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

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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.


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.


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.


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.

90 Responses to “VMware Fusion 2 vs. Parallels Desktop 4: Let’s Dance”

  1. One of the major issues i have with Fusion is the fact that you can’t drag a song from OS X into mediamonkey. The only reason i use parallels is to organize and tag my music because itunes is worthless when it comes to batch tagging. When using Fusion i would have to find the music in my windows explorer in order for it to be put on mediamonkey. On parallels all you have to do is drag the songs directly into mediamonkey and this saves me a lot of time when tagging music.

  2. However, having the start menu in it’s native format can be superior to it rendered into an OS X menu.

    I’ve been trying out Parallels this past week and as a Fusion customer, I can say I’m becoming to prefer Parallels. Suspend/Resume times are noticeably faster and the progress bars are more accurate.

    One of the features I like most about Parallels is that the C drive is mounted as a disk to OSX. The folder mapping synchronization is more responsive, and each share folder is mounted as it’s own drive letter instead of being inside a series of folders a la Fusion. Additionally, Fusion runs into a hiccup if you attempt to open a file into the VM that is in a location not ‘shared’ to the VM. Parallels does this flawlessly unless you turn up the VM isolation level in the settings (something notably lacking in Fusion).

    Parallels also gives you a LOT more configurability in terms of settings for the VM, as well as offering a CPU tasking option that balances to who the CPU cycles are actively assigned to- the VM or OSX. While Fusion has this option, it is only to give preference to one or the other- Parallels has the capacity to actively change this depending if you are in the VM or an OSX application (this goes on the assumption that you’ll use Windows primarily in the ‘coherence’ mode).

    Finally, Parallels gives you a series of tools that allow you to mount the drive of the VM while it isn’t running- it will even mount Fusion drives. The utility to this isn’t immense- but if you have a file on the VM that you need, you won’t have to boot up Windows just to get at it.

  3. Jamie Kahn Genet

    > – Coherence puts the Start button in your dock. I cannot begin to describe
    > how useful this is! I’m always putting Unity into Windowed mode just to
    > get some arcane app in the Start menu of my VM.

    But the start menu’s contents are accessible from the Fusion app’s menus. No need to leave Unity.

  4. I’d really like to see both application being able to support Vista Aero interface and Linux flavours of 3D OS GUI’s like Ubuntu Beryl & Comiz 3D.

    The lack of 3D OS means a BootCamp solution is needed to truly emulate your alternative working environments.

    I personally have opted for VMWare Fusion and found the tools to capture my old PC environment and transport is as a Virtual Machine, very easy.

  5. It was my understanding that Windows activation key code is recognized once. That is to say, I have Parallels installed, upgraded one of my macs to version 4.0, others still have 3.0. Multiple paid copies of windows, as same disk cannot be activated on multiple machines, but I do want to install in VMWare on the same machines as Parallels. Apparently this is possible? I have to say, support from these companies is slim to none. They DO NOT publish phone numbers, or want to you to pay for support or wait three days for an e-mail response. Any help is greatly appreciated.

  6. Chriswan – VMWare didn’t lie. Parallels has ONE process that does virtualization. VMWare uses a command-line app to do the virtualization and then a user based app to show the video. The user based app only uses 50-60 MB of RAM, while the vmware-vmx process – since it runs the actual VM – uses up the 512MB.

    The reason for this breakout is so that VMWare can run in 64-bit even on Tiger. Tiger requires 64-bit processes to be command line, not GUI.

  7. Parallels Desktop has nice animation effects, which is helpful to mask the ugly process when moving from windowed to full screen and vice versa, VMWare looks a little bit less appealing without it

    Also I found VMWare ‘lied’ about memory usage, For 512 MB, On Activity Monitor VMWare only reported using ~60MB, but after some careful inspection on the pie graph, it actually using another ~550MB, closing VMWare will show that VMWare indeed use that mysterious memory chunk. Paralles is more honest, listing ~600MB usage)

  8. ParallelsVsVmware Unity Vs. Coherence

    To Leto_Prallels, rock on for creating a great release. But you might want to do some UX research on having the windows task bar dump trucked on top of the OS dock. Maybe not have it on by default? Just a humble suggestion.

  9. Hi all, Leto from Parallels here.

    To clarify on just a couple things, the application buttons are a customizable feature in Parallels Desktop 4.0 for Mac. If you want a button for snapshots, Safe Mode or Modality view, you can right click and “Customize Toolbar…” Also, to get the OS X menu bar in Full Screen, just press Alt-Control. No need to switch to Windowed mode.

    Many little shortcuts and customizations have been implemented and they’re listed in the Preferences if you want to change the keystrokes.

    To answer Ori Matalon’s question,
    Parallels Desktop 4.0 for Mac supports up to 8GB of memory (as well as 256mb video RAM and multi-core support up to 8 CPUs) dedicated to your guest OS.

    Lastly, for those interested in doing their own comparison, I invite you to download the free trial of Parallels Desktop 4.0 for Mac at as it has all the features and functionality of the full version. It’s not just an update from Desktop 3.0, it’s a new program built from the ground up.

    The article has some good points and I enjoyed reading it, even though the author personally preferred Fusion. If anyone has further questions about Parallels Desktop for Mac 4.0, check our feature demonstrations at ParallelsTV on YouTube, visit our website, or e-mail me at [email protected]


  10. ParallelsVsVmware Unity Vs. Coherence

    Here are my notes about Unity vs Coherence.

    – In Coherence dragging windows in noticeably **more** choppy than VMWare
    – Coherence displays the Windows task bar at the bottom of your display by default. But you can turn it off (I did immediately b/c it’s ugly as sin!). Applications Menu -> Hide windows task bar.
    – Coherence puts the Start button in your dock. I cannot begin to describe how useful this is! I’m always putting Unity into Windowed mode just to get some arcane app in the Start menu of my VM.
    – Coherence takes the sys-tray icons in your windows VM and puts them in the corresponding area on your Mac (task bar at the top). They are colored unlike OS X icons but I like it b/c it helps me differentiate between OS-X vs. Windows utilities.
    – Coherence running REMOTE DESKTOP inside of a VMWARE is MUCH MUCH MUCH MUCH better than Unity. In Unity I loose cmd-x as cut and cmd-c as copy etc.. I have to resort to ctrl-c, ctrl-x etc… In Unity there’s tremendous lag when using remote desktop. I use remote desktop about 50,000,000 times a day so for me this is by *far* the biggest reason I’m switching to parallels.

    – VMware Unity often brings all windows to the foreground when cmd-tabing between applications. For example, say you have IE in Unity and you cmd-tab to it, often (but not always) Unity will also bring *other* virtual windows to the foreground. This is a real pain when you want an OS X window next to a Virtual Window’s window.
    – Unity doesn’t redraw the windows correctly when using expose. If you have unity on and several virtualized windows open (firefox, outlook etc…), they will appear overlapped and not drawn correctly. This makes expose (which I use *a lot*) pretty much useless for virtualized Windows.

    Overall if you can stomach the jittery Coherence window dragging I think it’s better. To give you my background I’m a life long Windows user, converted to OS X a year ago. I’m a software engineer at microsoft so I use their products every day. It’s vital that my virtualization engine be as seamless and unobtrusive as possible. Parallels 4.0 makes that possible. So far it is > than Unity in that one aspect. I run Visual Studio 2008, remote desktop, sql server 2008 etc etc every day and I can saw without a doubt coherence beats out unity if you’re a hardcore developer.

    ALL of my testing is done on Windows XP Pro x68. My host machine is an 8-core Mac Pro w/ 4 Gigs of ram. No Vista b/c in my experience Vista runs like a pig in real life and that equally translates into running inside a VM.

    • Indeed, thank you for this. Based on this review a few months back I decided for VMware. However, I don’t see the point of Unity for the reasons you stated. Will switch to Parallels now.

  11. debmerkel

    I have both VMWare 2 and PD 4 running on two identical MBP 2.6 GHz units. On previous version of both software, VMWare won hands down in terms of performance. The new PD 4 really performs neck-and-neck now. I completely disagree with the assessment that VMWare integration is better than PD. I always believed that some of the performance hits you’re using for PD was precisely for better implementation of Coherence over Unity. For example, I still have issues with artifacts when exposing window layer that was previously hidden by another GUI object and Expose implementation does not work as well in VMWare. And as others have said the Task Bar view is an option that can be toggled on/off so the reviewer just didn’t do a thorough review.

  12. I can’t say that i have any experience with VMWare, but you might want to give virtualbox a shot, it’s free (as in opensource) but there’s a real company behind it’s development; Sun Microsystems.

    Virtualbox runs two different CentOS servers and several Windows guests, all at once if I choose, on my Macbook Pro 2GHz (the first model so no 64bit) and I have no reason to complain about speed, plus it has just the right amount of integration for me (full screen but show the Mac menubar when I put the mouse there and take over completely except for a single dedicated “host” key)

  13. I have to disagree with the writer of this piece. I just downloaded Parallels (was using VMware) and I must say that Parallels 4 is much better integrated… Especially know you have the system icons in the apple menubar. In my experience Parallels is also much snappier!

  14. OK, you got Windows running on Parallels and VMWware Fusion, good work and thanks for the report. Now move on to the next candidate for virtualization that both of these programs support, and install the latest version of Ubuntu, Intrepid Ibex and get back to us with a report. If my experience is any indicator, there will be a much different outcome. No 3D, and neither Parallels nor Fusion tools will install, despite betas of Ibex being available for months now.

  15. Eric Rouse

    I use Fusion mainly be cause of compatibility with my coworkers and Fusion was just plain better when I started using it.

    I did note that Fusion has some odd things about it when running in Unity. I generally run my OSX apps (mail, adium, etc) on screen 1 and the VMs on screen 2. When I tried placing the Unity driven windows on screen two it didn’t always work quite right when I was flipping back and forth. Since then I’ve pretty much kept the VM in single mode and taking up all of screen 2.

  16. Yeah I agree with “Matthew Bookspan” VMWare is a helluva better product than Parallels, I have both and once I tried VMWare I noticed its not as much of a resource hog as Parallels, nor does it take forever to close and have problems reloading it back up like Parallels did (with V3).

    Plus every release of Parallels you had to pay to upgrade.

    VMWare gave all 1.x Users a free upgrade which was greatly appreciated.

  17. after testing Fusion I also chose it…until Sun released their open source freeware virtual app, VirtualBox. The feature set is improved upon rregularly and can give either of the pay apps a run for their money in some respects. You should compare it as well.

  18. I would have like some benchmarks. Any chance of a few quick ones?

    Suggestions: virtual machine size, application size, boot time, maybe some speed benchmarks using popular benchmarking tools for windows.

  19. Matthew Bookspan

    Darrell – nice comparison. I originally bought Parallels prior to the announcement and eventual release of Fusion. By comparison, I found Fusion to be less taxing on my system (originally a MacBook 2Ghz with 2GB of RAM) than Parallels.

    When 2.0 of Fusion shipped, and it was free, it was a resounding dismissal of Parallels for me. The feature list, combined with the stability, combined with the cost savings (Parallels upgrades are expensive), ensured I will stay with VMWare. In fact, I sold my copy of Parallels the next day.

    So, maybe I am biased, but I just think VMWare built a better product.

  20. Darrell Etherington

    Ben Gertzfield, part of the Fusion 2 development team, was good enough to follow up with me via Twitter regarding video playback. First, it looks like 1080p content in hi-def WMV format played with Media Player works fine, test it here:

    Also, according to Ben, the Quicktime fullscreen bug is apparently Apple’s, but VMware is currently trying to come up with a workaround.