virtual pc & usb toolbox

Some time ago, my dear friend Mr. Burns advised me to install an english operating system (OS) like WinXP on my notebook so that I will have less problems explaining things on it whenever I’d need it for a presentation in an english speaking environment.

Being the typical Geek 1.0, I was first irritated by the idea of installing yet another OS on my beloved machine and didn’t want to spoil the MS-dominated bootsector and other vital parts of my german WinXP version that could be affected by another OS.
And then, again, I keep on forgetting about the two virtual pc environments that have come up in the past and that I and many others have written about. For those who need to know – well, you most prolly already know this, but for the computer beginners, let me just explain this: there is a secure, hassle-free way to have more than one operating system runing on your computer. But why would you want that?

The average Windows user out there installs a few programmes for testing, dislikes them and decides to de-install them again. The deinstallation process though does not cover ALL parts of the previous installations and “forgets” some additional files that are left on the harddisk for eternity (~ until your next installation of Windows). And there are many user-utilities that have no other purpose than cleaning up your messed up installation of Windows and/or lost entries in the Windows-registry (where, as the name suggests, all programmes are registered for use with the operating system). You end up getting a messed up Windows that needs to be re-installed / repaired / etc.. And all this just because you wanted to test this or that small tool you urgently needed to rip-music cds, flash mobile phones, draw a picture in CAD or maybe because you were testing diverse media players that each come with their own setup-installation-routine.

Or in other words: most beginners need to take time to understand which programmes they want to use on their Windows OS and will have a collection of programmes they are going to install after a clean installation of windows.

The solution is to use so-called virtual machines – which are nothing else but virtual environments right on your existing operating system that create a single file into which a whole operating system can be loaded / installed.

Let’s say you want to try out a Linux distribution like the popular Kubuntu 6.06 and already figured you wouldn’t want this to run from a so-called Live CD (= boots from the CD without any installation). Neither are you willing to screw your existing Windows bootsector by installing a Linux Loader tool that gives you the option which OS to start during the boot-up process. And although there’s always a way for the experienced user to solve such problems, what we are looking for are simple, fast and free solutions. After all, all you wanted to do is (safely) testing a piece of software….
Instead, you might be interested in creating a so-called virtual machine. Something that gives you access to a full Linux environment AT THE SAME TIME while you are using Windows XP without restarting/rebooting your computer.

And as I’ve mentioned earlier, there are two choices for that: the MS Virtual PC and VMWare.

The MS Virtual PC (demo) is a free download from MS that enables you to set up a virtual environment on your existing Windows OS. After installation, you are guided through a set up process and open a new virtual pc. A window pops up and you get a black screen, a virtual pc booting a virtual BIOS. From this point onwards, you can install either another MS operating system, or even load a virtual ISO (image file) to install a Linux distribution. Basically anthing that you would also install on your computer from that level.
VMWare offers an alternative for the more professional user – it is able to handle processes in a different way and has much more options. VMWare offers a player (VMWare player) that is able to “play” pre-installed virtual machines (operating systems and aplliances) which can be downloaded from the Virtual Machine Center for free!

And as much as I love the VMWare player, the MS Virtual PC software seems to be adequate enough for my purposes as it provides an english OS at the click of a button. Simple as that! :-)

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The other day, I blogged about tools that start right from your very own USB memory stick.

You don’t need to be in a developing country to experience what it means to have restricted access to your own computer. Let’s say you are a traveller and would like to check your e-mail from an internet café somewhere on this planet. You’re lucky you’ve found a free seat and have already gotten over the fact that the guys running the café are ripping you off with the amount you pay per minute surfing. Aaargh….yahoo/hotmail/gmail/etc – the webmailer takes ages to load and opening a single page is a pain. Advertisment banners load first (unless you’re using a prof. webmailer) and you end up paying extra money just for reading and answering your mail. Remember: you’re paying for the amount of time you’re online.

Now, in a country like Kenya, not everyone has his/her own computer. Even less ppl have access to the internet – but USB memory sticks are for sale at a reasonable price. The idea is to make use of USB memory sticks other than just storing personal data. Applications that are installed onto the USB stick and run from it. I know there are already some models out there that come shipped with pre-installed applications, but instead of focusing on the software only, I would still like to point out the benefit you get while using software installed on your memory stick instead of using the browser the internet café offers:

  • You are using your own software and can personalize the browser and settings. Speaking of bookmarks – here’s your perfect way of storing bookmarks that will stay where you’ve put them.
  • You can download your email by using an email client such a Thunderbird. More than that, you can edit emails offline and mark them for transmission once you’re back online. Imagine downloading them in an internet café and editing them somewhere else at at friend’s place (who does not have a modem/inet). Downloading online and editing offline takes less time than reading and answering them online with the fear of log-outs from your fav. webmailer due to inactivity / while writing longer mails. Also, it’s much cheaper this way.
  • Modern Web 2.0 technologies are nice as they offer online services which were previously only available offline (word processing, spreadsheet, image editing, etc.). However, these services are only available online – and since you are paying for the amount of time spent online – you’re better of using offline applications. The internet café does not offer such tools? Don’t worry – they are on your memory stick.

Now, as not every user is aware of these possibilities, I can imagine a few smart hawkers on Nairobi’s Moi Avenue & Co that have compiled application packages and are willing to upload them onto USB memory sticks for some bob. And for those who want to do this on their own, here a few useful links to software compilations and recommendations:

Portableapps; list @ Snapfiles; Wikipedia listing; another Wiki; Essential USB Memory Drive Projects; list @ Combobulate; no-install.com; portable USB software; portable USB software 2; portable freeware; list of USB applications; Winpenpack.com; portable freeware 2

Hope this helps!

2 comments » Write a comment

  1. Great post kikuyu, asante! Seems you are preparing for your offline period? But I guess those folks in Embu either have access via modem or even a satellite dish. I’m so dumb, my parents left this morning an I forgot to give them the USB Stick I bought. I prepared it ’till late night with all the email, data and settings they need. :-(

    Maybe I should install Thunderbird now. They quit their landline for good, since it never really worked.