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I’ve had a Toshiba laptop with Windows Vista Home on it for the last two years. It’s my main work machine, the one I do all my blogging and web site work on. In that time I’ve had to reformat it back to it’s original “storebought” state twice (the last time about 10 days ago). That’s always a pain because first you have to backup all of your photos, music, and files to an external drive. Then, once you format and reinstall you have to spend a few hours removing all the crap installed from the factory, and installing all the software you need to work.

It’s a dual-core machine with 2GB of RAM, and sometimes it just gets too damn slow for the resources it should have available. I had a virus once, and it was a PITA to remove. A few weeks back the computer got some kind of a glitch, where it would keep trying to load DLL’s that didn’t exist. This was hanging the machine, and it would literally take 5-8 minutes just to open a file folder. I knew the machine HAD to be reformatted and wiped again, because the restore disk only has the option to install from scratch – there is no “repair over the top of existing Windows” like there is from a real original Windows (non-OEM) disk.

I’ve used Ubuntu on my 1.2Ghz 512MB of RAM 7 year old Gateway machine in the basement for the last 5+ years. It stays on 24/7, it has 3 100GB hard drives in it, and I reboot it maybe 5 times a year. I use it almost every night when I play guitar to listen to mp3’s and play along, and I also do web work on it, lookup lyrics, and write content from time to time. It does have WINE of it for Windows emulation, and I did install (and use) TaxCut on it once a few years back with no problems.

I thought about installing Ubuntu on the laptop when I first got it, but didn’t because I have to have a Windows box to login to work remotely using VPN. It requires Internet Explorer, ActiveX, and all that jazz. Since I knew that the laptop had to be reformatted anyway – I decided to try Ubuntu on it and see how it would work before reinstalling Windows. If I had problems, then in with the Vista restore disk and back to MS-land again. I sent to the Ubuntu Web Site and downloaded the 32-bit ISO to burn and install.

If you haven’t used Ubuntu Linux before – you should try it. The install is painless and as easy as Windows, and to most people that don’t know any different – it’s just a “PC”, and they have no problems using it at all. Case and point, we have relatives that were calling me every 3 months because their computer kept locking up and getting viruses. I was sick of it, so I formatted the disk and installed Ubuntu. I installed Java, Flash, Firefox Windows Media plugin and never looked back. I never told them it wasn’t Windows (they aren’t computer people or techie at all) – and they don’t know any different. They think it’s actually some new version of Windows other people don’t have. They’ve had it one year now, and have never called me to ask “how do I do…” anything, and they have not accidentally screwed it up or gotten a virus at all. In fact, both adults in the house were taking online courses at the college using that PC (and printing out papers) with no problems – AND they never called me to setup the printer! I think that’s really saying something about how far Linux has come the last few years.

When you boot from the Ubuntu CD the first option you have is to “boot live and try”, so I decided to try that first and make sure all the hardware worked. Once the desktop came up, I tried a web browser, and everything (including sound) worked great! All drives and hardware components showed up, even my card reader. I plugged in an external drive, no problems there, and the wireless was fine. There was an icon on the desktop “install” – so I took the plunge. In less than 15 minutes I had wiped the disk, installed Ubuntu 8.10 and was on my new desktop.

I set about installing the things I would need to work, Firefox and my required addons, windows and other (quicktime) media codecs, the latest version of Flash, an Acrobat reader, FTP, telnet, some graphics and movie editors, etc. Then I remembered that there were two things I STILL needed Windows for. The first was to login to work via VPN, and the second was to install and edit my Line 6 PodXT tones for my guitar rig. These were both two very specific things I wouldn’t be able to do in Linux at all.

I remembered at work that they were starting to convert the data center over to “virtual machines”. Instead of buying hundreds of rack mounted servers, they were starting to install virtual machines on the mainframe and really big super-computer servers. This had become really big in the IT business world, but had it translated over to mainstream linux yet?

It turns out it has, and Sun is leading the way (or so it appears). Sun has software called Virtual Box, and the personal license is FREE! I was skeptical at first, but downloaded and installed it on my now Ubuntu laptop. I installed the downloaded .deb package, but you can do it from the command line or with Synaptic no problem. USB support is disabled by default, but that’s easily fixed with a tutorial like “how to enable USB in Virtualbox.

Once I installed the software I created a new “Virtual Machine” and called it “WindowsXP”. I gave it 10GB of disk space and 256MB of Ram, 8MB shared video. It said to put in a CD to install, so I popped in an old WindowsXP disk and let it rip! I took about 10 minutes to install and reboot, and about 20 more minutes on Windows famous “first time configuration” runs, and then the “virtual” PC rebooted and presented me with a login screen. I promptly changed the settings to 1024×768 display (my laptop is widescreen 1680px). When I logged in everything was perfect! I fired up an IE browser and downloaded Firefox. I installed quicktime, flash, and acrobat reader. I logged into my desktop PC remotely – no problem! All from within “virtual Windows XP” window on my Ubuntu Linux desktop. When I went to close the Window I was prompted, do you want to “save the state of the virtual machine”, “power off”, or “reboot”.

Wow, I had to think about the power of what all this meant. Let’s say you had an ubuntu box with a 500GB hard drive. You could install Virtual box with WindowsXP, Windows 98, Windows ME, Windows 2000, or even other versions of Linux if you wanted. Personally I would stick with Windows XP, but you could install all your software on it you normally use (like Office), and then “save the state” of the machine. Let’s say you have 3 kids in the house that are notorious for screwing up your PC (or relatives or friends). Give ’em each their own virtual machine. If they screw it up – make another!

Kids like to play Windows based games, need a Windows PC for work – all “virtual machine”. Guess what? VirtualBox has versions you can download and install for both Windows AND Mac (free!) too! So, you can download on Windows and install Linux virtual machines, or even other Windows virtual machines. Install on a Mac to install Windows or Linux virtual machines! The possibilities are endless, and it’s all FREE!!

I’m glad I downgraded my Windows Vista laptop to Ubuntu and Windows XP – it’s the best thing I ever did!