A Tale of Two Betas: VMware Fusion vs. Parallels Desktop

- 2007.01.23, updated 2007.03 - Tip Jar

2006's migration of Macs to Intel CPUs revolutionized the ability of Macs to run Windows and other PC operating systems. Macs were originally based on first Motorola 680x0 CPUs and later PowerPC CPUs.

The Intel x86 family of CPUs spoke what was, in effect, a foreign language; it was possible to run an operating system designed for an Intel-style CPU on a Mac, but it could only be done with emulation. In effect, emulation translates low-level OS commands designed for one CPU to the equivalents for another. It works, but like translating a foreign language newspaper one word at a time, dictionary in hand, it's slower than speaking the language like a native.

In order to build Macs on Intel-powered hardware, Apple needed to recompile OS X so it would work with the Intel instruction set. In effect, the new Macs are now native x86 speakers.

Ever since 1986's 80386 processor, these CPUs have had built-in support for "virtual 86" sessions.

Virtualization software has become increasingly popular on PCs of late to allow a single network server to replace multiple servers by running virtual sessions, to allow software developers to test their products with multiple operating system versions, and to allow large organizations to safely test new software and patches before rolling it out to their users.

Virtualization products like VMware offer both Windows and Linux versions, allowing Windows users to run Linux in a window or Linux users to run Windows (or other Linux distributions) in a window.

Last year, Macs got to join the party.

In the spring, Apple released the first betas of its Boot Camp, allowing Intel Mac users to relatively easily set up their system to dual-boot to Windows XP SP2. And at about the same time, newcomer Parallels released preview versions of Parallels Desktop , allowing Intel Mac owners to run their choice of Windows, Linux, and other PC operating systems in virtual sessions without needing to reboot their Macs.

(I wrote about the early Parallels beta on Low End Mac in Running Windows in Parallel on Your Intel Mac [April 2006] and then returned with a look at their release version in Parallels Revisited: Release Version far More Polished than Beta [Nov.].)

Parallels Desktop works well, running Windows and other PC operating systems at nearly full speed. Released by a small company at a time when Microsoft (with versions of Virtual PC for PowerPC Macs and for Windows) and VMware seemed to be merely making excuses why they didn't have a product for the new Intel Macs, it quickly won favour with reviewers and Mac users.

The New Game in Town

As of this winter, however, Parallels is no longer the only game in town. VMware, developer of the most polished virtualization software for Windows and Linux, released a public beta of a product for Intel Macs: VMware Fusion.

For now, Fusion is available for free download. Would-be downloaders have to register with VMware and receive an installation code. Once installed, like Parallels Desktop, Fusion can be used to create new virtual machines running any of a wide range of PC operating systems.

As well, users can download and run any of the hundreds of "virtual appliances" available online from VMware's Virtual Appliance Marketplace; despite its name, most of the contents of this library of preinstalled virtual systems are available for free, tending towards various Linux distributions. Nicely, VMware virtual machines are cross compatible, running on any of the various Windows, Linux, and now Intel Mac VMware versions.

I tried out the Fusion beta with a pair of Linux distributions (Fedora Core 6 and Ubuntu 6.10) and with Microsoft Windows Vista. Despite it's being officially a beta, I found it quite usable. It proved easy to get up and running with the downloaded Fedora virtual appliance, and it was almost as easy to install Ubuntu and Vista from scratch. Answering a quick set of questions created a new virtual hard drive, and a quick click on "Advanced Installation Options" let me choose between using an ISO image file (as I did with Ubuntu) or an installation CD (as I did with Vista).

Virtual Machine Assistant

Later choices let you alter the default values of hard drive size, and (again by choosing the Advanced Options) also the virtual system's RAM and whether it uses one or more processors. Worth checking those advanced options - VMware's defaults of 256 MB RAM and 1 processor are perhaps too conservative when new Intel Macs are now all built on dual-core processors (and typically now have 1 GB or more RAM).

Virtual Machine Assistant

The installed systems all booted up without problem and were able to access the Internet, my home network, and USB devices attached to my Mac including my printer and USB flash drives. As with Parallels Desktop, the virtualized video adapter doesn't have 3D acceleration; neither virtualized system will satisfy anyone wanting to play the latest Windows games on their Mac.

In a process familiar to users of the old Virtual PC or the new Parallels Desktop, post-installation, VMware recommends installing a set of VMware tools with improved display and network drivers, to enable drag and drop between the Mac and virtual desktops, and to smoothly merge the mouse cursor going back and forth between the Mac and virtual PC. While both Virtual PC and Parallels only provide such tools for virtual Windows sessions, VMware includes tools for Linux as well.

I have only one complaint. VMware's window puts a set of icons along the top. You can see at a glance that ethernet, sound adapter, my Canon i860 printer, and more all have green lights indicating that they've been recognized and are working. While handy, locating these at the top is a bit of a problem.

My 17" iMac display runs at 1440 x 900 pixels; if I set a virtual session to run at the common 1024 x 768 pixel resolution, there's not enough vertical room to display the whole window unless I hide my Mac's Dock. Having to scroll the window up and down to get to often-used features like the Windows Start Menu and Taskbar is annoying - and prior to installing the VMware Tools a real pain.

VMware Fusion

Parallels Desktop displays its tools along the right-side of the program window - a more usable use of screen real estate.

By the way - if you choose the menu option to view your virtual system full screen, pay attention to the keyboard shortcut to get back - the Command + Tab keyboard shortcut to switch between running programs doesn't seem to work with VMware running full-screen, and if you forget the Command + Enter shortcut to return VMware to a window, you may be stuck that way!

While the VMware Fusion beta works well, it's time limited like other such public betas. Ultimately VMware is going to want users to buy the program when it's released. And at this time, pricing has not been announced.


Lately, there's been a bit of a price war among PC virtualizers. First, VMware released a free VMware Player; software for Windows and Linux able to run existing virtual machines - including downloads from VMware's Virtual Appliance library, but not (easily at least) create new ones. Microsoft responded by making its (Windows only) Virtual PC available for free. VMware hit back by making its VMware Server free, while keeping its VMware Workstation a paid (US$189) product. The free VMware Server, while having a somewhat awkward interface, works quite nicely on a single-user computer, allowing creation and customization of new virtual sessions.

While it would be nice to have VMware Fusion released as a free product for Mac users, I think that's unlikely; instead, I would expect pricing to be competitive with Parallels Desktop (US$79).

At about the same time that VMware released its freely downloadable beta of Fusion, Parallels released a feature-rich beta updating its Desktop for Mac.

The beta improves Parallels USB support with full-speed support for USB 2.0. It also includes Transporter, a utility to convert existing VMware and Virtual PC virtual drive images to Parallels drives. It's now possible to drag and drop between Mac and Windows desktops. Graphic performance is improved.

Many of these features seemed aimed at ensuring that Parallels keeps up with VMware, but the beta also includes several features that up the ante on the (not yet released) competition. For instance:

Parallels is promising that users can use an existing Boot Camp partition as a Parallels virtual hard drive. I was unable to test this - while I've got a working Boot Camp partition, it's running Windows Vista, and the software that needs to get installed onto the Boot Camp Windows installation only works with XP (at least at the time of testing - since this is beta, it may change by release time).

Another beta feature, which Parallels calls Coherence, has been getting a lot of attention. Parallels describes it as "a way to run Windows applications without seeing Windows". In other words, if you need to use Internet Explorer 6 to connect to your financial institution, you could just have an IE window freely floating on your Mac desktop.

It works as advertised, but I'm underwhelmed. In order to get that free-floating IE window, you need to boot Windows and load your application. Then, with the application running as the foreground window, click on the Parallels' View menu and select Coherence (below).


The end result isn't much different from simply maximizing the program window within the Windows session.

While Coherence seems over-hyped to me, I'm pleased that the Parallels team isn't resting on its laurels and is continuing to improve performance and add features. The ability to convert existing VPC and VMware virtual drives allows Parallels users to make use of the hundreds of downloadable virtual installations from VMware's appliance library, removing that software's major advantage.

Parallels also deserve bonus marks for coming early to the Mac platform.

After publication, Parallels' marketing manager Benjamin Rudolph wrote in to say:

A few notes on Coherence:

- You can load Windows apps straight from the Mac dock. Just load the app and you'll see it appear in the Mac dock. Click and hold and select "keep in dock", and it will stay there as a quick-launch icon. No more loading in windowed mode, then going to coherence.

Check out the attached dock pic for an example. You can also go into your Parallels folder on your Mac and browse through the "windows apps" folder. Just drag an app to the dock to make it a quick-launch icon.

- You can now drag a word file or text file from your Mac directly to an office app in Coherence. Just drag it on to the app, and it will load . . . edit it and click "save", and it saves right back to your Mac.

- Coherence now works with Windows 2000, 2003, XP and Vista.

Wither Virtual PC?

That raises the question: "Where's Microsoft?"

Virtual PC pretty much defined the market for PC emulation for PowerPC Macs,but they seem to have dropped the ball on the new virtualization technologies. If little startups like Parallels can develop a Mac virtualization product pretty much from scratch and a medium-size company like VMware can bring its product over to the Mac platform, what's keeping the software superpower?

Reader Michel Salim offers a correction:

Nice article! I'm thinking of moving back to a Mac in a few months time (waiting for Leopard and the next MacBook iteration), and from your article it seems that VMware should be more than capable of running Fedora Linux (as a developer, the snapshot feature might actually make running it virtualized better than running it native)

One single nitpick: your description of the virtual 86 mode is incorrect - it actually allows the running of DOS-esque "real mode" applications under a protected mode OS:

You're probably thinking of Intel-VT (Intel virtualization tech) and the corresponding AMD-V (a.k.a. "Pacifica") that were only available starting with Intel Core and AMD x2 respectively. Those allow full hardware virtualization to allow two OSes to run concurrently without the virtualization software (like VMware) having to intercept certain machine instructions and simulate them. IBM's had this feature for decade on their mainframes, and the good ol' Digital Alpha apparently only had one instruction that cannot be virtualized. It took the PC world ages!"

Michel! LEM

VMware's enduser license agreement prohibits doing reviews of beta software, something we were not aware of when preparing this story. Apologies for the oversight.

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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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