VMware Fusion a Good Alternative for Fusing Windows with OS X

- 2007.08.20 - Tip Jar

They say timing is everything.

Timing seems to be working against VMware's August 6th release of its Fusion virtualization software for Mac. Fusion's release might have gotten more attention - except that the next day Steve Jobs brought the press in to show off new versions of Apple's iMac computer and iLife and iWork software.

And if Fusion had been released, say, a year earlier, it would have been before Parallels Desktop had a chance to become synonymous with virtualization in most Mac users' minds.

VMware has a long history of developing virtualization products; the company has a strong product line of Windows and Linux software aimed at software developers and network managers. Fusion is both the company's first Mac product and its first product aimed at consumers. (US$79, before a US$20 rebate until the end of the year for US customers only.)

In many ways, they've done a good job with it. Fusion offers a native Mac interface with a user-customizable toolbar similar to Apple's Safari browser.

Customize Toolbar

After a straightforward installation, users get walked through the process of creating a virtual machine. Fusion supports a wide range of PC operating systems including most versions of Windows, many Linux distributions, Novell Netware, Sun Solaris, Free BSD, and "other". Unlike Parallels, it supports 64-bit OS versions as well as the more familiar 32-bit versions.

Choose Operating System

Knowing that most users will want to install Windows, you get an option for Windows Easy Install... if that's your choice. Choosing this, you enter your user name and the Windows installer serial number, insert your installation CD, and Fusion does the rest - go have a cup of coffee, come back in 30 minutes or so, and Windows should be up and running.

Fusion has done all the pressing F8, Enter, and clicking default dialogue box options for you. It's much less tedious than installing Windows on a Windows computer!

Windows Easy Install

Settings including hard drive size, amount of RAM and video RAM assigned to the virtual system, and more can be set in the process of creating the virtual machine or after the fact. You can choose single processor or multiprocessor support - at least if you have a Core Duo or multiprocessor Mac.

Competitor Parallels only offers single processor support regardless of what's physically on your Mac. Benchmark testing recently conducted by CNet Labs reported better performance by Fusion compared to Parallels in a variety of tests, perhaps as a result of Fusion's multiprocessor support.

Fusion includes multiprocessor support

As with other virtualization (and older emulation) products, once your virtual system is up and running, you really want to install what each of these programs calls Tools - in this case, VMware Tools. These provide the virtual machine with better than default video and network drivers, integrate the Mac and Windows (or whatever) cursors, add drag and drop between the Mac and Windows desktops, and more. And as with the other similar programs, this is done in a similar way: choosing a menu option sets a file as a virtual CD-ROM drive so that the installer can be run. One restart, and you're in business.

While Parallels and VMware's Windows Tools are pretty similar, VMware's Linux Tools provide better integration with the Mac than Parallels' equivalent.

Booting Windows XP

If you've got Windows XP or Vista installed using Apple's Boot Camp beta, both Parallels and Fusion are able to use it, allowing you to access that Windows installation in a virtual system in a window (or full-screen) without having to reboot your Mac. You can load the appropriate Tools version into that Boot Camp installation and get full functionality without needing to devote double the drive space (and setup time) to get your choice of booting directly to Windows or running it in a virtual session.

(Installing Windows twice, once for Boot Camp and secondly for a virtualization program, would also require two Windows licenses. In fact, I'm unclear how both Parallels and Fusion manage to run a Boot Camp installation of Windows XP or Vista without triggering Windows Activation - the virtual sessions have different amounts of RAM and different network, sound, and video adapters than the native Boot Camp session, which ought to make Windows think it's been installed onto a second physical machine. If anyone knows how they manage to get around this, let me know!)

Parallels Desktop's recent versions have offered a feature they call Coherence Mode; choosing it makes the Windows desktop disappear, leaving open applications floating as windows on the Mac desktop.

Parallels Desktop's Coherence mode

Fusion has a similar feature VMware calls Unity. As with Coherence, clicking on the Unity button or menu item vanishes the Windows desktop, leaving applications floating.

There are a few differences, though. You may notice in the Coherence image that Parallels leaves the Windows taskbar floating in space . . . there's no taskbar in Unity. And in Parallels' implementation, all the open Windows applications are on what Photoshop users might think of as a single layer. Using Exposé, for instance, when using Coherence, if you choose one Windows window, you've got 'em all. With Fusion's Coherence, each application is available separately, the same way OS X works.

VMWare Fusion's Unity Mode

You can open additional Windows applications using Fusion's Applications menu - it mirrors the otherwise inaccessible Windows start menu.

The Applications Menu

Both Parallels and Fusion allow Mac users to choose to share their Mac home folders with their virtual sessions - and, in both cases, this option may seem a bit obscure to users. Once enabled, a Windows user needs to then find the shared folder and set it up as a Network Place; they can then choose to set it with a mapped drive letter - actions that typical Windows users are unfamiliar with.

setting up shared folders

If you figure out how to do it, you can then access the contents of your Mac's home folder - Documents, Pictures, Music, and more - right on your virtual session's desktop, something that can't be easily done if you boot directly to Boot Camp. (This feature works pretty much identically in both Parallels and Fusion, and not at all in the current Mac version of the free VirtualBox).

accessing shared folders in Windows

When printing in Fusion, you'll need to make sure the printer connected to your Mac is enabled - it's easy to click the row of USB icons along the bottom of the Fusion window, and click to make it accessible to the Fusion session when you see your printer's name. (Alternatively, enable it in the virtual session's settings.) Then, you may need to install Windows drivers for it.

setting up a USB printer

Parallels does a better job of this - it installs a default virtual postscript printer; printing to it directs the output to your Mac's default printer.

Both Parallels and VMware are working to improve support for Windows 3D graphics; both currently offer support for Direct X 8.1, but both current lack support for the newer Direct X 9.0 or 10 standards. As a result, neither will run many games and neither will support Windows Vista's Aero graphics effects.

Parallels includes OpenGL support; as a result, it was able to run Quake 4 in the CNet Labs benchmarks, though with much lower frames per second than running it either natively in Mac OS X or by booting to Boot Camp. Fusion was unable to run that game at all.

Neither are currently a good option for Mac users wanting to run most Windows games, though both are working to add that support to future versions. Best bet for gamers: Install Boot Camp and boot directly to Windows.

Not a Resource Hog

While typing this article, I've got Microsoft Word 2004, Preview, and Safari running. I opened Parallels, loading my Boot Camp installation. After closing it, I opened the same Boot Camp installation in Fusion. While Windows XP was starting up, I continued working in Word. While Windows-in-Parallels was loading, Word became noticeably more sluggish than doing the same thing in Fusion. From this unscientific test, I would conclude that Fusion is less of a resource hog, at least while starting up Windows.

VMware offers a large library of "virtual appliances" - operating system images preinstalled for VMware's virtual hardware that are in some cases optimized for specific tasks; most are free. In most cases, these are built on top of free operating systems including various Linux distributions. Because of licensing issues, you won't find Windows versions here, but some of these may be of interest to some Fusion users; these and other VMware virtual computers can be used with Windows and Linux VMware products, including the Server and Player products that are free for Windows and Linux (but not Mac).

Fusion or Parallels or VirtualBox?

The release of VMware Fusion may create a dilemma for Mac owners needing to access Windows applications. Should you buy a copy of Fusion or Parallels Desktop? Each costs the same US$79 - at least after VMware's rebate for US buyers expires. Or should you go for the free open source VirtualBox?

VirtualBox is free, but the Mac version is still in beta and lacks some important features - it's somewhere difficult to move data between your Mac and a VirtualBox session, something you can do simply with drag and drop in Parallels or Fusion. And with minimal USB support, devices ranging from memory keys to printers won't work with VirtualBox. For now at least, it will work for Mac owners who need to use Internet Explorer to access a critical Web page (too many banks require Windows Internet Explorer, for instance), but it won't help if you need to print out that page. It's coming along, but it's not yet a serious contender.

For many Mac users, it would be hard to go wrong choosing either Parallels Desktop 3.0 or the new VMware Fusion. Fusion offers 64-bit and multiprocessor support along with better performance at some multimedia tasks, but you'll get better multimedia performance doing those same tasks on your Mac. Both offer time-limited trial versions; try 'em both. LEM

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Alan Zisman is Mac-using teacher and technology writer based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Many of his articles are available on his website, If you find Alan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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