Testing A New Operating System? Stay Secure With A Virtual Machine

Joel Lee 30-10-2014

When Microsoft released the Windows 10 Technical Preview, many users installed it without a second thought. It turned out to be unsuitable as a main OS Why The Windows 10 Technical Preview Should Not Be Your Main OS If you think Windows 10 is a keylogger, you know nothing about the purpose of a Technical Preview. That's OK because we're here to explain. Read More and users scrambled to revert back to Windows 7 or 8. None of that would’ve been necessary if they had just used a virtual machine instead 3 Easy Ways To Install Windows 10 Technical Preview You can try Windows 10 Technical Preview for free and help Microsoft polish its new flagship operating system. Before you install it, make sure you choose the best method for your needs. Read More .


If the term “virtual machine” soars over your head, don’t worry. It’s not as hard as you think and you’ll benefit greatly from using one. Here’s why.

What Is A Virtual Machine?

Simply put, a virtual machine (VM) is a program that allows you to emulate a separate operating system on your computer. Your main operating system is called the host while the emulated operating system is called the guest. For example, through the magic of virtualization, you can run an emulated Ubuntu guest on a Windows host.

Of course, the topic of virtualization is much more sophisticated than that, but you don’t need to know how a virtual machine works if all you want to do is use one. For the curious, however, you can check out our overview of virtual machines What Is a Virtual Machine? Everything You Need to Know Virtual machines allow you to run other operating systems on your current computer. Here's what you should know about them. Read More for more information.


Choosing a VM for personal use is actually not that difficult:


Without virtualization, your options for testing out a new operating system are limited. You can either dual boot (which can be tricky to set up depending on the circumstance) or you can install on a separate machine (which isn’t always available).

Unless you know what you’re doing, we highly recommend using a virtual machine.

The Benefits of a Virtual Machine

The virtual machine’s primary advantage is that it provides a sandbox environment for an operating system: the host OS grants access to a set of tightly controlled resources that the guest OS can use while preventing access to all other resources. Or, in other words, the guest OS can only play with sand that the host OS provides.

Why does this matter?


No matter what you do, you can rest assured that the host OS and the guest OS are entirely separate. This gives you free reign to experiment within the boundaries of the virtual machine without any fear of impacting data outside of the virtual machine.


Similarly, if you happen to acquire a virus while using a guest OS, it can’t run amok and damage the host OS. Within a virtual machine, malicious software is bound by the same sandbox as the operating system itself.

If something goes wrong and you can’t boot up a guest OS anymore, you can reinstall it and start over hassle-free. Or if you decide that a certain OS isn’t for you, you can uninstall it with one click. Under one virtual machine, you can try out dozens of different operating systems without any risk.


The sandbox concept exists elsewhere, too. For example, Chrome runs its tabs in sandboxes to maximize security while Firefox runs its plugins in a sandbox for similar reasons. To learn more, check out our piece on why sandboxes are good What's A Sandbox, And Why Should You Be Playing in One Highly-connective programs can do a lot, but they're also an open invitation for bad hackers to strike. To prevent strikes from becoming successful, a developer would have to spot and close every single hole in... Read More .

The Drawbacks of a Virtual Machine

While virtual machines are awesome, they aren’t perfect.

Perhaps the biggest downside is that the guest OS is subordinate to the host OS. If something happens to the guest, the host remains fine; the opposite is not true. If the host’s data gets corrupted, it could affect the guest, perhaps even rendering it unusable. It’s not a likely event but still possible.

You also don’t get the full power of your computer in the guest OS. Ultimately the guest is still running as a program on the host and the host will always require some of the computer’s resources (mainly the CPU) to keep the guest running. As a result, a virtualized OS will perform worse than if it were installed natively.



Lastly, depending on your setup, it’s possible to run into driver issues on the guest. This is becoming less of an issue as virtualization software matures, but if your combination of hardware + virtual machine + operating system isn’t supported, you may find that some components don’t function.

But from the big picture perspective, the benefits far outweigh these drawbacks. Virtual machines solve a number of serious issues and these drawbacks are nothing more than inconveniences at worst.

Testing out a new operating system? Always use a virtual machine! There’s simply no reason not to. You lose out on nothing yet gain everything. The learning curve is shallow and you’ll thank yourself in the end.

If you’re convinced, get started with VirtualBox How To Use VirtualBoxes Free Images To Test & Run Open Source Operating Systems [Linux] Quickly try out a wide variety of open source operating systems, some you're familiar with and some you aren't. You can start browsing now at Virtualboxes, a website that takes almost all the work out... Read More or get started with VMware Player Run Multiple Operating Systems At Once With VMware Player We’ve lavished attention on VirtualBox here at MakeUseOf, and for good reason. However, VirtualBox isn’t your only option for creating and using free virtual machines. VMware Player, VMware’s free product, is every bit as good... Read More now. Any questions? Concerns? For VM veterans, do you have any tips or advice to share? Do let us know by posting a comment below. Thanks!

Image Credit: Windows Emulation Via Flickr, Virtualization Diagram Via National Instruments, Hardware Error Via Shutterstock

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  1. Anonymous
    June 9, 2015 at 8:34 pm

    I'm one of the people that used Windows 10 without a second thought

  2. Randal J Sheppard
    November 19, 2014 at 12:29 pm

    I installed Virtual Box to run Windows 10 on my Windows 8.1 Pro (64 bit) machine, but the option of picking (64 bit) Windows 8.1 wasn't there to pick for a host system when trying to install Windows 10. My research indicates something to do with Hypet V.,,,,can anyone clarify that? Thanks....

  3. pmshah
    November 2, 2014 at 3:05 am

    Apart from being free they might earn a few pennies for distributing it.

    • pmshah
      November 6, 2014 at 3:44 pm

      @Joel Lee

      I can't honestly say that I do. It is either hit or miss. Unfortunately one doesn't have a choice in selecting the emulated hardware !

      Generally I have tested different Linux distros in VM. With windows as a rule I haven't had a problem until I actually tried to install Win XP on an Acer machine with nVidia chipset. The system would simply hang after the first reboot due missing boot time nVidia sata drivers in the installation iso. It took me a while to figure and sort this out by hunting the internet for the correct drivers and including them as boot time drivers in the nLited XP iso .

  4. pmshah
    November 1, 2014 at 2:08 am

    There is no guarantee that an OS that works in VM will work on actual hardware. I have found that quite a bit of hardware emulation replicates (virtualises) Intel variety which will not work if you are on AMD platform or have nVidia chip set.

    I have only tested 2 of the 3 mentioned here. Virtual Box from Oracle has absolutely never worked for me and VmPlayer has always worked.

    • KT
      November 1, 2014 at 3:14 pm

      I noticed that too. Most of the new Linux distors I've toyed with lately have Virtual Box from Oracle pre-installed. I'm not sure why.

    • Joel Lee
      November 6, 2014 at 3:28 pm

      Good point! I haven't run into this issue myself but I can see how it would be true. Do you have any advice on detecting whether an OS that works in VM wouldn't work on hardware?

  5. John Andrews
    October 31, 2014 at 11:15 pm

    I use Virtual Box on my Linux Mint 16 maching to test new versions of Linux. Some work nicely and some don't. Frequently it is the video driver that gets in the way. Always no damage done, though. Fun to see the new distros and what they can do.

    • Joel Lee
      November 6, 2014 at 3:29 pm

      Yeah, video drivers have tended to be my worst issue as well. Network drivers used to be a big problem a few years ago, but I haven't run into any of those in a while.

  6. John
    October 31, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    One of the biggest drawbacks I find is printing from the virtual machine...unless they solved that problem.

    • Joel Lee
      November 6, 2014 at 3:32 pm

      Interesting. I've never actually printed from a VM (I just don't print much in general) so I don't know much about it. Hopefully someone else can chime in here.

  7. sachindranath
    October 31, 2014 at 7:26 am

    I tested it on Microsoft Hyper V. It is fine.

  8. sachindranath
    October 31, 2014 at 7:26 am

    I tested it on Microsoft Hyper V. It is fine.

  9. Mark D
    October 30, 2014 at 10:06 pm

    I am running Windows 10 Preview on VirtualBox, along with Linux Mint, and (shh....) OS X Mavericks. They all get along just fine. Make sure your system has enough RAM to handle your virtual machines.

    • Joel Lee
      October 31, 2014 at 2:41 pm

      RAM is very important when dealing with virtual machines. Having a good bit of spare CPU can be useful as well. Thanks!