If you’ve thought about trying Ubuntu or its lower-grunt-requiring sibling, Xubuntu, but haven’t had a spare PC to throw it on and you have wanted to do more than use a live CD, one simple way is to build a virtual PC.

A virtual PC is basically a PC made entirely out of software.

To an operating system, it runs and operates as if it were hardware but the beauty of it is that the whole thing resides as a series of files on your PCs hard drive.

Here’s how you do it:

1. Get the tools

You’ll need to download the following tools:

* VMware Player 3.0.1

* Xubuntu or Ubuntu 10.04

Install VMware Player 3.01 onto your Windows PC. It’s a sizeable download (about 90MB) although 100MB of that is basically a Linux ISO pack of extra tools.

Download your choice of Xubuntu, Kubuntu or Ubuntu 10.04 distros and burn the ISO image to CD. The important thing here is you can’t burn the ISO image as a standard data disc. You need to use your burning software’s “burn ISO image to disc” option. If you can’t find it or your burning software doesn’t have that option, I’ve built a quick and simple tool called ISOtorch, which does the job.

2. Build your virtual PC

Now once you done all that, you need to build your virtual PC and here’s how you do it.

Head over to the easyVMX website and fill out the basic details of your virtual PC or “virtual machine”.

What we’re doing here is creating a set of control files that tells VMware Player, a virtualisation tool, what sort of computer we want to build.

What happens is that the control file tells VMware Player how much memory our Virtual PC has, how much hard drive space it has and importantly, what “guest” operating system it is about to run.

This whole process is called “virtualisation” – it’s huge in business circles and becoming popular with home users for just this purpose – trying out an operating system without dedicating any hardware (or cash) to it.

You can think of virtualisation as the sandwich filling between two slices of bread, the bottom slice being your existing Windows operating system (known as the “host” OS) and the top slice which is your Linux distro you want to try out (also known as the “guest” OS).

Now fill out the spec list on the easyVMX website so that it looks like this:

At this point, you have to remember that although we’re building a computer out of software, it still has to use actual hardware to work, namely memory and hard drive space.

The important thing is that your PC must have sufficient memory and hard drive space to make this work. In this example, you’re about to allocate 512MB of real memory and 10GB of real hard drive space to this “virtual” PC. But you still need to have enough memory and hard drive space for Windows to work so here’s what your PC will need:

* At least 1GB of memory if you’re running Windows XP, 2GB if you’re running Vista or Windows 7

* At least 20GB of hard drive space.

Just as you need to have enough memory to run both Windows and Linux comfortably at the same time, you need to have enough hard drive space free not only for the virtual PC’s “hard drive” but also sufficient reserves to enable Windows to operate effectively.

Now it doesn’t matter which of the Ubuntu flavours you plan to try whether its Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Xubuntu or even the UserOS series of distros developed by Australian PC User magazine, you need to set the guest OS option to “Ubuntu Linux”.

If you’re about to try Xubuntu, you can lower the memory allocation to it down to 256MB. Xubuntu requires less hardware to run than Ubuntu but for good performance 512MB would be ideal.

Now once you’ve got those settings right, you need to click on the “Create Virtual Machine” button. Within a few seconds, you’ll get a new webpage and a download link for your VMX control files inside a ZIP archive.

Now download the My_Virtual_Machine.zip file and unzip it somewhere on your PC’s hard drive (a folder called “VirtualMachines” wouldn’t be a bad idea). Now the clever thing about these control files is that they’re only tiny – about 7KB. But as you install the operating system, the VMDK file will expand. It’s a bit like a self-expanding ISO image file that increases as you fill it up but in this example, it is limited to 10GB and won’t go over it.

3. Run the virtual machine and install your Guest OS

Next, load in your Xubuntu (or whatever Ubuntu-based) distro CD into your PC’s optical drive, navigate to the folder where you unzipped the My_Virtual_Machine.zip file and double-click on the My_Virtual_Machine.vmx file.

This will start VMware Player and it should automatically begin loading up the distro from the CD.

At this point, you’re effectively now running a virtual computer inside your Windows PC that is about to run Linux.

To get control of your virtual PC, you need to move your mouse inside the VMware Player window and click, this will make your Virtual PC active and you can now use the mouse and keyboard to drive it.  To jump back out and get back into Windows, just press +.

The really cool thing about this is that you can run Windows and Xubuntu at the same time. Yep, they’ll both be slower as a result but it means you don’t have to dual-boot or reboot your PC to move between them. You can have access to both at the same time!

Getting rid of a virtual machine

Now if you decide you want to get rid of your virtual machine, that’s easy – just delete the My_Virtual_Machine folder and it’s gone.

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