Virtually Windows 8: How to set up the Consumer Preview in VirtualBox

The Windows 8 beta is here. This is what you need to know to run it in a virtual machine in VirtualBox.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Test out Windows 8 Consumer Preview for yourself with VirtualBox.

Test out Windows 8 Consumer Preview for yourself with VirtualBox.

With the Windows 8 beta, excuse me Consumer Preview, now out it's time for those of who love bleeding-edge operating systems to consider how to test it. Now, you can run the Windows 8 Consumer Preview on its own PC, but this is beta software. While I have PCs just for software that I know darn well isn't ready for prime-time, you probably don't For you, I recommend the use of virtual machines (VM).

The best of these, in my experience, are:

  • Parallels Desktop for Mac
  • VirtualBox 4
  • VMware Fusion 4
  • VMware Player 4
  • VMware Workstation 8
  • Of these, my particular favorite is Oracle's VirtualBox. In my years of working with virtual machines, virtual operating systems just tend to run faster under VirtualBox. Over the years, I've also found that VirtualBox works well no matter what host operating system-Linux, Windows, whatever-I have running under it.

    Gallery Tour: Setting up Windows 8 Consumer Preview with VirtualBox

    Unfortunately, you have needed to tune VirtualBox to work well with the developer releases of Windows 8. The other popular virtualization systems don't require these adjustments. On the other hand, once in shape the alpha releases of Windows 8 worked faster on VirtualBox so, to me, it was worth the extra trouble. Here's how to do it.

    The first thing you'll need to keep in mind is that, whether you use a PC or a VM, you're going to just be testing out the x86 desktop versions. The ARM version of Windows 8 will only be available on pre-installed devices. I'm sure someone will work out a way to boot Windows on ARM (WOA) on other devices or VMs, but we're not there yet.

    Windows 8 is also meant to make more use of the touch interface in addition to the good old Windows, Icons, Menu, and Pointer (WIMP) interface we've been using since we moved to the graphic user interface in the 80s. To test that, whether you go native hardware or VM, you'll need a touch-input capable screen.

    Microsoft will also tell you that you'll need at least the following minimum system requirements.

    • 1 GHz or faster 32-bit (x86) or 64-bit (x64) processor
    • 1 GB RAM (32-bit) or 2 GB RAM (64-bit)
    • 16 GB available hard disk space (32-bit) or 20 GB (64-bit)
    • DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM 1.0 or higher driver
    • Taking advantage of touch input requires a screen that supports multi-touch

    I beg to differ. I can't get Windows 7 to work well with those resources and Windows 8 needs far more than Windows 7 from the processor and RAM. Be it on physical hardware or a VM, I wouldn't try it on less than a 2GHz processor and with at least 2GBs of RAM for 32-bits and 4GBs for 64-bits. In short, you don't want to try to run Windows 8 on an old PC. You won't be happy. That said, any 2011 or newer PC should do fine natively with Windows 8 and, with sufficient RAM, a similar PC will do well running Windows 8 in VirtualBox.

    My Windows 8 test system is a Dell XPS 8300 desktop with a 3.4GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 8GBs of RAM, and a 1.5TB hard-drive. You could get by with less, but for testing a beta version of Windows I find this to be just about right.

    Your PC's chipset and BIOS must also support Intel Virtualization Technology (VT) or AMD's AMD V CPU virtualization extensions. These are both hardware additions that greatly improve a processor's ability to support VMs. For Windows 8 on VirtualBox, or any other VM hosting software, VT or AMD V support is a necessity, not just a good idea.

    Once you have your test PC that can handle the job, you'll need to download a copy of VirtualBox. Even if you already have one, check to make sure you have the newest version. As I write this, the latest edition of VirtualBox is 4.0.16, but Oracle updates it every few months with almost no fanfare. Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if they update it again with the Windows 8 Consumer Preview release.

    Next, grab the new beta of Windows 8 when it's out. You can download it from the Windows 8 Consumer Preview ISO images site. At 2.5GBs for even the "small" 32-bit version, though, you'll need a fast broadband connection to get it. On the other hand, Microsoft's Windows 8 Web site is doing well at handling the demand so if you have the bandwidth you shouldn't have much trouble getting the beta release. On my 100Mbps connection, it took less than half-an-hour.

    While you download the ISO be sure to make a copy of the Product Key. Unlike the Windows 8 Developer Preview, which didn't have one, you'll need this to install Windows 8 Consumer Preview. At this time, for all versions of Windows 8 Consumer Preview, the Product Key is:  DNJXJ-7XBW8-2378T-X22TX-BKG7J.

    If you haven't patched your operating system, you'll want to do that now as well. The last thing you want is an out-of-date problem getting in the way.

    Ready? Then, reboot your computer. You need to make sure that VT or AMD V is activated. It often isn't. If you don't see their controls under the general settings, look for them under the security settings.

    Next take the following steps:

    1. Open VirtualBox and create a new virtual machine, choose Windows/Windows 8 as the type. If that's not an option, you need to update VirtualBox. Be certain to pick the version, 32 or 64-bit that matches your download.
    2. During the initial installation process choose to create a virtual disk. You'll need at least 20GB to get the job done.
    3. For the virtual disk type, I prefer to use VDI (VirtualBox Disk Image), but the others will work as well.
    4. For the virtual disk storage details, I prefer to use a dynamically allocated disk rather than a fixed size virtual disk. That way, if I end up using the VM for production, I don't need to manually give it more room down the road.
    5. Once the virtual disk created, go to Settings and get ready to start tuning.
    6. In the System > Motherboard setting enable IO APIC.
    7. Set the VM's memory to 2GBs for a 32-bit Windows 8 instance and at least 4GBs for the 64-bit version. Remember you can't use all your system's memory for this.
    8. Change the chipset to ICH9. You may also be able to us the PIIX3 chipset, but I see poorer performance with this setting.
    9. Next, move to System > Processors and enable PAE/NX.
    10. If you have a very fast machine with multiple-cores or CPUs, as I do with my six-cored Intel Core i7, you can set it to run with two or three processors. I use two.
    11. Follow this up by going to System > Acceleration and enable VT-x/AMD-V and Nested Paging.
    12. Now move to the left menu bar and go down to Display > Video and enable both 3D and 2D acceleration. After you do this you can push the Windows 8 VM's video memory to 256MB. Do so. Windows 8 needs all the video room it can get.
    13. Hop once more over to the left and under Storage go to your virtual hard drive (.vdi) under the SATA controller and click host I/O cache. While there, your Windows 8 Preview .ISO file should have been mounted already. If it hasn't been yet, mount with IDE and make sure you're using IDE with the ICH6 IDE controller.
    14. Now, start running the virtual machine and follow the standard Windows installation instructions. From here on in it should be just like installing Windows 8 on native hardware.

    Last, but not least, good luck. You will find some trouble along the way-remember this is beta software! Enjoy.

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