By Gregg Keizer

Sometimes one operating system just isn’t enough—for example, when you’re debugging new software or testing antivirus programs. When that’s the case, turn to VMware Workstation 3.0, an industrial-strength utility that uses software, disk space, and part of a real PC’s memory to emulate hardware of a different system type. Like Sybil, your computer will sport multiple personalities—say, Linux, Windows 95, and Windows XP—on one PC. VMware Workstation is pricey, can be tough to configure, and requires that you buy additional OSs to populate its virtual machines, but it’s incredibly stable, fast as all get-out, and sophisticated enough for the most advanced applications. Virtual PC is a cheaper and easier buy for home users, but VMware Workstation is the way to go for businesses and demanding power users. Click here to check the manufacturer’s latest price on VMware Workstation 3.1.

Start with Windows or Linux
VMware Workstation lets you build virtual machines on either Windows or Linux host PCs. The Windows version requires NT, 2000, or XP on the host, while the Linux edition needs Red Hat, SuSE, or Linux-Mandrake distributions. VMware’s list of guest OSs, those you can install in the virtual machines you create within the application, is a lot longer: MS-DOS, any edition of Windows (back to 3.1 and as recent as XP), and any version of Linux.

Figure A
VMware Workstation allows users to create multiple virtual computers that can run DOS, Windows, or Linux and provides sophisticated virtual networking tools. It was rated an 8 out of 10 by CNET editors.

Installing Workstation is a snap, and preparing a virtual, or guest, PC is just as easy. We set up the Windows version of Workstation 3.0, which includes a nifty wizard that walks you through the creation chore in less than five minutes. All you do is answer a few simple questions, including how much disk space you want to dedicate to the virtual computer’s hard drive(s) and which OS you’ll slap on it.

Expensive extra OSs
The roughest part is installing an operating system on the empty virtual machine. Unlike thriftier Virtual PC for Windows, VMware Workstation accepts only full-installation OS versions, not OS upgrades. And although adding Windows to a virtual machine is usually straightforward, you’ll probably need to do a little manual labor. To create a Windows 95 virtual machine, for instance, we had to partition and format the virtual drive ourselves.

Substandard sharing, sophisticated networking
Unlike Virtual PC for Windows, VMware Workstation lacks several features that make it easy to share information between the real and the not-so-real PCs. Where Virtual PC lets you drag and drop files between the two and set up shared folders on a whim, Workstation makes you use virtual networking—linking the OSs together—to establish connections between the host and guest(s).

Figure B
VMware Workstation 3.0 allows you to run a full version of Windows 98 on an XP machine. It’s stable and fast but probably too complicated for the casual user.

To compensate, VMware excels at replicating complex networks. It installs virtual switches that bridge to the physical network, making the virtual system just another node on the network, or lets you create completely virtual networks inside the host PC from a series of virtual machines. Workstation supports up to three virtual network cards and nine virtual Ethernet switches, allowing ridiculously complex phony networks.

We set up two networks: one that let us use the host’s Internet connection and the other a more sophisticated setup that connected three real PCs and two virtual computers. We didn’t encounter any trouble with either, although it took us more than an hour to get everything working each time. Bottom line: Virtual PC, although less sophisticated in its networking, is much easier to configure for sharing Net connections and files.

Better than before
Workstation 3.0 includes a host of improvements over earlier editions. It no longer limits virtual drives to 2 GB; you can now create drives as large as 256 GB. Workstation 3.0 also supports USB and CD-R/RW and DVD drives. We noticed some performance improvements in this version, particularly when it comes to screen redraw times and the texture of mouse movement. The latter is smooth as silk within the virtual machines, a welcome change over the last edition’s sometimes herky-jerky mouse behavior.

Fast as greased lightning
Because VMware’s host and virtual machine share the processor’s time, the faster your real CPU and the more memory you can dedicate to each virtual machine, the closer the fake comes to the real thing. But there’s no denying that Workstation 3.0 packs serious speed. Our virtual machines were superquick as long as we dedicated at least 128 MB of RAM to each. In these pretend PCs, the OSs booted quickly and opened applications and finished complex chores (including image editing) without any noticeable delays or crashes—a performance comparable to Virtual PC’s.

When things go awry, however, VMware’s tech support is substandard. You can access a limited online FAQ, cruise user newsgroups, and e-mail questions during the first 30 days, but after that, individuals will have to fork over $90 per incident for phone or e-mail support. Businesses can sign up for additional support plans, but only for a minimum of $1,000. Ouch.

For power users only
At $299 a pop, VMware Workstation is not for the casual tinkerer. But for power users and professionals who demand industrial-quality emulation for modeling networks or running multiple OSs on a single box, there’s nothing better.

Complete specs
Click here to check the manufacture’s latest price on VMware Workstation 3.1. Table A lists the complete product specifications.
Table A

Compatibility PC
Version 3.0
Manufacturer VMware Inc.
Package type Retail
Localization English
Distribution media Download
Software license pricing Standard
Software license qty 1 user
Software license type Complete package
System Requirements
Min operating system Microsoft Windows 2000/NT4, Microsoft Windows XP
Min hard drive space 500 MB
Min processor type Intel Pentium II 266 MHz
Min RAM size 128 MB
Interface devices CD-ROM

This product review was originally published by CNET on Dec. 12, 2001.