How-to: Run Windows 8 Preview in VirtualBox

Following the Build Conference this week, Microsoft has released a Developer’s Preview version of Windows 8, complete with the Metro UI front end and sample Metro-style apps. Go to the Microsoft Developer’s Network (MSDN) and you can download any of several preview versions of Windows 8 compiled for 32-bit and 64-bit systems, either with or without a full set of developer tools. Given the heavily qualified disclaimers (below) you probably don’t want to erase your Windows 7 to put this on your production machine.

The alternative is to run it in a virtual environment such as Microsoft’s own Virtual PC or Oracle VirtualBox, as long as you have a recent enough processor with virtualisation support (‘Hardware Virtualisation Technology’).

Create a Windows 8 machine VirtualBox
VirtualBox settings for Windows 8Creating a new machine instance in VirtualBox is fairly straightforward if you recognise that Windows 8 is a demanding release full of the latest whizz-bang technology and tune the set-up for best performance. I made some educated guesses as to the guest settings which saved a few hours frustration encountered by other testers.

Create a new virtual machine in Oracle VirtualBox.
Here are the settings I used, which, aside from the network controller, are my original guesses which work. Other combinations of settings may give better performance, I will let you know.

  • Select Windows and Windows 7 for the operating system type and version.
  • Base memory needs to be at least 1024Mb for the 32-bit Preview, more if you can afford it.
  • Select Enable IO APIC option – essential!
  • For processors, change the default of 1 to 2 if you have a dual-core processor.
  • You can enable PAE/NX on the Processor tab if you have it supported in your Host kernel.
  • Enable the VT-x and Nesting Paging options – essential!
  • Under Display, give it the maximum 128Mb and enable both 3D and 2D acceleration to get any graphics performance out of it.
  • For Storage, create an IDE controller, do NOT use a SATA controller, it will fail.
  • Create a new IDE primary master hard drive. Expanding storage will work fine. I always use a default of 20Gb.
  • Add a CD drive and point it at the Windows 8 Preview ISO disk image.
  • Enable Audio, choose your host audio controller – matching to your default audio stack that works on the host – and set an Audio controller type for the Windows 8 guest. ICH AC97 is a safe, if stuttering, choice.
  • Under Networking, select Enable Network Adapter with attachment type of NAT. You will need to open the Advanced tab and choose INTEL PRO/ 1000 8245OEM as the PCnetFast adapters don’t appear to work. Default MAC address should be good. Make sure Cable Connected is checked.
  • Enable USB if you need it.

Install Windows 8 in VirtualBox
With the Windows 8 Preview disk image file (.iso) attached to the storage controller, you can boot normally into the installer, which is a guided process in surprisingly few steps through a pleasing green-liveried set of screens. Installation proceeds quickly to complete copying files, but the configuration, including device detection and set-up can take some time. If you’re lucky you can get up and running in thirty minutes, although mine took two and a half hours. I have no idea what it was really doing behind various black or green screens, the progress messages are a bit vague.

VirtualBox Guest Additions
Fortunately, my networking and screen resolution is excellent (not quite perfect) in VirtualBox. Not everyone is having such a good time. Normally VirtualBox Guest Additions would help to fix this, but the bad news is: VirtualBox Guest Additions won’t install at all on 32-bit. It’s a no go. I expect the VirtualBox team to be up late coding a new version, but for now, there’s too much new code in the Windows 8 stack and it is incompatible. The Guest Additions installer will fail the version check when looking for Windows2000/Vista/XP software. The fixes reported by other testers only appear to apply to the 64-bit version, where you can use the /force option when running it from a command line with Admin permissions in the Windows 8 guest.

Windows 8 Preview DesktopThere it is; as the screenshots show, Windows 8 Developer Preview running happy and so far stable in VirtualBox, if a little slowly in places. The Metro and Aero graphic animations and transitions mostly work, albeit with a little stutter and jerk at times. Application performance can be slow in my virtual machine. I will be playing with settings to see what I can do. AJS

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