Windows on the Mac: Parallels vs. VMware Fusion, round 2

Both VMware Fusion 2.0 and Parallels Desktop 4.0 have made strides in bringing the Windows experience to the Mac

A little more than a year ago, I reviewed VMware's Fusion 1.0 and Parallels Desktop 3.0 to see how they stacked up. Since then, both products have undergone major revisions, so I thought I'd see how this horse race is coming along. Both Fusion, now in Version 2.0.1, and Parallels, in Version 4.0, allow you to run another OS -- Windows, Linux, and others -- on your Mac as a guest of OS X. They provide what's called a hypervisor, which can host multiple guest OSes running at the same time.

The most important thing about both of these products is what hasn't changed: Pick either one, and you'll get a solid performer that lets you run Windows or Linux on your Mac. Both systems offer easy Windows install, and both support even the most taxing Windows applications with aplomb. That said, there are differences between them, and depending on your exact needs, you might find one a better choice than the other.

The biggest change in these platforms since my last review is that both vendors have filled in glaring holes. Parallels now supports SMP (symmetric multiprocessing) and 64-bit operating systems. Fusion sports a completely redesigned, Cocoa-native interface and preference pane that makes it a more natural fit in the Mac environment.

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I tested both packages on my MacBook Pro (2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo running OS X 10.5.5). I have 4GB of memory -- abundant RAM is a must-have for a good experience with either product. You'll also need plenty of disk space, since each virtual guest machine you create takes multiple gigabytes of disk space.

Because the integrated experience is an important selling point of Fusion and Parallels, I wrote this review with both Office 2007 on Windows and Office 2008 on the Mac using a single document and shared folders, using both Parallels and Fusion. Both environments provide a way to get to applications on the guest (the virtual machine) from the Mac desktop. In the case of my review, Parallels and Fusion both offered Word 2007 on the "Open with…" menu when I right-clicked the file.

Whether you choose Fusion or Parallels, you won't have a seamless dual-OS experience unless you install the guest tools in the guest system. These tools are a set of device drivers that let the guest OS talk to the virtualized hardware presented by the hypervisor. Much of the integrated experience, not to mention nice features -- such as being able to resize the screen and cut and paste between the guest and your Mac -- depend on them. Both packages make installing the guest tools easy for Windows users and doable for Linux users.

Both Fusion and Parallels have long had the ability to take snapshots of the state of the machine and undo any changes later. Both now also allow you to store multiple snapshots, although Parallels still has the advantage here in terms of user interface. In this release, both vendors have added auto snapshots. Auto snapshots are taken on a scheduled basis as a way of protecting your machine whether you remember to take a snapshot or not. Parallels also gives you the option, called Safe Start, of reverting to the state of the machine when it was started.

Both products performed well on the basics, so I decided to dig into some of the corners where virtualization products have typically lagged to see how they stacked up.

Preserving a true Windows experience
In previous versions of both Parallels and Fusion, I had trouble getting printing to work. There are some improvements in these new versions, and I'm happy to report both print reliably, although Fusion has the upper hand. VMware has supplied virtual print drivers that act as shims between the Windows environment and the Mac printer drivers. There's almost nothing to do. You enable the printer and print. Fusion uses the drivers already installed in OS X to do the work.

In Parallels Desktop, on the other hand, the printer shows up as a parallel port. You then have to go through the usual process of finding a driver that matches the printer, installing one if it isn't available, then setting up the printer. In short, Parallels does too good a job of preserving the true Windows experience.

Entering the 3-D world
One of the places where both products claim improvements upon earlier versions is 3-D graphics. I ran a few programs that make use of 3-D graphics and DirectX to see how they fared. I also ran these same programs on a ThinkPad T60 just to make sure I knew how they ought to look in physical hardware with a stock video card.

The first program I tried was Microsoft's World Wide Telescope (WWT). This exactly is the kind of program a Mac user might want to run inside a virtualized environment because it's very cool and available only on Windows. WWT on Fusion was usable, but barely; there were artifacts and annoying jitters. On Parallels, WWT just flickered incessantly and was completely unusable.

The second program I tried was Microsoft Flight Simulator. Based on the results of the WWT test, I expected an epic fail, but it actually worked pretty well on both platforms. Both even recognized my USB joystick when I plugged it in without any fanfare. The only hiccup was when Fusion's auto-protect decided to interrupt my landing at Provo Municipal to save a snapshot. Apparently, it doesn't interpret input on the joystick as an indication that someone's using the machine.

People who want to run PC games on their Mac typically use Apple's Boot Camp. My conclusion is that's still a good idea. While Flight Simulator ran on Fusion and Parallels, the experience is better in Boot Camp. Even the occasional drop into WWT isn't very useful on either of these virtualization platforms yet.

Physical-to-virtual conversions
Many people come to the Mac with an existing Windows machine that they'd love to keep using. To make this easy, both products include a tool for converting a physical machine into a virtual machine, known as a P2V conversion. The VMware product is called Converter. Using it entails downloading it to the Windows machine from the VMware site, then using a helpful wizard to configure the conversion. A few things confused me: First, the tool defaults to creating guests for VMware's enterprise product ESX. Second, when you select the type of guest VM to create, Fusion 2.0 isn't listed. I correctly guessed that the Fusion 1.x option would work, but less technical users might balk at that point.

The conversion took one hour and 20 minutes and worked flawlessly, but there were quite a few little details to get right. For example, the virtual machine that Converter creates isn't directly usable by Fusion; you have to create a new virtual machine from the disk image that Converter created. VMware provides a video that walks you through the process; I recommend you watch it before using Converter. Be sure to have a large USB drive on hand to write the guest images on to. You don't want to store the new guest back to the drive you're cloning.

In Desktop, the process is easier. Parallels offers an agent you can install on the machine to be converted; both Windows and Linux agents are available. Then a tool called the Parallels Transporter runs on your Mac and migrates the machine over the network or a FireWire cable. (Unfortunately, USB isn't supported yet.) This takes some time, since you're moving gigabytes of data around, but the result is a new, bootable guest. Of the two approaches, I found Parallels' to be the cleanest and easiest to use. There are fewer steps, and it just works like you'd expect.

Good news for switchers
When I run Parallels or Fusion on my Mac, I'm usually running Linux. That's not typical; the target of both platforms is Windows users. While both do an admirable job of running Linux, their most impressive features are aimed at Windows users.

If you're someone who needs to run one or two Windows applications all the time, you'll be a big fan of the way these platforms integrate the Windows and Mac experience. Coherence, in Parallels, and Unity, in Fusion, let Windows application windows run inside the native Mac Desktop -- hiding the Windows Desktop in the process. I've used this mode on both platforms extensively without any issues.

Parallels takes this one step further and integrates the Windows status bar with the OS X menu bar. One of the things I like about running Windows as a guest is hiding all of that cruft from view, but my head-in-the-sand approach may not be the safest way to run Windows.

Fusion is a native Cocoa application, which means that Mac users will feel right at home. For example, if you want to share a folder on your Mac with the Windows machine, just open up Fusion preferences, click on the sharing preference pane, and drag the folder from Finder onto the Sharing pane. That's it. The next time you look in your shared folder inside Windows, the new folder will be available.

A win-win scenario
You really can't go wrong with either of these great platforms. Whether you're brand-new to the Mac and want the security blanket of bringing your Windows desktop along or you're a veteran Mac user who needs to run the occasional Windows program, both Parallels and Fusion will suit you well. The competition between these platforms has served users nicely, and we're left with a choice between two strong-performing, easy-to-use applications. That's a good place to be.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Performance (15.0%)
Features (20.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Management (15.0%)
Ease of use (20.0%)
Setup (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Parallels Desktop 4.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 8.4
VMware Fusion 2.0.1 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 8.4
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