Updated: August 11, 2018
Long long time ago, I started my virtualization journey with VMware Player. Back in the day, it was one of the few GUI-based virtualization solutions for the desktop, allowing you to test and use guest operating systems with relative ease. Since, virtualization has become more common and more accessible if not outright decadent, and you have a lot of programs to choose, should you decide to explore complete software stacks in a contained, isolated environment.
VMware Player is currently at its 14th major increment, and this calls for a review. The program is now called Workstation Player, a not so subtle hint to the fact it's a freeware version and tech demonstrator of the fully fledged work [sic] horse. Again, another great tool, which I paid and used for many years, but the focus here is on the free utility. Let's roll.
I decided to configure VMware Player in KDE neon, which comes with the Ubuntu 16.04 base. The player is distributed as a bundle file, which you need to chmod +x before you can run it. The installer wizard took a while loading, and for a moment I thought it was not going to work. But then it did work just fine. However, this is only the first step.
When you launch the program, it will ask you to compile additional drivers - which allows VMware to ship a single unifed bundle rather than create individual packages for each distro and kernel. This process won't work if you don't have the necessary compilation tools. I had to install the build-essential meta package in neon to get the kernel source, headers, make, gcc, and all the rest of the goodies. After that, the setup was truly complete.
Before we begin, you may be thinking - VirtualBox. Indeed, there's often the question of choice between these two programs, and you may also be tempted to compare between them. This isn't really the right thing to do, for several reasons. VMware Player is purposefully lean - the full Workstation offers features like advanced networking, snapshots, encryptions, multi-VM run, clone, command-line tools, and vSphere connectivity. VirtualBox has many of the options available in Workstation, and so it is more like the latter than the former. That isn't my goal here, although it's a worthy test of its own, which is why I'm going to focus mostly on how Player works.
I decided to setup Ubuntu 18.04 Beta, to see how this was going to work out. One thing you will notice is Easy Install. The Player offers an auto-install configuration for several select operating systems, although you can choose to manually install on your own. Both MBR and UEFI modes are supported.
Edit VM settings
After I created the machine, I wanted to see what kind of additional customization is possible through the settings menu. You can also make manual vmx file config changes, as I've shown you in the past, but some of the options will be ignored.
Run the virtual machine
Ubuntu booted - with a complaint that it had no 3D acceleration available. This is a confusing message, but what it essentially means is there's no driver bundled with Ubuntu that will detect the VM environment and let you use it. You need to manually setup VMware Tools, which is a task for after the installation. Thus, my initial test was limited to a tiny non-resizable window (something like 800x600px), but at least the mouse integration was fine.
VMware Player is helpful in that gives you useful hints into what it's doing. You are prompted to download VMware Tools. There's an error log, right there, so you can see if and when anything goes wrong. You can also connect external devices, like the camera and such.
When I tried to install VMware Tools manually, the system recommended I use an existing open-vm-tools package from the repos. Indeed, as soon as I installed those, I had resolution auto-resize, so this is a good and simple, hassle-free setup.
Performance and tweaking
Once I had the VM properly integrated, it began behaving slightly better - but having no VT-x hampers performance, and the 3D support was flaky. Gnome has never worked too well in virtual machines, Unity did so and so, depending on the version, and this last Gnome-cum-Unity is rather laggy. Not sure if this is something to blame on VMware Player per se. But overall, the experience wasn't smooth. I guess it's best to run without any 3D stuff or compositing, if possible.
I accessed the main interface and then tried to see what else is there, all the while the Ubuntu guest was running. The program informed me that the VM is in use and cannot be accessed. Taking ownership resulted in an error. Actually, this is really an unnecessary kind of prompt, as it was me doing the whole thing.
VMware Workstation Player is a very decent program, especially for new users. It comes with a reasonable set of options, it tries to guess what you're doing and help, and for lightweight use, it makes perfect sense. But if you are an advanced user, you will definitely need and want more, and this is where the full pro version comes into play. Or alternatively, go for other options. Overall, it remains similar to version 4, which I tested several years ago.
My biggest gripe is not having hardware acceleration, which significantly improves the performance of virtual machines. The network and storage side of things are less critical for everyday use. Multi-VM is also important if you need to create more complicated setups or labs. That said, the program is simple and easy, and has a very gentle curve for people just freshly starting in the virtualization world. Worth testing, but always remember, 'tis but a teaser for the heavyweight just hiding behind the corner. Indeed, for me, the big take from this endeavor is that I need to test the Workstation as well. We shall see.