Comparing VirtualBox and VMware Workstation Player

Virtual Shootout

Article from Issue 204/2017

VirtualBox and VMware Workstation Player are popular virtualization options that won't cost you a penny. Which is best for you?

For many users, virtualization is a daily part of the computing experience. Test an application? Switch to a different OS without shutting down? Run a program that only works in Windows? The possibilities are endless.

Several popular options exist for supporting virtualization on a Linux workstation; two of the most popular alternatives are VirtualBox and VMware. The common conception is that VirtualBox is a free tool and VMware is a commercial solution with a price tag. The reality is a bit more complicated. VMware does make a no-cost version of their VMware Workstation solution called VMware Workstation Player [1]. VMware Workstation Player is only free for non-commercial uses; if you want to use it for business, you'll need to buy a license.

VirtualBox [2] is indeed a free and open source virtualization solution, but certain advanced features are collected into an extension pack that you'll need to install separately [3]. You can use the extensions without cost for non-commercial purposes. The project website is a little vague on what to do if you want to use the VirtualBox extensions for commercial purposes, but the answer appears to be the VM VirtualBox package from VirtualBox parent company Oracle [4].

If you're tired of dual-booting or switching computers whenever you need to access a different OS, and you're shopping for a virtualization alternative, read on for a look at VirtualBox and VMware Workstation Player. This article compares the free versions of both tools, although you'll also find some notes about the add-on extension packages. Keep in mind, however, that VirtualBox is free as in free speech as well as in beer (with a GPLv2 license) and VMware Workstation Player is free for personal use but does not have a FOSS-style free license.

Installation: VirtualBox

See the box entitled "Testing Environment" for a description of the system used for the tests in this article.

Testing Environment

The operating system used in the test was Linux Mint 18.1 "Serena" KDE (64 bit), which is based on Ubuntu 4.16 LTS. The system used Linux kernel 4.4.0-53-generic, KDE Plasma 5.8.5, and 1.18.4. Windows 10 Home (64 bit) served as the guest.

The test computer equipment included an Intel Core i5 (2 cores 3193 MHz), 8 GB of DDR3 RAM, an ATI Radeon HD 5670, and a Samsung SSD 750 EVO with 500GB of storage space on a SATA-II connector.

Popular distributions such as Ubuntu or Debian may already provide VirtualBox in their package repositories, but the repositories usually don't have the latest version. You can get the latest VirtualBox from the project website [2].

On most systems, you can download the package and click on it in the file manager, and the local package management system will automatically resolve missing dependencies and set up the software. Alternatively, set up the package, together with the libcurl3 dependency, on the command line (Listing 1). If VirtualBox installs properly, you'll see an entry in the start menu under System | Virtual Machine or Oracle VM VirtualBox.

Listing 1

Installing VirtualBox


A more elegant approach is to integrate the VirtualBox repository provided by Oracle with your system. Using the official repository will put you in line to receive future updates without waiting for your distribution to integrate the new version. Open a terminal and type in the command from the first line of Listing 2. Import the required key with the commands from lines 2 and 3. After updating the sources (line 4), set up VirtualBox with the command from line 5.

Listing 2

VirtualBox Repository Install


The basic VirtualBox setup lacks some features, such as USB support. For this extended functionality, you need the proprietary extension pack, which you can still use free of charge for non-commercial purposes. After downloading the extension package, open File | Settings in VirtualBox and select the Additional packages section in the new window. Click on the little blue box with the down arrow, and navigate to the directory where the extension pack is located.

Installation: VMware Workstation Player

VMware makes the VMware Workstation Player application available for download in generic form with the .bundle format [1]. At the time this article was written, the current version was 12.5.6. After downloading, open a terminal and launch the installation by entering:

sudo bash Vmware-Player-<version_number>.bundle

A wizard will take over and manage the installation (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Launch the shell script in the console, and a wizard takes over the VMware Player setup.

A closing dialog in the installation wizard asks for a license key. If you do not have a key, skip this. When the software is launched for the first time, the input window for the license key will reappear.

If you are using the software for your personal use only, it is enough to enter an email address for the license key. However, by entering your address, you automatically agree to receiving advertising. Commercial use of the software requires a license, which costs around $149.99 or EUR130.

VMware Workstation Player's main window is similar to VirtualBox (Figure 2). Use the menubar to set global parameters for the program; guest-specific options are right next to the list of guest systems. However, it is worth noting that the free version of Player has far fewer options than VirtualBox.

Figure 2: The main windows of VMware Workstation Player (left) and VirtualBox (right) appear very similar. The left side of the window contains the list of guest systems and the right side shows the guest configuration.

New Systems

Both Player and VirtualBox include a self-explanatory dialog for creating guest systems. In each case, the dialog asks for the intended operating system and the size of the virtual disk. Virtually all major operating systems support both VirtualBox and VMware Workstation Player, including Windows, Linux, BSD, Solaris, and Novell Netware. Mac OS X interacts with VirtualBox but does not work with VMware Workstation Player.

In Player, you can complete the detailed configuration via Edit virtual machine settings once you have finished the basic program setup. In the Hardware tab (Virtual Machine | Settings), you will find settings for the network, the USB controller, the sound card, and the size of main memory.

The Options tab contains, among other things, settings for remote access, shared folders, and start behavior. The Hard Disk options are remarkably extensive (Figure 3): You can mount a virtual disk in the host, defragment, shrink, or enlarge. You will not find these features in the VirtualBox graphical interface. The exceptionally powerful command-line tool VBoxManage adds some additional options for VirtualBox users [5] if you are comfortable working in a terminal window.

Figure 3: Beyond the sparse main window, VMware Workstation Player provides a variety of options for guests to customize the system's hardware.

In VirtualBox, you can set up the host system by clicking on the Settings icon. In the Display section, set the size of memory of the virtual graphics card, the scaling of the host window, and the number of screens.

VMware Workstation Player allows the addition of up to ten network interfaces in three modes (NAT, Bridged, and Host-only) in the Network Adapter section. VirtualBox serves a maximum of four virtual interfaces that support five different modes in the Network section. Three of them (NAT, Host-only, Bridged) correspond to modes that are available on Player and play the largest role in real-world operations. VirtualBox provides two other adapters that are missing from Player.

Player provides a special function that lets you specify what bandwidth the virtual machine may use for inbound and outbound network traffic. This function ensures that the guest does not negatively affect the host operation. After activating the desired card, click the Advanced button, and a new window will open.

In addition to the parameters that can be accessed via the configuration dialog, VMware Workstation Player also offers other parameters in the BIOS. You can change, for example, the order of booting or USB settings. You need nimble fingers to open the virtual BIOS: The POST appears for just a split second, during which you must press F2. An entry in the configuration file (.VMX ) of the virtual machine (Listing 3) makes sure that the BIOS setup appears first when launching the machine (Figure 4).

Listing 3

Forcing BIOS Setup in Player


Figure 4: The VMware Workstation Player virtual machine even supports virtual BIOS configuration.

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