Happy Windows 8 Consumer Preview day! Or, rather, happy day-after-Windows-8…. you get the idea. As an astute Maximum PC reader, you’re no doubt itching to get your hands on a not-quite-final build of Windows 8 to tinker around with.
But here’s the problem: You like using your current operating system. In fact, you probably have a great number of files, applications, and games all intertwined with your current operating system. And the absolute last thing you want to do – aside from learning how to use the Metro UI (we kid, we kid) – is back up everything within your operating system, wipe your drive, and introduce a fresh-faced Windows 8 into your life as your primary OS. Just think of all the application reinstallations you’ll have to go through! (Ninite is your friend, but we digress)
Luckily, you have two awesome options when it comes to testing out Windows 8 without mucking up your primary Windows installation, settings, files, or any of that. You can split your current hard drive storage setup to create an extra, blank partition – Windows 8 goes there. Or, if you just want to monkey around in a self-contained environment within your current operating system, you can install Windows 8 onto a virtual PC.
Which do you pick? It’s entirely up to you. A dedicated installation on a new partition gives Windows 8 the full attention of your system’s mighty resources. The downside? You’ll have to suffer through the boot menu every time you load your PC; You won’t be able to access your true “primary” operating system from Windows 8; Any changes (or issues) you create are permanent, as you don’t really get a chance to “roll back” that which you’ve done.
Virtualization, on the other hand, costs you system resources and overall speed – it can be a real hog – but it allows you to marry Windows 8 to your existing operating system. Transferring files is easy; Jumping between the two operating systems is easier; You can test out apps in Windows 8 and still be able to use them in your existing OS if things go sour; And, most importantly, you can quickly revert back to prior versions of the OS and easily delete your virtual Windows 8 once you’re done toying around.
That’s a super-quick overview of some of the pros and cons of dual-booting versus virtualization. Here’s how you do both:
Grab the Windows 8 Consumer Preview setup file and give ‘er a run. While your version of the operating system downloads (32-bit or 64-bit, depending on what the setup program picks for your PC), go check your available hard drive space in Windows explorer. You’ll need to have at least 16 free gigabytes for a 32-bit installation of Windows 8 or 20 free gigabytes for a 64-bit installation.
Once finished, Windows will prompt you to install Windows 8 by giving you three options to pick from: “Install Now,” “Install on another partition,” and “Install later.” Pick option number two (partition), and the subsequent screen will ask you how you want to go about creating the installation media you’ll need to use.
While we always recommend that you let Windows 8 create an installation vehicle out of a USB key when possible (it’s just so speedy), your success in getting this approach to actually install Windows 8 entirely depends on just how well your motherboard supports USB-based installations. In other words, it might not work for you: We’ve previously run into problems when plugging our flash drives into USB 3.0 slots to perform the installation, so avoid that if you find yourself hitting your head against the wall when trying to install Windows 8 using a USB drive.
The Windows Consumer Preview setup program will automatically format your key and slap the necessary files on it. As this process chugs along, fire up your control panel (Windows 7 users) and click on the Administrative Tools icon. From there, double-click on “Computer Management,” and then select the “Disk Management” option on the left-hand sidebar. Roll up your shirtsleeves: It’s time to partition your hard drive.
Everyone’s hard drive setup can vary, so we’ll just walk you through the basics of splitting a single drive partition into two. Right-click on the graphical storage “chunk” that’s home to your primary NTFS volume (C:) and select “Shrink Volume.” Input just how much you want to shave off your primary operating system’s partition – remember, 1,024 megabytes equals one gigabyte -- and hit the “Shrink” button.
What do you get? A new chunk of black, unallocated space to the right of your once-larger primary partition. Right-click on this empty space and select “New Simple Volume.” The prompts are fairly self-explanatory after this point – just make sure to give your new partition a recognizable name and format it as an NTFS partition. Voila. You’re ready to install Windows 8.
Once the Windows Consumer Preview setup program has finished with your USB key, restart your computer. As it reboots, watch your boot sequence for any prompts related to “booting” or “boot order” – in our case, we only have to hit the F12 key to access a “select where you want to boot from” menu. But since your motherboard is surely different, this option might be mapped to another key. Or, worse, you might have to go into your BIOS settings and change the order of how your system boots off of its various devices. Again, this setting is found in different places on different motherboards, so you’re on your own for this small – but critical – step.
Select the correct option – USB HDD, in our case – reboot your computer, and the official Windows 8 installation program should automatically fire up. Click on the “Install Now” button, enter you product key (that you received way back when creating your USB Windows 8 installer), accept Microsoft’s license terms, and select the option for a “Custom” installation. Pick the partition you previously created (hence the importance of giving it a good and noteworthy name), click on “Next,” and go make yourself a pleasant beverage while you wait for the installer to work its magic.
From there, it’s all downhill: Windows 8 will reboot your system a few times before the installation finishes, and it’ll then ask you a series of questions to help you personalize your operating system prior to the first official run – including asking you to log into your official Microsoft account, if you so choose. One last tip, however: When you go to reboot your system to actually load Windows 8 for the first time, take out your USB key during your motherboard’s boot sequence. If not, and if you set your system to always boot off any available USB devices before your hard drive, you’ll find yourself continually looping back to the Windows 8 installation program. That’s just silly.
Who needs partitions when you can just run your new operating system within your operating system? Once you’ve downloaded the Windows 8 Consumer Preview installation files and the setup program is asking you where you’d like to slap ‘em – on a USB key or as an ISO file to burn to a DVD – you’re going to want to pick the ISO option this time. Save the ISO file somewhere on your computer, but don’t go reaching for the DVDs just yet – no need.
Head on over to the official website of the (free) virtualization software Oracle VM Virtualbox (hereafter called simply “Virtualbox”) and download the setup file. Why are we not using Windows Virtual PC, you Windows 7 users might ask? Simple: It doesn’t support 64-bit installations of operating systems. Virtualbox does, and is every bit as free as Microsoft’s app.
Once you’ve installed Virtualbox, click on the big ol’ “New” button in the app’s upper-left-hand corner. Enter a good name for your virtual machine on the next prompt and make sure that both Microsoft Windows and Windows 8 are selected within the corresponding “OS Type” drop-downs (it goes without saying).
From here, there aren’t a lot of options that you really need to edit – you can pass through most using the default options that VirtualBox has already selected on your behalf, save for those we mention below.
Click Next until you’re given a slider that asks you to adjust how much memory you want to assign to you virtual operating system. Windows 8 require a minimum of one gigabyte to run; If you can spare it, up your virtual machine to at least two gigabytes (2,048 megabytes).
Now, where are you going to physically store your operating system’s files? On a virtual hard drive, of course! The option to “Create new hard disk” is selected by default once you reach VirtualBox’s Virtual Hard Disk screen. That’s great. Click Next until you reach the screen where you’re asked to set your hard drive’s size. Remember: 16 gigabytes minimum for a 32-bit installation, 20 gigabytes minimum for a 64-bit installation. Adjust your size as you see fit, then click Next (selecting all the default prompts from that point forward) until you’re taken back to the main Oracle VM VirtualBox Manager screen. Almost there!
Highlight your new Virtual Machine and click on the big “Settings” icon above. While you can fiddle with a number of advanced settings to boost the performance of your to-be-Windows 8 installation – like adding support for more of you CPU’s cores within the “System” menu – the most critical piece of the puzzle that you need to set into place is your Windows 8 installation CD. Or, in this case, the ISO you previously made that your Virtual Machine will need to mount to install the OS.
Click on the “Storage” option on the left-hand menu on the Settings window. Under “IDE Controller,” you should see a big fat “Empty” next to an icon of a DVD. Click on "Empty." Then, click on the icon of a CD that appears next to the “CD/DVD Drive” drop-down menu on the right portion of the Settings window. Go find your ISO file. Click “OK” to mount the disc and exit out of the Settings window.
Ready? Click on the big green “Start” arrow after you’ve clicked on your Windows 8 virtual machine. Run through the Windows 8 installation process (it’s easy, since you’re just custom-installing the operating system to a single virtual hard drive), run through the Windows 8 personalization process, and enjoy your new OS within an OS.
Sounds simple? Installing the Windows 8 Consumer Preview is a piece of cake. But if you just want a quick checklist for both dual-booting and virtualizing the operating system, well, we aim to please: