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Generally speaking, I'm interested in something that can load quickly and, depending on what I want to do, can choose to launch a Virtual Machine that is tailored to my desired activity. So, something that loads to (preferably) a command line, then if I want to run my Windows 7 machine that has all of my programming junk on it, I can simply enter the command to launch some VM player and close it when I'm done.

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I use VMware. I like it. – Keith Sep 6 '12 at 0:24

You can make your own using a stable, lightweight Linux distro with a small window manager.

CentOS would be a good choice due to it having a very long life cycle (it's based on Red Hat, and thus follows its life cycle; maintainance updates for CentOS 6 end in 2020); other options would be an LTS version of Ubuntu (but replacing Unity with XFCE or Fluxbox, for example), or Arch Linux.

Either one would work to run VirtualBox; if you use VMware, you probably don't want Arch, as VMware often doesn't works or has problems with new kernel versions.

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You may also want to check out Damn Small Linux. – terdon Sep 6 '12 at 1:06

If you just want to use windows 7, then use Boot from VHD (Windows 7 Ultimate/ENT only)

Boot from VHD is a new technique for installing and maintaining operating system environments. Unlike virtual machines, the operating system that is running from a “boot from VHD” environment is using the actual hardware instead of emulated hardware.

Instead of dual booting (installing different OS on different partitions) or running multiple OS's at the same time with virtual machines you use a VHD. You choose which OS to start on boot.

You can use linux with VHD (not sure, I have not tried it myself... maybe) Can I boot Linux from a VHD?

It is very clean, as the entire OS is in a VHD file. Having the OS fully encapsulated in a VHD means no changes are needed to partitions, and there is no confusion as to what files are for what OS.

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