Virtualize Like a Maverick: The Latest VMware and Parallels Mac Offerings

Apple started out OS X with annual releases of new versions, but then settled into an upgrade every two years up until the release of Mountain Lion almost exactly one year after Lion came out. Here we stand, a bit over a year later, expectantly waiting for OS X Mavericks to come out. Everyone’s not waiting, though, and both the VMware Fusion and Parallels teams have just released their latest virtualization offerings for the Mac that both feature Mavericks support among other new features.

Parallels has released an annual upgrade ever year since it was released, but VMware tended more towards the 2 year mark between major releases. Now, though, both companies are releasing new versions in lockstep with new versions of OS X, and if you are serious about running Linux or Windows on your Mac, you’ll be upgrading both OS X and your virtualization tool of choice each year. And this year, you’ve got more choices than ever as both apps are trying harder to appeal to casual users and the more advanced needs of IT teams.

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All For the Sake of Windows

Some of us use virtualization just to try out other operating systems and have a sandboxed place to beta test new apps. But for most people, virtualization is really just there to run their Windows apps on a Mac. For that, both Parallels Desktop and VMware Fusion are great tools. They both make installing Windows simple and each have their own features to make Windows apps feel native on the Mac.

The new Parallels makes Windows apps feel more like Mac apps.

The new Parallels makes Windows apps feel more like Mac apps.

Parallels Desktop seems to be pulling ahead in the making-Windows-apps-feel-native field, adding PowerNap support to Windows apps and letting you use the OS X dictionary gesture inside Windows apps. It also adds a start menu back to Windows 8, and a cloud storage tool that lets you sync Dropbox, iCloud, Google Drive, and Skydrive with your Mac and your virtual machines at once without duplicating files on both OS installs. It’ll even let Windows apps print to your OS X PDF printer and use OS X gestures in apps, and makes settings screens in Windows apps skip the ubiquitous OK and Cancel buttons. It’s the tool designed to make Windows apps feel 100% at home on a Mac.

VMware keeps its focus on IT features while still making it simple to run Windows apps on the Mac.

VMware keeps its focus on IT features while still making it simple to run Windows apps on the Mac.

VMware Fusion, on the other hand, focuses more on core tech features, adding support for Mavericks’ multiple displays and AirPlay and support for up to 16 virtual CPUs and 64Gb of ram in virtual machines. It also adds support for Mavericks’ dictation in Windows apps, something Parallels already supported in Mountain Lion. And, if you go up to Fusion Pro, you’ll find support for restricted virtual machines, virtual network tools, linked clones, and more features aimed at IT departments. It’s more aimed at letting you maintain a fleet of virtual OSes, whether you’re a casual user or an IT pro that rolls out virtual machines with apps for your team.

The free alternate still keeps ticking.

The free alternate still keeps ticking.

Parallels Desktop 9 is $79.99 or $49.99 to upgrade, while VMware Fusion is $59.99 or $49.99 to upgrade or $69.99 to upgrade to Pro. If you’re feeling cheap, though, there’s still Oracle’s free VirtualBox, which hasn’t received a major new version in over a year but did see bug fixes added in July that made it work better with Windows 8. There’s also a beta of the next version out right now, which includes support for video capturing, touch devices, keyboard shortcut management, and more. It still lags far behind its commercial competitors in Windows integration, but works great for basic virtualization without the bells and whistles — and if it was already working for you, neither VMware nor Parallels added anything this year that’ll push you to switch.

Going Beyond Virtualization

Parallels' take on Remote Desktop with some touch enhancements

Parallels’ take on Remote Desktop with some touch enhancements

Parallels has been recently hyping their newest offering, Parallels Access, that aims to make your Mac and PC apps feel at home on your iPad. It’s not exactly a virtualization offering, though, since you’ll still have to have a real Mac or PC (or perhaps virtualized Windows in Parallels Desktop on your Mac) running to access the apps through your iPad. The Parallels team is simply taking their expertise at making Windows apps feel native on the Mac and applying it to the iPad with a free app and a $79/year subscription. It’s not what you’ll want to look into if you want to run Windows apps on your Mac, and it’s not bringing honest-to-goodness virtualization to the Mac, but rather trying to blur the lines between Mac and Windows apps and the iPad’s touch interface.

To Upgrade or Not?

Now, actually, if you already have a version of VMware Fusion or Parallels that work for you, you don’t have to upgrade. I’m running Fusion 5 and Parallels 8 in Mavericks, and they’re both running fine — and I have Windows 8 as a guest OS in each of them, and Mavericks as a guest OS in Fusion 5 as well. The new versions will bring you extra integration with OS X, potentially faster performance, and support in Mavericks, but you don’t absolutely have to upgrade. If you do choose to, though, both VMware Fusion 6 and Parallels Desktop 9 are great ways to run any OS you want on your Mac. They’re very similar — and honestly, the best choice is likely sticking with the one you’re already used to, and upgrading it if you want.

We’ll be looking at them both in greater depth in the coming weeks, but would love to hear which one you prefer if you’re already using them for virtualization. I’ve always preferred VMware Fusion, and keep most of my virtual machines in it, but am looking forward to seeing if Parallels can win me over this time around.