Consumer Preview. When you’re done, you’ll be able to start exploring the new operating system with almost zero risk to your current setup. (Any change to a Windows system includes some risk. Make sure your PC is fully backed up before taking these steps.)

Download and install Oracle’s VirtualBox

Oracle’s free VirtualBox runs on all current versions of Windows, from XP onward. (For complete specs and documentation, visit the VirtualBox wiki.) I’ll be using Windows 7 as the host system in this article, but the same concepts and principles will work on other versions of Windows, too.

You can get the latest version from the download section of the site. As of this writing, that’s Version 4.1.8 (used for the following screen shots).

Once the file has downloaded, click it and let the software begin setting itself up. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1. Oracle’s free VirtualBox is easy to download and set up, and it gives you a safe and protected environment in which to test software.

After the opening screen, VirtualBox steps you through two Custom Setup dialog boxes (the first of which is shown in Figure 2). Make no changes here; for a Win8 setup, you can simply accept the defaults in both dialog boxes and click Next.

Custom setup
Figure 2. The first of two Custom Setup dialogs you’ll see

You’ll then receive a warning that your network interfaces will be reset (see Figure 3). VirtualBox requires this step so it can hook into your PC’s networking system and allow a guest operating system — Win8, in this case — to go online. Click Yes.

Net interface warning
Figure 3. Your PC needs to go offline for a few seconds while your network connection resets.

Next, you’ll see a Ready to install confirmation screen. Click Install, and the actual setup will begin.

Continue accepting all offered defaults until you see the dialog shown in Figure 4, telling you that the VirtualBox installation is complete. Click Finish.

installation complete
Figure 4. When this screen appears, the base VirtualBox software is installed.

Now you’re ready to begin using VirtualBox to create a virtual PC.

Start downloading a Windows 8 setup file

Configuring your Win8 VPC will take a few minutes, so this is a good time to start downloading the large Windows 8 Consumer Preview installation file. Let it download in the background while you finish setting up the VPC.

Microsoft offers the free Windows 8 Consumer Preview software two ways: as a live, Web-based installation and as a standalone .iso image of a setup CD. For installation in a VPC, you want the latter — the standard .iso image file. You’ll find it on Microsoft’s “Windows 8 Consumer Preview ISO images” site.

Write down the Win8 product key listed on that page, below the download links. As of this writing, all Consumer Preview versions are using the same key — DNJXJ-7XBW8-2378T-X22TX-BKG7J — but that could change.

With the product key in hand, click the Download link of your choice. You can save the the Win8 .iso to any convenient location on your hard drive.

Create a new virtual PC for Windows 8

Launch VirtualBox; its VirtualBox Manager dialog box will open, bidding you “Welcome to VirtualBox” (see Figure 5). Begin setting up a new virtual PC by clicking the New icon in VirtualBox Manager’s upper left corner.

Creating a new virtual machine
Figure 5. VirtualBox Manager is where you create new virtual machines.

When you click New, a Wizard dialog box will open to display some brief explanatory text. Read the text and then click Next.

Select the name and OS type: Assign a name to your new VPC. Then set the operating system to Microsoft Windows and the version to Windows 8, as shown in Figure 6. (Yes, VirtualBox already knows about Windows 8!)

To help avoid future confusion should you eventually have several VPCs set up, use plain, obvious names for this (and all) virtual PCs you create. For example, “Win8″ or “Win8-first” is a much better name than “Trial” or “Test” or other generic names. When you’re done, click Next.

VPC name and os type
Figure 6. This dialog box is where you give new virtual machines a unique name and tell VirtualBox which OS is being installed.

Assign enough RAM for Win8 to work: Win8 needs at least 1GB of RAM — and more is better. VirtualBox presents a slider control for setting the amount of RAM it will make available to the VPC. (See Figure 7.)

VirtualBox recommends not using more than half the available RAM for any virtual PC; the recommended maximum amount of RAM is automatically indicated by the green portion of the slider control.

Move slider to set ram
Figure 7. By keeping the slider within the green section, you’ll allocate a safe amount for both the VPC and the host system.

Note: A 32-bit system with 4GB of RAM typically has only around 3GB available for use. Half of that is about 1.5GB — the maximum RAM you can safely assign to a VPC on most 32-bit PCs. It’s enough to run Win8 acceptably.

Set up the virtual hard disks: The VirtualBox defaults in this section are fine for Win8, as is. Just click through the next few screens, accepting all defaults as you go. If, for any reason, the defaults you see are different from those shown in Figures 8–11 (below), change your settings to match those shown here.

Virtual hard disk setting
Figure 8. Make sure this dialog selects Start-up Disk (that is, a bootable disk) and Create new hard disk.

Use the vdi setting
Figure 9. VirtualBox supports several types of virtual disks, but VDI is the native format. Accept the default.

Use the dynamically allocated setting
Figure 10. The Dynamically allocated disk option is best. Dynamic disks grow only as needed, thus saving disk space.

Use the default disk name, location, and size
Figure 11. The defaults for disk name, location, and size are fine; no need for changes here.

The last dialog in this series is a Summary that lets you review what you’ve done so far. Assuming everything’s as it should be, click the Summary dialog’s Create button to finish the process.

Tweaking for better Win8 performance

At this point, you have a raw, untuned VPC set up and awaiting an operating system. But there are several settings you can change to make Win8 work better in its virtualized environment. Follow along in the next screen shots.

Settings icon
Figure 12. Click the Settings icon (the big gear next to New) in the VirtualBox Manager dialog box.

Motherboard settings
Figure 13. In the left pane of the Settings dialog, click System. In the right pane, on the Motherboard tab, select Chipset: ICH9 and tick the box to Enable IO APIC.

(If you want the technical background on the above settings, see the Intel article, “Intel I/O Controller Hub 9 (ICH9) family datasheet”, and the Microsoft article, “Key benefits of the I/O APIC.”)

Processor settings
Figure 14. Click to the Processor tab, and tick the Enable PAE/NX box.

(PAE stands for “Physical Address Extension,” as explained in a Wikipedia article.)

acceleration settings
Figure 15. On the Acceleration tab, check both boxes to let the virtualized CPU access some performance-enhancing features of your system’s real, physical CPU.

Note: Almost all PCs of reasonably recent vintage support these settings. If yours does not, check your manufacturer’s site for info. In any case, you can still continue setting up VirtualBox — but your final Win8 performance will be lowered.

Display settings
Figure 16. Click Display and use the slider to set the amount of video RAM your virtual PC will have. Also, check both the Acceleration boxes next to Extended Features.

Windows 8 is highly graphical, so more video RAM is better than less. I set my Win8 VPC to use 256MB of video RAM. Lower amounts may work, but with reduced performance.

Storage settings
Figure 17. Click Storage. Select IDE Controller, and make sure it’s set to Type: ICH6. Tick the box to Use host I/O cache, which helps the VPC move data faster.

(An Intel datasheet provides more information on ICH6.)

SATA control settings
Figure 18. Select SATA Controller, set to Type: AHCI, and again tick the Use host I/O cache box.

(Intel AHCI info)

Install Windows 8 on the new virtual PC

The tweaking’s done — you’re ready to roll!

When your Win8 Consumer Preview .iso has finished downloading, all that’s left is to get the new OS installed in the VPC you just created. Here’s how:

Launch the empty VPC
Figure 19. When your Win8 .iso has fully downloaded, click the Win8 item in VirtualBox Manager to launch your newly created — but empty — VPC.

First run wizard
Figure 20. A First Run Wizard will pop up to walk you through the final few steps of getting the VPC running. When you’re ready, click Next.

Locate the iso file
Figure 21. VirtualBox will ask you where the installation media is. Simply navigate to the Windows 8 Consumer Preview .iso file that you previously downloaded.

VirtualBox will be able to directly mount and use the .iso file with no intermediate steps required (e.g., no burning it to CD/DVD first).

Figure 22. A final Summary dialog lets you review the First Run setup. When you’re ready, click Start.

Ready to set up windows 8
Figure 23. After a moment, the Win8 setup will begin.

Congratulations! You’ve now set up an Oracle VirtualBox VPC on your Windows system and configured that VPC to run the Windows 8 Consumer Preview.

All that’s left is to run the Win8 setup and start exploring this radically new OS. And, of course, you’ll get plenty of help from future Windows Secrets articles.

But now, with a VPC as a safe foundation, you can conduct your test drives and experiments with almost zero risk to your current setup!

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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.