Tale of Two Betas: VMware
Fusion vs. Parallels Desktop
by Alan Zisman (c) 2007 First
published in Low
January 23 2007
2006's migration of Macs to Intel CPUs revolutionized the ability of
Macs to run Windows and other PC operating systems. Macs were
originally based on first Motorola 680x0 CPUs and later PowerPC CPUs.
The Intel x86 family of CPUs spoke what was, in effect, a foreign
language; it was possible to run an operating system designed for an
Intel-style CPU on a Mac, but it could only be done with emulation. In
effect, emulation translates low-level OS commands designed for one CPU
to the equivalents for another. It works, but like translating a
foreign language newspaper one word at a time, dictionary in hand, it's
slower than speaking the language like a native.
In order to build Macs on Intel-powered hardware, Apple needed to
recompile OS X so it would work with the Intel instruction set. In
effect, the new Macs are now native x86 speakers.
Ever since 1986's 80386 processor, these CPUs have had built-in support
for "virtual 86" sessions.
Virtualization software has become increasingly popular on PCs of late
to allow a single network server to replace multiple servers by running
virtual sessions, to allow software developers to test their products
with multiple operating system versions, and to allow large
organizations to safely test new software and patches before rolling it
out to their users.
Virtualization products like VMware offer both Windows and Linux
versions, allowing Windows users to run Linux in a window or Linux
users to run Windows (or other Linux distributions) in a window.
Last year, Macs got to join the party.
In the spring, Apple released the first betas of its Boot Camp,
allowing Intel Mac users to relatively easily set up their system to
dual-boot to Windows XP SP2. And at about the same time, newcomer
Parallels released preview versions of Parallels Desktop, allowing
Intel Mac owners to run their choice of Windows, Linux, and other PC
operating systems in virtual sessions without needing to reboot their
(I wrote about the early Parallels beta on Low End Mac in Running
Windows in Parallel on Your Intel Mac
[April 2006] and then returned with a look at their release version in Parallels
Revisited: Release Version far More Polished than Beta
Parallels Desktop works well, running Windows and other PC operating
systems at nearly full speed. Released by a small company at a time
when Microsoft (with versions of Virtual PC for PowerPC Macs and for
Windows) and VMware seemed to be merely making excuses why they didn't
have a product for the new Intel Macs, it quickly won favour with
reviewers and Mac users.
Game in Town
As of this winter, however, Parallels is no longer the only game in
town. VMware, developer of the most polished virtualization software
for Windows and Linux, released a public beta of a product for Intel
Macs: VMware Fusion.
For now, Fusion is available for free
Would-be downloaders have to register with VMware and receive an
installation code. Once installed, like Parallels Desktop, Fusion can
be used to create new virtual machines running any of a wide range of
PC operating systems.
As well, users can download and run any of the hundreds of "virtual
appliances" available online from VMware's Virtual
despite its name, most of the contents of this library of preinstalled
virtual systems are available for free, tending towards various Linux
distributions. Nicely, VMware virtual machines are cross compatible,
running on any of the various Windows, Linux, and now Intel Mac VMware
I tried out the Fusion beta with a pair of Linux distributions (Fedora
Core 6 and Ubuntu 6.10) and with Microsoft Windows Vista. Despite it's
being officially a beta, I found it quite usable. It proved easy to get
up and running with the downloaded Fedora virtual appliance, and it was
almost as easy to install Ubuntu and Vista from scratch. Answering a
quick set of questions created a new virtual hard drive, and a quick
click on "Advanced Installation Options" let me choose between using an
ISO image file (as I did with Ubuntu) or an installation CD (as I did
Later choices let you alter the default values of hard drive size, and
(again by choosing the Advanced Options) also the virtual system's RAM
and whether it uses one or more processors. Worth checking those
advanced options - VMware's defaults of 256 MB RAM and 1 processor are
perhaps too conservative when new Intel Macs are now all built on
dual-core processors (and typically now have 1 GB or more RAM).
The installed systems all booted up without problem and were able to
access the Internet, my home network, and USB devices attached to my
Mac including my printer and USB flash drives. As with Parallels
Desktop, the virtualized video adapter doesn't have 3D acceleration;
neither virtualized system will satisfy anyone wanting to play the
latest Windows games on their Mac.
In a process familiar to users of the old Virtual PC or the new
Parallels Desktop, post-installation, VMware recommends installing a
set of VMware tools with improved display and network drivers, to
enable drag and drop between the Mac and virtual desktops, and to
smoothly merge the mouse cursor going back and forth between the Mac
and virtual PC. While both Virtual PC and Parallels only provide such
tools for virtual Windows sessions, VMware includes tools for Linux as
I have only one complaint. VMware's window puts a set of icons along
the top. You can see at a glance that ethernet, sound adapter, my Canon
i860 printer, and more all have green lights indicating that they've
been recognized and are working. While handy, locating these at the top
is a bit of a problem.
My 17" iMac display runs at 1440 x 900 pixels; if I set a virtual
session to run at the common 1024 x 768 pixel resolution, there's not
enough vertical room to display the whole window unless I hide my Mac's
Dock. Having to scroll the window up and down to get to often-used
features like the Windows Start Menu and Taskbar is annoying - and
prior to installing the VMware Tools a real pain.
Parallels Desktop displays its tools along the right-side of the
program window - a more usable use of screen real estate.
By the way - if you choose the menu option to view your virtual system
full screen, pay attention to the keyboard shortcut to get back - the
Command + Tab keyboard shortcut to switch between running programs
doesn't seem to work with VMware running full-screen, and if you forget
the Command + Enter shortcut to return VMware to a window, you may be
stuck that way!
While the VMware Fusion beta works well, it's time limited like other
such public betas. Ultimately VMware is going to want users to buy the
program when it's released. And at this time, pricing has not been
Lately, there's been a bit of a price war among PC virtualizers. First,
VMware released a free VMware Player; software for Windows and Linux
able to run existing virtual machines - including downloads from
VMware's Virtual Appliance library, but not (easily at least) create
new ones. Microsoft responded by making its (Windows only) Virtual PC
available for free. VMware hit back by making its VMware Server free,
while keeping its VMware Workstation a paid (US$189) product. The free
VMware Server, while having a somewhat awkward interface, works quite
nicely on a single-user computer, allowing creation and customization
of new virtual sessions.
While it would be nice to have VMware Fusion released as a free product
for Mac users, I think that's unlikely; instead, I would expect pricing
to be competitive with Parallels Desktop (US$79).
At about the same time that VMware released its freely downloadable
beta of Fusion, Parallels released a feature-rich
updating its Desktop for Mac.
The beta improves Parallels USB support with full-speed support for USB
2.0. It also includes Transporter, a utility to convert existing VMware
and Virtual PC virtual drive images to Parallels drives. It's now
possible to drag and drop between Mac and Windows desktops. Graphic
performance is improved.
Many of these features seemed aimed at ensuring that Parallels keeps up
with VMware, but the beta also includes several features that up the
ante on the (not yet released) competition. For instance:
Parallels is promising that users can use an existing Boot Camp
partition as a Parallels virtual hard drive. I was unable to test this
- while I've got a working Boot Camp partition, it's running Windows
Vista, and the software that needs to get installed onto the Boot Camp
Windows installation only works with XP (at least at the time of
testing - since this is beta, it may change by release time).
Another beta feature, which Parallels calls Coherence, has been getting
a lot of attention. Parallels describes it as "a way to run Windows
applications without seeing Windows". In other words, if you need to
use Internet Explorer 6 to connect to your financial institution, you
could just have an IE window freely floating on your Mac desktop.
It works as advertised, but I'm underwhelmed. In order to get that
free-floating IE window, you need to boot Windows and load your
application. Then, with the application running as the foreground
window, click on the Parallels' View menu and select Coherence (below).
The end result isn't much different from simply maximizing the program
window within the Windows session.
While Coherence seems over-hyped to me, I'm pleased that the Parallels
team isn't resting on its laurels and is continuing to improve
performance and add features. The ability to convert existing VPC and
VMware virtual drives allows Parallels users to make use of the
hundreds of downloadable virtual installations from VMware's appliance
library, removing that software's major advantage.
Parallels also deserve bonus marks for coming early to the Mac platform.
publication, Parallels' marketing manager Benjamin Rudolph wrote in to
"A few notes on Coherence:
- You can load Windows apps straight from the Mac dock. Just load the
app and you'll see it appear in the mac dock. Click and hold
slect "keep in dock", and it will stay there as a quick-launch
icon. No more loading in windowed mode, then going to
Check out the attached dock pic for an example. You can also go into
your Parallels folder on your mac and browse through the " windows
apps" folder. Just drag an app to the dock to make it a
- You can now drag a word file or text file from your mac directly to
an office app in Coherence. Just drag it on to the app, and
will load...edit it and click "save", and it saves right back to your
- Coherence now works with Windows 2000, 2003, XP and Vista."
That raises the question: "Where's Microsoft?"
Virtual PC pretty much defined the market for PC emulation for PowerPC
Macs,but they seem to have dropped the ball on the new virtualization
technologies. If little startups like Parallels can develop a Mac
virtualization product pretty much from scratch and a medium-size
company like VMware can bring its product over to the Mac platform,
what's keeping the software superpower?
Salim offered a correction:
Nice article! I'm thinking of moving back to a Mac in a
few months time
(waiting for Leopard and the next Macbook iteration), and from your
article it seems that VMware should be more than capable of running
Fedora Linux (as a developer, the snapshot feature might actually make
running it virtualized better than running it native)
One single nitpick: your description of the virtual 86 mode is incorrect
-- it actually allows the running of DOS-esque "real mode" applications
under a protected mode OS:
You're probably thinking of Intel-VT (Intel virtualization tech) and the
corresponding AMD-V (a.k.a. "Pacifica") that were only available
starting with Intel Core and AMD x2 respectively. Those allow full
hardware virtualization to allow two OSes to run concurrently without
the virtualization software (like VMware) having to intercept certain
machine instructions and simulate them. IBM's had this feature for
decade on their mainframes, and the good ol' Digital Alpha apparently
only had one instruction that cannot be virtualized. It took the PC
- Thanks, Michel!
VMware's end-user license agreement
doing reviews of beta software, something we were not aware of when
preparing this story. Apologies for the oversight.