VMware Fusion 2 vs. Parallels Desktop 4: Let’s Dance

When it comes to OS virtualization on a Mac, there are two major contenders for the title of virtualizer to end all virtualizers.

Likely Parallels and VMware Fusion need no introduction for TAB readers, but you might not be aware of what the latest incarnations that both programs bring to the table. VMware Fusion 2, released in September, and Parallels Desktop 4.0, just released today, have a few new tricks up their sleeves.

Setup

Setting up both machines on my aluminum iMac was incredibly easy. I used Windows XP Media Center Edition from a physical disc for both, although the programs also offer the choice of using an image instead. For both installations I used the default settings. In Parallels 4.0, this consists of a 32 GB hard drive with 512 MB of RAM and 128 MB of video RAM. VMware’s quickstart configurations sets you up with 40 GB of disk space, 512MB of RAM, and although it doesn’t have a video memory slider like Parallels, 3D acceleration is enabled.

Install times were almost exactly the same for Parallels and VMWare, at 24 and 25 minutes respectively. One nice option that Fusion provides, which isn’t available in the Parallels setup, is the ability to import settings from your Boot Camp installation of Windows.

OS X Integration

Yes, it is wrong to run Windows on your beautiful Leopard desktop. Which is why you may be inclined to hide it. You’re in luck, because both Parallels Desktop and VMware Fusion offer the option to run guest OS applications in windowed mode, making it seem like they’re being run in the host system.

VMware’s Unity mode allows Windows applications to behave just like native OS X apps, in windows that can be minimized to and launched from the dock, even without booting the guest OS beforehand.

Parallels’ Coherence mode is similar, though it displays the Windows taskbar at the bottom of the screen, just above the dock.

Both integration modes are functional, and even maintain beveled application windows and shadow effects, but VMware wins out here, for two reasons. First, the taskbar seems out of place and clumsy above the dock with Parallels. Second, dragging and resizing application windows in VMware’s Unity mode is absolutely smooth, while there is some lag in Parallels’ Coherence mode.

Features and User Interface

Both UIs are clean, simple and great improvements over previous incarnations. The layout of the applications in Windowed mode are incredibly similar, as well. Major functions like Suspend, and Settings are in the upper left hand corner, and view mode toggle buttons are in the upper right. The bottom right area in both has a number of icons, which control drives, display drive access indicators, and control sound, sharing, printing, etc.

VMware shows all the devices connected to your Mac via USB, and allows you to click the icons to switch them into Windows. Parallels gains points here by allowing any storage media (USB, external HDs) to be connected to both Windows and Mac operating systems simultaneously. During initial setup, Parallels also prompted me to select which OS I wanted to mount my girlfriend’s Palm Treo in, which is a nice feature, especially for users new to virtualization.

Both programs offer the ability to take Snapshots, which is great if you’re a developer, reviewer, or IT professional, though VMware has a slight advantage here by having a button right in the application window. I also like Fusion’s ability to display the OS X menu bar when you move your cursor to the top of the screen in full mode. Parallels depends on key combinations to return to windowed mode, which offers more immersion, but feels clunky at times. In terms of pure design, I prefer Parallels, since it looks and feels more like a polished Mac application.

Performance

When it comes to general performance, both pieces of software ran Windows at a very usable pace. Applications opened quickly and were instantly responsive, and even running both Fusion and Parallels at once and doing things in OS X didn’t result in any significant slowdown. I should note here that my iMac has a 2.66 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 4 GB of RAM installed, so user experience may vary with different setups.

Both programs are boasting improved video performance, so I downloaded QuickTime to test HD playback. Conveniently, the Transporter 3 trailer was a recent addition to Apple’s hi-def content, so I used that in my test.

First, in 720p, video playback was smooth in Fusion, only showing some not very noticeable horizontal lines during fast action sequences. In Fusion, audio was slightly behind video on my first attempt, although video playback itself was mostly smooth, with no horizontal lines. Rewinding to the beginning and starting play again resolved the audio/visual syncing issue, and numerous attempts to recreate the problem failed, so it may have been an isolated event. Also, I was only using 128MB of video RAM, so assigning more may have made a difference. Oddly, Fusion would play only audio, no video, in fullscreen mode in Quicktime, while Parallels had no trouble switching from full to windowed playback.

At 1080p, playback was noticeably more laggy in Fusion, although there were never any syncing issues. Not, overall, very watchable though, and the Quicktime fullscreen bug persisted. Parallels was even more choppy at 1080p than VMWare. In both cases, I would definitely recommend sticking to 720p for HD playback.

Verdict

In the end, both applications are polished, effective ways of bringing Windows into OS X. There are no deal-breaking flaws in either software, and the choice of which to use will likely come down to what you intend to do with your virtual machine. For me, despite the problems mentioned above and features you gain, like simultaneous device mounting, VMWare Fusion wins out, due largely to its much better OS X integration. If I’m using virtualization software, there’s a good chance I want to be able to use Leopard as well, or else I’d just run Boot Camp. Fusion offers the least obtrusive way to bring Windows into your Mac sanctuary, and that’s exactly what I’m looking for.

Both Fusion and Parallels will set you back $79.99.

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