VirtualBox and VMware are two of the most popular virtualization apps you can get for your PC. Between them, they let you run virtual machines of the most popular operating systems from the whole spectrum of platforms – Linux and its many distros, Android, even macOS.
But the two virtualization heavyweights have their differences. Both have free and premium versions, each offering a different degree of functionality and variations in performance. Here we weigh the two up against each other, helping you decide which one is best for your needs.
We’ll mainly be comparing the free versions of VirtualBox and VMware, though will also mention the premium versions when relevant.
VirtualBox is distributed with the GNU General Public License and is free for everyone to use. Its Extension Pack is also free for personal, educational or evaluation use, but requires a Enterprise license fee for commercial use.
VMware Workstation Player is free for non-commercial, personal and home use. The Workstation Pro comes with a fee, but provides more advanced virtualization solution.
Both VirtualBox and VMware offer vast repositories of virtual machines you can use. VirtualBox maybe has a bit of an edge here because it has a whole bunch virtual machine options built into it (macOS, Windows XP, various Linux builds and so on). Obviously for licensed products like Windows and macOS, you’ll need to legitimately procure the boot media to actually use them.
VirtualBox has one feature that really separates it from VMware Workstation Player, and that’s snapshots. These are essentially save-states that let you save a virtual machine in its exact state at that moment. You can then return to that exact point in its usage whenever you like, or even transfer that snapshot to use on another system. You can also download an extension pack that adds support for USB 2.0 and 3.0 devices, virtual disk encryption etc.
In VMware Player, you’ll need to download specific drivers with the virtual machine to add USB 2 and 3 support, while certain older OSes, like Windows Vista, won’t allow it altogether. VMware only offers snapshots and the option to run multiple VMs simultaneously in the paid Workstation Pro, which comes with a whole host of other features related to networking and security that will particularly benefit enterprise users.
Overall, both VirtualBox and VMware make it very easy to get virtual machines up and running. They also both have useful features like shared folders, drag-and-dropping of windows between guest and host, and shared data transfers.
It’s in the area of performance that a gap starts really opening up between VirtualBox and VMware.
Testing of various virtual machines has shown VMware Player to have much faster performance than VirtualBox, which suffers from slowdowns and bugs that really become visible if you start dabbling in games or more demanding software.
The drag-and-drop feature, which is in both VirtualBox and VMware Player, often doesn’t work in VirtualBox, and can even cause the entire app to crash.
In general, the more powerful your PC, the less visible VirtualBox’s performance problems become, as your PC can make up for its shortcomings. But not everyone has access to a high-end machine, so if you’re looking for performance above all then the free version of VMware wins out.
Both VirtualBox and VMware utilize a NAT interface to communicate with guest machines, and let the guest machines communicate with each other (assuming you’re running more than one). But the NAT setup isn’t quite as effective in VirtualBox, because it relies on port forwarding.
VMware has an advantage here, in that it directly uses the host’s adapter in the virtual machine’s NAT virtual switch. This makes it much simpler and faster for all the guest machines to “see” the host in their networks.
For people just starting out in virtualization, or simply wanting to test apps in various operating systems, both VirtualBox and VMware do a good job. VMware is more stable and offers better graphics support, so will work better if you, for example, want to play Android games in an Android virtual machine. VirtualBox does however have a few more features that may interest those wishing to play around in multiple VMs simultaneously (and snapshots are awesome).
For bigger businesses and enterprise users however, VMware’s paid offerings like vSphere and Workstation Pro offer a lot more versatility with things like networking and server virtualization. In other words, for professional purposes, it’s worth paying up to get VMware’s more advanced products.
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