Comparative Review: VMware Fusion 2.0 vs. Parallels Desktop 4.0

Two different approaches to virtualization on the Mac

Executive Summary:
Both of these products work as advertised, and I'd heartily recommend both of them to any Mac user that has a need to run Windows, Linux, or any number of any OSes for business or personal use. In the final analysis, however, I felt that Parallels Desktop was the superior product, but only by the narrowest of margins.

According to some of our own reader surveys, more than 60% of our audience regularly has to manage Linux, Macintosh, and other non-Windows platforms in their IT environment. Getting all those disparate platforms to co-exist peacefully within a Windows shop has historically been somewhat of a challenge, but the advent of virtualization technology has improved that situation dramatically over the last few years.

That's why we decided to take a look at VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop, the two leading commercial virtualization solutions for the Apple Macintosh. Just about every IT pro has had to work with Macintosh computers in the office, as they are the platform of choice for many designers, artists, and creative directors, including the office here at Windows IT Pro: All of our art and production teams use Macs to publish our magazine every month.

Using either of these products you can give Mac users access to essential Windows- or Linux-based based applications and ease integration and improve interoperability with your existing infrastructure. In order to find out which product was better, I tested VMware Fusion 2.0 and Parallels Desktop 4.0 on a 17-inch MacBook Pro equipped with a 2.53 GHz Intel Core Duo Processor, 4GB of RAM, a 300GB hard drive, and nVidia GeForce 9400m graphics chipset.

VMware Fusion 2.0

VMware is a relative newcomer to the Mac virtualization scene, but has already made a significant impact. VMware does has more than a decade of x86 virtualization experience, so when Apple moved to Intel processors for the Macintosh family, VMware saw an opportunity to bring their expertise to the Macintosh market, and VMware Fusion was born.

VMware Fusion 2.0
PROS: Excellent integration with other VMware products; polished interface and painless installation; impressive number of supported guest OSes
CONS: Support can be expenseive; overall VM performance was slightly behind Parallels; 3D/OpenGL support not as robust
RATING: 4 out of 5
PRICE: $79.95
RECOMMENDATION: VMware Fusion is your best option if you've heavily invested in other VMware virtualization products, but Parallels wins this one by a nose.
CONTACT: VMware • 877-486-9273 •

Installation. I found installing VMware Fusion to be very easy and intuitive, and I was ready to create my first Windows XP VM in about 30 minutes. VMware Fusion can also import your Windows settings from Boot Camp, which could be a benefit for users who are accustomed to using Apple's multi-boot feature.

Configuration and use. In order to put both Parallels Desktop and VMware Fusion through their paces I created a Windows XP virtual machine with 512MB of RAM, a 60GB hard drive, and enabled 3D hardware acceleration. I then installed Windows XP SP3, along the PC versions of OpenOffice 3.0, Microsoft Office 2007, and a few other applications and utilities.

Like Parallels Desktop, Vmware Fusion has a feature that lets you run Windows applications in a self- contained Windows on the Mac desktop. VMware calls their windowing functionality Unity, while Parallels calls their Coherence. It may seem like a minor feature, but it does help hide some of the complexity of the Guest OS from the user. For example, if you only want a Mac user to have access to a specific Windows application rather than the entire OS, Unity (and Coherence) can make that happen.

I spent a few hours loading, editing, and saving a variety of Office documents, and they loaded and ran without any obvious performance problems. VMware Fusion did seem to run those apps a tad slower than Parallels Desktop, but I didn't see too much of a difference between them for light office work. Running macros on larger excel spreadsheets (and for other more disk and processor intensive tasks) seemed a bit more noticeable, with Parallels emerging as the speed champ.

VMware Fusion does support more than 60 varieties of guest OSes, which could be useful if you have a specific Linux distribution you’re trying to run. VMware's phone and email support both cost money; larger businesses have additional support pricing and options to choose from, but the extra cost of VMware support may be an issue for smaller businesses.

Parallels Desktop 4.0

Parallels has been providing virtualization products on the Mac for years, and Parallels Desktop 4.0 in the latest product in that long legacy. Despite some early reliability problems with the initial 4.0 product release (see, InstantDoc ID100916), the version of Parallels Desktop I tested ran without any problems.

Installation. Parallels Desktop was just about as easy to install as VMware Fusion was, and the installation time was roughly similar: I was ready to create my first VM in a little over 30 minutes.

Configuration and use. Using Parallels Desktop I also created a Windows XP virtual machine with 512MB of RAM, a 60GB hard drive, and enabled 3D acceleration. Parallels Desktop does provide more flexibility over your 3D acceleration configuration that VMware Fusion does, and also supports OpenGL 2.0. That could make Parallels Desktop a better option for you if you need to support Windows apps that require specific video memory size or OpenGL support.

Parallels Desktop 4.0
PROS: Slightly faster VM performance; robust OpenGL and 3D accelerator support; less expensive support options; bundled software provides a great value
CONS: Comparatively limited number of Guest OSes; initial 4.0 release had some reliability problems; installation and user experience not quite as polished as VMware Fusion
RATING: 4.5 out of 5
PRICE: $79.95
RECOMMENDATION: Parallels Desktop has improved mightily over the years, and this latest version is the best yet.
CONTACT: Parallels • 425-282-6448 •

Like VMware Fusion, Parallels Desktop ran all Windows applications in our test without any problems. Parallels Desktop did seem a bit faster when working with larger files or more complex documents. Parallels Desktop 4.0 is also bundled with a number of other Windows applications at no additional charge, including Acronis True Image Home backup and restore, Acronis Disk Director Suite disk management, and security software by Kaspersky. For IT pros, Desktop 4.0 introduces Mac OS X Leopard Server and Windows Server OS support, as well as improved CLI and Scripting support, remote control feature via the iPhone and other enterprise improvements. Free email technical support is provided, and paid telephone support is also available.

Two Excellent Products, One Hard Decision

Both of these products work as advertised, and I'd heartily recommend both of them to any Mac user that has a need to run Windows, Linux, or any number of any OSes for business or personal use. In the final analysis, however, I felt that Parallels Desktop was the superior product, but only by the narrowest of margins. Parallels Desktop seemed a bit faster with just about every task I threw at it, the bundled Windows apps are a nice bonus, and the less expensive support options could make it a cheaper options for SMBs. That said, if you’ve invested heavily in other VMware products in your enterprise, VMware Fusion would be the best choice, thanks to a number of benefits.

Like the Camaro and the Mustang, Pepsi and Coke, the Red Sox and the Yankees, the intense competition between VMware and Parallels is good news for consumers. I'd expect both companies to keep improving their products in the months and years to come, which should make life easier for IT admins tasked with managing multiple platforms.

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