How to Use a Virtual Machine

What is a virtual machine and how can you use it to boost your computer efficiency? Tech Talker explains.

Eric Escobar
5-minute read
Episode #116


Listener Margie sent me an interesting question recently. She said:

"Hey Tech Talker, I have a ton of old software that I use on a Windows XP computer. Is there any way I can run this on my new Windows 8 laptop?"

Margie, this is a great question! There are two ways you can do this.>

The first and easiest way to do this is to right click in the program you want to run, click Properties, and then the Compatibility tab. From here you can run your program from almost any version of Windows!

What Is a Virtual Machine?

This is pretty slick and easy if it works for you. However, I've had problems with this in the past especially with elderly software. When this easy trick doesn't work, it's usually best to run a VM or Virtual Machine. Basically this means running a computer within a computer. It allows you to have a completely separate operating system running alongside your current one.

This is pretty magical if you ask me because you can have completely different systems running at once.

Why might this be useful? Well say you're in Margie's shoes. She may have an old XP computer that she is only keeping around for certain legacy software. She could easily create a virtual XP computer on her new laptop and not have to worry about that old machine breaking. Or say she switched operating systems from Windows to Mac; she could easily have windows 7 or XP running within her Mac operating system.

This way she can still use Windows-specific programs that aren't available for her Mac.

Sounds great right? But how is this accomplished?

How to Create a Virtual Machine?

If you want to run Windows on a Mac operating system, your solution is Parallels. The application costs about $60 and it works seamlessly. There are free options that I'll mention in a little bit, but Parallels works so well I would highly recommend paying for it!

Unfortunately, if you want to go in the other direction (that is, run Mac on Windows) is much harder. In fact, it borders on illegal, so I won't be covering how to do that in this podcast. Just know that if you really need it, a solution is out there.

Now my favorite piece of VM software is called Virtual Box. This software is free and works on Windows, Mac, and Linux. It's really easy to use and makes running multiple machines pretty painless.

In order to get a virtual machine up and running you'll need to install Virtual Box and you'll also need a download or CD of the operating system you want to run. If you have the CD, that's probably the easiest method, but some operating systems come in an ISO format.

This file format is essentially a digital CD. You can burn this file to a disk and it will work exactly as an install CD. But instead of burning a bunch of disks, I just keep a folder of these files that I can install from whenenver I need to. Virtual Box makes it easy to simply select the file and install from it.

Keep in mind these install files contain the full operating system, so they can take up anywhere from 1 to 5 gigabytes of space. Make sure you have enough disk space and time before you download these files. I will often burn these ISOs to a DVD or CD so that I'm not wasting hard drive space. You can do this using Windows 7, 8, and Mac operating systems by default or by using imgburn, which is a free burning program.


About the Author

Eric Escobar

Tech Talker demystifies technology and cutting edge devices so that even the most tech illiterate can understand what's going on with their computer or gadget — and what to do when something goes wrong.