As fantastic as the Mac OS is, there are plenty of reasons you might want to run Windows from time to time: maybe you need to run some old school XP software for work, or you want to try out some PC games, or (like me) you have to test websites in Internet Explorer.
If you’re going the virtualization route, you can try out the free VirtualBox, but if you’re looking for something more powerful and user-friendly, the two main competitors are Parallels and VMware Fusion. I’ve tried both, and have been happily using VMware Fusion for the year and a half. VMware recently came out with a major update packed with new features, so let’s take a look at what it has to offer.
VMware Fusion is a virtualization program — it lets you run another OS alongside your host OS, without rebooting your computer. Given enough RAM and processing power, virtualization can offer a nearly seamless integration between your Mac and native Windows applications.
VMware fusion offers 3 ‘view modes’ to run your Windows installation: one-window mode, where you have Windows running in a regular application window; ‘unity’ mode, which lets you run Windows applications as if they were Mac applications; and full-screen mode, which is exactly what it sounds like.
Setting up a virtual machine with VMware fusion is a pretty painless process, you just need either Windows installation discs, or an .iso disk image. You’ll have to go through the regular Windows installation process, set up user accounts, and all that jazz you thought you’d escaped when you bought a Mac. You’ll also have to pick some settings like RAM allocation for your virtual machine — you can safely leave these at the defaults and change them later if you’d like.
You can also import virtual machines from Parallels, earlier versions of VMware Fusion, Microsoft Virtual PC, or a Boot Camp installation.
You can control the level of integration between your Mac and ‘guest’ system, deciding which directories you want to be mirrored between machines. I have my documents, downloads, and pictures folders mirrored, plus the desktop. It’s pretty handy, the desktop instantly updates when you add a new item on either your Mac or PC.
VMware Fusion 4 features a lot of refinements over earlier versions, as well as a handful of new features:
Fusion 4 was designed with Lion in mind, with integration with most of Lion’s fancy new features. You can add Windows apps to your Launchpad, use Mission Control/Exposé, assign apps to different spaces, and go full screen.
I have to say I don’t think I’ve looked at my Launchapd since I reviewed Lion in July, but the Mission Control feature is a very welcome addition, especially for web design, when you’re often juggling a number of programs and windows.
My favorite new feature is the Lion full-screen mode (with version 4.1) that takes full advantage of Lion, allowing you to run your Windows machine full-screen in it’s own space, completely seamlessly, which is awesome.
One of the coolest features of VMware Fusion is Unity mode, which lets you run Windows apps just as you would Mac apps. In lieu of the Start Menu, there is sort of a reverse Start menu in the menu bar, giving you access to all your Windows programs, as well as virtual machine settings. I find this menu-bar Start Menu to be one of the biggest advantages of VMware Fusion over Parallels. Unity apps behave exactly like you would expect them to, you can access them via the dock and the application switcher, launch them through Spotlight, and find them in your applications folder.
VMware claims that Fusion 4 is up to 2.5 times faster than previous versions, and it’s a pretty noticeable difference. Performance is generally the biggest concern with virtualization software, because you’re dividing your computer’s resources in two. A slower computer will struggle to run two systems at once, so any speed improvements are a huge help. I can confirm that while Fusion 3 was only just usable on my late 2010 MBP with 4GB RAM, I was able to do what I needed to do (though not run games without burning my lap) much more easily with Fusion 4.
In all honesty, before you get your hopes set on running two OSs at once, you really do need to consider whether your computer can handle it. VMware Fusion 4, while faster than earlier versions, still took quite a while to boot up and shut down, and it really got my fans going when I had a few applications running (particularly IE9).
With 4GB of RAM and a 2.66GHz processor, it was a bit of a pain to run Fusion while using the apps I needed on the Mac side (Photoshop, Browsers, FTP clients). However, I recently upgraded my RAM to 8GB (well worth the $45 for anyone frequently using graphics or virtualization software), and my Windows installation now runs beautifully and boots up in seconds.
I found graphics performance to be good, but not perfect using Fusion 4, I get some jitteriness moving unity windows, and I’ve been having some rendering issues in IE9. Diablo II runs almost flawlessly, with some occasional lagging, and it’s definitely playable; I’m not sure many of the newer, more graphics-intensive games would hold up so well. If you’re looking to do serious PC gaming on your Mac, dual-booting is probably a better option.
VMware Fusion 4 allows you to run a virtual installations of Lion and Snow Leopard (and respective Servers). Though this may not seem important to the average user, it’s a great tool for app developers, and could also allow you to run PowerPC-only applications without reverting to Snow Leopard.
You’re not limited to just Mac and PC either, you can run your favorite Linux distribution as a virtual machine too (though Parallels really has simpler Linux installations).
The ability to “pause” or “suspend” your virtual machine can be essential when you’re working with a less RAM. Suspending the virtual machine frees up its resources for your Mac, so you won’t experience slower performance if you’re going to ignoring Windows for a bit. I use this feature a lot, and it’s a huge time (and CPU) saver.
I’m pretty happy with VMware Fusion 4, it definitely speeds up my workflow and lets me perform tasks essential to my work with ease. The new Lion integration features are very slick and useful, especially the full-screen mode.
Comparisons will always be made between VMware Fusion and Parallels, and it’s a pretty tight competition. I’ve tried both, and it really comes down to personal preference. Price-wise, they’re both being offered at discount prices at the moment, with Fusion being the slightly more affordable option at $49.99 (vs. $59.99). I’m satisfied with Fusion 4, but I know Parallels is a great piece of software too. They both have free trials, so it can’t hurt to give them both a try while the prices are low.
If you’re hesitant to spend money on virtualization software when you have to shell out for a Windows license, take a look at the free VirtualBox, which will let you accomplish the same basic tasks with a more bare-bones interface and fewer features.
So here’s the poll: what do you use? I’d also like to hear about experiences with virtual machine performance using different systems and specs, or experiences with Parallels 7.