Fusion 3.0 vs. Parallels Desktop 5.0
by Alan Zisman (c)
published in Low
January 5, 2010: Mac2Windows
The October release of Microsoft's Windows 7 brought a flurry of
activity on the Mac2Windows front - new versions of both of the major
virtualization programs for the Mac platform: VMware
and Parallels Desktop
While both have offered relatively straightforward ways to run Windows
and other PC operating systems on an Intel Mac with pretty good
performance in earlier incarnations, Fusion offered higher-end features
- 64-bit and multiprocessor support - while Parallels gave the user
better integration with the Mac user interface.
While Parallels Desktop was the first virtualization software for Intel
Macs, VMware claims that Fusion now has the most users.
With the new Fusion 3.0 and Parallels Desktop 5.0, each company has
made an effort to move in on the other product's strengths while
improving the 3D performance that has limited the appeal of both
products to gamers and other users needing strong 3D graphics
While this article will be focussing on VMware Fusion and Parallels
Desktop, users interested in virtualizing should also pay attention to VirtualBox
While lacking some of the features of the VMware and Parallels
products, VirtualBox has been quietly improving with each release and
has one big advantage - it's free.
Users should note that any of these
virtualization programs make high demands on their computer - you'll
need enough RAM to provide an adequate amount of memory for both the
guest operating system (Windows or another PC OS) and the host
operating system (Mac OS X), since both are running at the same time.
As well, you'll need enough free hard drive space for virtual hard
drives for each operating system you install. (Nicely, both Fusion and
Parallels default to creating expandable virtual drives - Windows may
think it's got a 30 GB hard drive, but if you've currently got 16 GB of
files installed, the virtual drive will only take up 16 GB of space,
I upgraded my aluminum MacBook's RAM from 2 GB to 4 GB in order to run
these programs and replaced the stock 160 GB hard drive with a 500 GB
VMware released Fusion 3.0 (US$80) first, just a couple of days after
Microsoft officially released Windows 7, while the new version of
Parallels (also US$80) came out a few weeks later. Downloadable free
trial versions of both are available.
On paper, both of these are relatively minor upgrades from the previous
versions. Both offer compatibility with Mac OS X 10.6 "Snow Leopard"
and Windows 7.
VMware's list of what's new includes:
- runs as a 64-bit application and supports Snow
Leopard's 64-bit kernel
- OpenGL 2.1 and Direct X 9.0c support
- better multicore support for Windows
- better integration with the Mac desktop
- Aero support in Windows Vista and 7
Parallels promises that version 5 offers:
Lots of Ways to Get Up
- 300% performance boost compared to the previous
- Open GL 2.1 and Direct X 9.0e support
- Multitouch gesture support
- New Crystal Mode view and Mac Look option
- Support for up to 8 CPUs
- Aero support in Windows Vista and 7
- improved multi-monitor support
Both programs offer users a similar variety of ways to setup Windows
(or other PC operating systems) on their Macs:
Virtual Machine Assistant
- If there's a Boot Camp partition with Windows
installed, both (but not the free VirtualBox) will recognize it and
allow it to run in a virtual session after installing some
virtualization-specific drivers and tools. You'll still be able to boot
directly to Windows, letting it do double-duty and saving some hard
drive space. Reportedly, a Boot Camp Windows installation run this way
will have somewhat lower performance than one created anew by either
Fusion or Parallels, although I haven't tested this.
Virtual Machine Assistant
- A set up assistant lets you install a new
copy of Windows or another PC
operating system. If installing Windows, both Fusion and Parallels
offer a simple installation mode - just type in your Windows serial
number, and the program will take care of the rest of the details. One
note: Fusion asks you to provide a log-in name and password, and it
then creates a Windows account using this information. Parallels asks
for user name only - after installation, you're logged in with no
password, a very insecure way to go. Bad move, Parallels!
I installed new copies of Windows 7 (using the prerelease RC1 version,
which should remain usable until August 2010) and Ubuntu 9.10 under
both Fusion and Parallels. Note that the default in each is to use one
core of a dual-core CPU; since both now offer multiprocessor support,
you may be tempted to set them to use multiple cores. However,
stability and performance seems better when left at the default
single-core setting. You may want to devote more RAM to your Windows
Vista or 7 virtual sessions, however, which you can do now or
Quickie Performance Tests
- Both VMware and Parallels offer downloadable
preinstalled OS images ("appliances") - not for Windows, but for a
variety of legally downloadable operating systems. VMware has a much
larger range of options. Similarly, you can copy a virtual system drive
image from another system.
- Both offer "migration assistants" to import a
physical copy of Windows from another computer, across a network,
converting it to a virtual system on your Mac. (I haven't tried this.)
Each also promise the ability to convert virtual systems created with
the other program.
Both companies claim performance improvements in their new versions:
Parallels, for example, promises version 5 is "300% faster" than
version 4, along with 7x better graphics performance for games.
Windows Vista and 7 offer a "performance index" - a quickie set of
benchmarks. I ran it on my clean Windows 7 RC1 installations in both
Fusion and Parallels virtual systems.
The differences are minor. The big number Windows reports is the lowest
score in any category, in this case the 2D graphics performance for
each system. Parallels scored lower in that category, but it was higher
in the 3D graphics performance rating and hard drive transfers; other
ratings were identical.
Unlike the respective previous versions, both promise support for Aero
mode in Windows Vista and 7, which offer 3D and transparency effects in
the graphic interface. In my tests, both delivered this - at least
after installing their respective Tools packages with customized video
drivers. But a little later, Windows turned Aero off in my Parallels
session and has been reluctant to restore it - the Aero Troubleshooter
claims I lack an Aero-compatible video card. Even updating Parallels
Desktop and installing the new version of Parallels Tools was no help
in getting Aero back.
In any event, both Parallels and Fusion seem more responsive with Aero
disabled, so maybe that isn't too big a loss!
Parallels Desktop starts, suspends, and shuts down Windows faster than
More Views that I Can
Both Fusion and Parallels offer a wide variety of ways to view and
access applications in your virtualized sessions. Both let you run a
virtualized operating system full screen, making it appear as if you
had natively booted your Mac to that OS. (Nice Parallels touch -
running fullscreen, move the mouse cursor to the top-left "hot" corner.
The "page" curls up; click anywhere in the revealed black space to exit
Both let you load the OS in a window on your Mac. After loading the
respective tools, both let you resize the window and your operating
system's resolution change on the fly to fit the new window size. And
both - after their tools are loaded - let your cursor move from your
guest operating system to the host by simply moving in or out of the
window. (Prior to installing the tools, you need to press a key
combination such as Control-Option to release the keyboard and mouse.)
Fusion also offers what it refers to as Unity mode. Here, the Windows
desktop and window disappears, and individual running applications
appear on the Mac desktop and Dock.
Fusion's Unity Mode
Parallels offers several varieties of this idea,
which it calls Coherence and Crystal modes. It also offers an optional
Mac Look, which applies an OS X-like skin to Windows applications,
regardless of the view mode. With these, it's possible to run Windows
applications on your Mac desktop and have them appear pretty much as
Frankly, I find the differences between Coherence and Crystal modes
fuzzy - the two modes offer similar window behaviour with different
ways to get to additional Windows applications if desired.
Parallel's Crystal mode
Parallels also offers an even more
puzzling Modality view - choosing it gives me a tiny Windows window in
the corner of my screen, complete with tiny application windows. The
Both programs offer lots of configuration options. Options can be
chosen during the creation of new virtual machines by manually changing
default settings or after the virtual machines have been created - but
not while a given virtual machine is running. At either time, you can
set the amount of RAM used, video RAM available, number of processors
available, and more.
Fusion CPU &
& RAM configuration
While the number of CPUs and RAM options are
similar between the two, the new Parallels version is more configurable
overall than Fusion.
For instance, it's generally a good idea to
exclude your virtual systems from Time Machine backups - every time you
run a virtual session, there will be tiny changes to the virtual hard
drives; if Time Machine notices, you're going to have tens of gigabytes
of backups every time it runs.
Parallels lets you exclude your virtual system from Time Machine by
clicking a simple checkbox. To do the same with Fusion, you need to
figure out where it stores its virtual machines (in your
Documents/Virtual Machines folder) and manually exclude them in your
Time Machine preferences.
Parallels also offers settings like multitouch gesture support for Mac
trackpads in Windows applications.
If You Have to
Pick Just One...
Both Fusion and Parallels promise better 3D graphics support compared
to previous versions; still, if you're wanting to run Windows games,
your best bet remains to install Windows using Apple's Boot Camp and
boot directly to Windows* for your gaming. Any virtualization
environment will remain a disappointment (though somewhat less of a
disappointment than previously) to any but the most casual Windows
I really didn't like the previous version of
Parallels Desktop; Parallels Desktop 4 didn't work properly with my
Boot Camp installation and lacked support for then-current Ubuntu
versions. I was so disappointed by Parallels 4.0 that I chose not to
write about it all - my mother always told me that if I couldn't find
something nice to say, don't say anything.
I find the new version much improved and especially like the depth of
its configuration options. Other reviewers - including a very
comprehensive review by Ars Technica - note stability issues, but so
far it has worked well for me.
However, I'm a bit worried by the way in which my Parallels Windows 7
installation initially supported Aero (and Direct X 9.0) and then
seemed to lose that capability. I also find the multitude of view
options lacking substance.
Ever since its initial version, VMware Fusion has offered less fluff
but more stability; that remains the case with version 3.0. Overall, it
just works. In the end, that gets it my vote.