Are you curious about Windows 8, the upcoming operating system from Microsoft? Try Windows 8 in a virtual machine, right now, for free. All you need to do is download the free ISO file and set up VirtualBox properly.
What can you expect to see in Windows 8? Once thing is clear – it will be very different than any version of Windows before it. The traditional desktop is still there, but most functionality will be replaced with “app” style programs. The main interface is designed with touch screens in mind, replacing the start menu with a tile-driven display of all programs. A lot of people are going to hate this, and I’m sure you’ll read a lot of criticism of Microsoft in the months to come. Instead of taking that to heart though, why not try it out yourself and come to your own conclusion? Thanks to a free download from Microsoft, you can.
Try Windows 8 out in VirtualBox and you won’t have to overwrite your existing system with something unstable. You’ll need a pretty powerful computer to do this well, but if you think your computer can cut it then keep reading. And if you want to dig deeply into Windows 8 before getting started, make sure to check out our Windows 8 guide.
Download Windows 8
The first thing you’re going to need to do is download Windows 8. Don’t worry, this is easy. Just head to Microsoft’s free Windows 8 download page to get started. There’s no need to sign up, and the download links are direct. You’ll need to choose between the 32 and 64 bit versions of Windows 8. If you’re not sure which to choose, pick the 32 bit one; it will work on most computers.
The download took me about a half hour, but obviously your experience will vary depending on your Internet connection. Note that there is no legal torrent for this ISO. You’ll just need to patiently download directly from Microsoft’s servers.
Set Up VirtualBox
You’ll need to install VirtualBox next, which you can download here. It works on Windows, OS X and Linux computers. If you don’t know much about VirtualBox, here’s what you need to know. It allows you to run an entire operating system within the one you already have. Check out the MakeUseOf VirtualBox manual for more information.
Once you’ve got VirtualBox set up, you’ll need to create a new virtual machine to install Windows 8 in. When asked which operating system you’re setting up, choose “Windows 7” (making sure to pick “64 bit” if you downloaded the 64 bit version of Windows 8).
Set aside at least 2GB of memory for your virtual machine (if you don’t have 2GB to spare, you should perhaps not try running Windows 8 in a virtual machine).
Create a new virtual hard drive for Windows 8, unless you’ve got an empty virtual drive kicking around:
The default of 2GB is probably a good idea; don’t go any lower than that. Feel free to go higher, but you don’t need to if you don’t intend to install a lot of applications.
You’ve now created your virtual machine, but there are a few more tweaks to make. Select your new virtual machine, then open the settings. Head to “System” and you’ll see these options:
Be sure to Enable IO APIC; this will make things run better. Then head to the Processor tab and enable PAE/NX. Also head to the Acceleration tab and enable VT-X/AMD-V and Nested Paging. These performance tweaks are recommended by How-To Geek and made a big difference for me.
Install Windows 8
Open the “Storage” section of the preferences, and point your virtual CD drive toward the ISO file you downloaded. Save the changes you made, then start up your virtual machine. If all goes according to plan, you’ll see the Windows installation tool:
Follow its instructions and you should be in Windows 8.
Your mouse will be “stuck” in the virtual machine as you do this. To switch back to your main operating system, press the right control button on your keyboard (assuming you haven’t changed this key from the default).
Why Isn’t Anything Working?
Once you get there you’ll be greeted with an unfamilar scene – the main Windows 8 menu:
You might be frustrated to realize that none of these apps launch, save the traditional Windows desktop. This is because running the new Metro style apps requires a resolution of 1024 X 768 or greater. Head to the Windows Desktop app, then configure your resolution the way you normally would – right-click the desktop, then click “Screen Resolution“. Increase the resolution and you should now be able to run Metro apps.
Have trouble doing this? Installing the VirtualBox Guest additions can help. Click the “Devices” in VirtualBox, then click “Install Guest Additions“. Windows 8 will prompt you to automatically install these additions, but don’t. Head to the Windows Desktop app, then open the Windows Explorer. Head to the CD drive and you’ll find the additions. Right-click the installation file, then set it to run in Windows 7 mode:
Go through the installation, restart, and you should now be able to set your resolution high enough to use Metro apps. I couldn’t get mouse integration working, but I did manage to increase the resolution. Hopefully there will be Windows 8 guest add-ons soon.
If you’ve got Windows 8 running you can now let us know what you think of Microsoft’s upcoming operating system. Do you like it? Please leave us your thoughts in the comments below.
Also feel free to ask questions if you get stuck setting things up, because we’re here to help.