One of the great things about Intel Macs is that you can run Windows on them. Why would you want to run Windows on a Mac? Well, there are many applications – including most games – that are only available for Windows. By running Windows on your Mac as well as Mac OS X, you get the best of both worlds – the loveliness of MAC OS X, and the compatibility of Windows.
I’ve been using Parallels Desktop since I bought my Mac back in 2006 (in fact I bought Parallels before the Mac!). It does the job well enough, but recently the nice folks at VMware gave me a review copy of VMware Fusion. So I thought I’d give Fusion a quick spin and see how it compares. The versions I’m reviewing here are Parallels Desktop 3.0 (Build 5582) and VMware Fusion 1.1.2 (87978).
Migrating virtual machines to VMware
I didn’t want to muck about installing a fresh copy of Windows, or deal with Windows XP reactivation grief, so I used the VMware Importer to migrate a Windows 2000 Parallels virtual machine across to VMware Fusion. The Importer was a bit ropey – it spent 15 minutes converting the drive before informing me that the VM was suspended, so it couldn’t finish the import – but to be fair, it’s still in beta.
Once I’d successfully converted my Parallels VM to a Fusion VM, I fired up Fusion. I have to say, I’m not a big fan of the Parallels user interface; it always seems odd how it opens new instances of itself for new VMs, and some of the dialogs seem like they were written by someone with English as their second language. I’m pleased to say that Fusion’s UI is a breath of fresh air in comparison, and behaves more like I’d expect a Mac app to behave.
One nice feature of VMware is its Applications menu. This basically mirrors the Windows Start menu, making it easy to launch Windows apps without having to deal with the Start menu:
In contrast, Parallels’ Applications menu only allows you to choose from recently-run apps, or display the Start menu – not as slick.
Both Parallels and VMware show running Windows apps as Dock icons, as if they were Mac apps. You can even right-click an icon and choose Keep in Dock; you can then launch the Windows app just by clicking the icon, even if Parallels/VMware isn’t running at the time. Nice. Combine this with the “hide the Windows desktop” mode (known as Coherence in Parallels and Unity in VMware), and you hardly even know you’re running Windows.
Parallels has a feature called SmartSelect that lets you associate file types on one OS with applications on the other. For example, you can associate a .doc file on the Mac with Word on the Windows guest OS, so that when you double-click a .doc file in the Finder, it opens in Windows. This feature can be quite useful, and there’s no equivalent in the current version of Fusion. However, I find that SmartSelect can result in a very cluttered “Open With” menu in the Finder, so it’s not all roses.
Suspend and resume
Both apps let you suspend the guest operating system, which is great as you can save your current Windows session with all apps open, close down Parallels/Fusion, and carry on exactly where you left off later. Both apps also seem obsessed with providing smooth fading in and out when you resume or suspend the OS. It looks swish, I suppose. Parallels fades the brightness up and down; Fusion, not to be outdone, fades the colours in and out, Bagpuss-style.
I had a go at installing Ubuntu Linux 7.10 on a new VMware VM. This was the exact same Ubuntu I previously tried to install on a Parallels Desktop VM, with minimal success. Installation on VMware was flawless – no problems with X, no messing about with config files. It just worked.
As with Parallels, VMware comes with tools for Linux (as well as Windows, of course), allowing you to do things like move the mouse between the VM and the Mac desktop, and changing the VM screen size just by resizing the window. However, installation of the tools is a pain compared to Parallels’ tools, requiring much command-line fiddling and compiling.
Performance-wise, I couldn’t really tell much of a difference between Parallels and Fusion. I believe the general consensus is that Parallels is a bit faster for XP, and Fusion is a bit faster for Vista. In addition, Fusion has multi-core support which can speed things up considerably. No doubt the situation changes monthly as both companies bring out new point releases. Good old competition, eh!
In daily use, with a couple of Windows (2000 and XP) VMs running simultaneously, I find that Fusion feels slightly more responsive than Parallels. Switching between a Mac app and a Windows app within Fusion seems snappier. It also doesn’t seem to bring the rest of the Mac to a grinding halt as Parallels can do sometimes. Maybe it uses less resources than Parallels. Speaking of resources, I’d recommend at least 2GB of RAM to run either of these two apps at a decent rate. (Also, it probably goes without saying, but these apps only work on Intel Macs, not PowerPC ones.)
Overall, there’s not much to choose between the two apps at this point. Both do their main job – running Windows on a Mac – extremely well. Parallels tends to integrate your Windows apps more closely with Mac OS, while Fusion feels a bit smoother and generally behaves better as an app. It largely comes down to your personal preference, and what kinds of Windows apps you want to run. At the time of writing, both apps are sold at $79.99. It’s probably worth downloading trial versions of both Parallels and Fusion, so you can decide which you prefer before you buy.
It’s worth mentioning a couple of alternatives, too. CrossOver lets you run Windows applications within Mac OS X without needing a copy of Windows. However, only a handful of Windows apps run flawlessly (though the list is expanding all the time). There’s also Boot Camp, that lets you dual-boot your Mac between Mac OS X and Windows. Obviously this means a reboot each time you need to use a Windows program, but Boot Camp does come free with the Mac, and offers the best Windows compatibility of all.