How to test drive Windows 8 Release Preview on a Mac with a virtual machine

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Running Windows 8 within a virtual machine makes trying out Microsoft's latest OS safe and easy

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Apple introduced many significant changes with the release of OS X Lion and Mountain Lion is set to shake things up yet further, making this an exciting time to be a Mac user. However, it’s also an exciting time to be a PC user, and the buzz which surrounds Microsoft’s upcoming Windows 8 release even has some die-hard OS X fans wondering if it’s time to make the jump. If you’re a Mac user who would like to dip a toe into the Windows 8 experience with the minimum of commitment or fuss, here’s how to go about it.

There are a few ways to run Windows 8 Release Preview on a Mac and each has its benefits, but the least invasive and safest method is to make use of a virtual machine such as VMware Fusion 4 in order to virtualize Windows. Think of a virtual machine as being a software emulation of an actual PC and in this way, you can run a completely isolated and remarkably safe "guest" operating system like Windows within your host OS, which in this case is OS X - without the need for Boot Camp, partitioning or anything else which can be potentially destructive.

Before beginning, it's important to note that there's alternatives to VMware Fusion 4. Fusion’s main rival Parallels Desktop 7 is generally considered to be just as capable of running Windows in OS X and there’s even a free cross-platform alternative offered by Oracle called VirtualBox which is also highly regarded. We’re sticking with Fusion today as on balance I believe it to be the most beginner friendly, but each application should offer a broadly similar user experience.

Getting Started

First, head over to the VMware website and enter the relevant details to make an account and download a free 30-day trial of VMware Fusion 4. Once VMware Fusion 4 is duly installed, navigate to Microsoft’s download page for free access to Windows 8 Release Preview and grab an ISO image while making sure to note the product key. If you're not sure which to go for, just grab the 32bit version.

When Windows 8 Release Preview has downloaded, place the ISO on the Desktop for easier access.

If your Mac is underpowered, a quick quit of all running apps and even a reboot may be a good idea at this point in order to free up all possible resources, but otherwise fire up Fusion and you should be presented with the Welcome to VMware Fusion Library splash screen.

Installing Windows 8 Release Preview

Next you need to point VMware Fusion to your downloaded image of Windows 8 Release Preview, so select Create New from the splash screen window and follow the relevant steps laid out by the New Virtual Machine Assistant to install with an operating system disc or image. As there’s no option for a Windows 8 install yet, just select Windows 7 from the drop down menu - it’ll work fine.

Unless you’re confident that you know better, it’s advisable to leave all the default settings as they are and click Finish to begin installing Windows 8 into your newly created virtual machine. Windows will now start the installation process in a new window. If you’d like to make this window full screen, you can do so via the menubar options: View > Fullscreen.

This being a version of Microsoft Windows, you’ll need to enter the aforementioned Product Key from Microsoft’s download page and, annoyingly, copying and pasting doesn’t seem to work, so it'll need inputting manually. When the installer asks, choose the advanced option of Custom Install and the relevant files will begin to copy - this part of the installation process can take a while...

Once the virtual machine has restarted several times and Windows has finally been installed, you’ll be presented with a few options for personalizing the Windows experience. All this is quite self-explanatory and as you’re working within VMware Fusion, the Express Settings will suffice.

You will also be asked to enter a Windows Live account, if you have one. If not, there will be an opportunity to create one.

Finally, let Windows 8 finish the installation process and the Metro interface should soon appear. You will now be able to enjoy the slightly surreal achievement of running Windows within OS X.

Final Thoughts

Keep in mind that RAM is most definitely your friend and if you decide that you enjoy running Windows inside a virtual machine, now may be a good time to add some more RAM to your machine - as with money and beer, the more RAM you’ve got, the more fun you’re going to be able to have.

One of the many benefits of running an OS within a virtual machine like VMware Fusion is that when quitting VMware Fusion, your Windows 8 session will be “suspended.” That is, it’ll be exactly as you left it when you load back up Fusion.

For further reading on what Windows 8 can offer, check out these articles detailing the features unveiled at each stage of the development of Microsoft’s new OS:

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