Want to test Vista risk-free? Try virtualization

Living together is pretty accepted way for modern couples to test a relationship before marriage. So shouldn't there be a way for modern computer users to test Microsoft's Windows Vista before making the deep commitment of buying and installing it on their PCs?

There is, using virtualization software. Virtualization is one of the hottest server-side trends today. The technology lets IT managers run multiple applications, with each encapsulated in its own "virtual machine" -- a setup that protects them from crashing one another and minimizes security risks. By letting servers safely run multiple workloads, IT managers can save bucketloads on hardware purchases.

Maximizing CPU usage is less important for desktop users. But virtualization can still be useful, letting users try out applications and even operating systems without having to formally install them.

There are three main virtualization options, all of which support Vista to varying degrees. All are free or offer free trial versions. We take a quick look at each, and then explain issues potential Vista testers face now that the operating system is completed but not yet released to the public.

VMware Server and Player: Feature-rich and free

Longtime virtualization market leader VMware Inc. offers both its VMware Server and VMware Player products to users for free. Using both products is necessary, says Srinivas Krishnamurti, director of product management at VMware, since VMware Server actually creates the Vista "guest" -- also called a "virtual machine" -- in a process very similar to installing the operating system on a PC. Users then install VMware Player on either Linux or any version of Windows up to and including XP, to run the Vista virtual machine.