VMware Fusion 4 vs Parallels Desktop 7: The
Virtualization Battle Continues
by Alan Zisman (c) 2011
published in Low End Mac
18 January 2012
Good as the Mac is (and it's very good), some Mac users do need to run
Windows software from time to time. Maybe they need to run a particular
piece of Windows-only accounting software in order to work with their
accountant or with a client. Or maybe they're web developers and need
to ensure that their pages display properly in Windows-only Internet
Four Ways to Run Windows
Apps on Your Mac
They could, of course, simply get a Windows computer and keep it for
those times. But since Apple moved to building Macs with Intel
processors in 2006, that hasn't been necessary. Instead, there are a
variety of ways to run Windows software, often along with other PC
operating systems and software, right on a Mac. Among the techniques:
For many Mac owners needing access to Windows applications now and
again, the performance penalties of virtualization are a small price to
pay compared to the convenience of not having to reboot and of being
able to mix Mac and Windows applications on the same screen.
Crossover is built on the open source WINE project, to
allow Windows software to run on a non-Windows computer without
installing Windows. Neat idea with just one major problem - it only
works with some software.
- Apple's Boot Camp allows users to nondestructively
create a Windows partition on their Mac, install Windows (Vista or
Windows 7 only, and non-Windows operating systems are not officially
supported), and then boot to their choice of either Windows or Mac OS
X. Good: When running Windows (or OS X) that operating system gets use
of all the system memory and other resources. Bad: You can only run one
operating system at a time.
- Remotely access another computer. Recent Mac OS X
versions have had the ability to connect to remote computers set up
with the widely-available (and open source) VNC protocol. Other
alternatives include Microsoft's Remote Desktop Connection Client for Mac, the
and more. These, however, require having a computer running Windows -
and a compatible remote access server - somewhere accessible by network
- Finally, Intel-powered Macs can run any of a wide
range of PC operating systems in a virtual session, letting them run
the "guest" operating system and applications alongside the native Mac
"host" operating system and native Mac applications. The downside:
You'll need enough system memory to provide an adequate amount for both
Windows (or other PC operating system) and its applications and the Mac
OS (and applications) that are all running at the same time. Moreover,
running an operating system virtually is going to have a performance
hit compared to booting to it directly using Boot Camp. (Though
performance is vastly improved over the emulation available on
prior-generation PowerPC Macs).
There are three major virtualization programs for Mac users. VirtualBox is an
open source program owned by Oracle. It's available as a free download
(a big plus) and may be all you need. But it's not being developed as
aggressively as the pair of commercial products and lacks some of those
products' features - such as the ability to run a Boot Camp
installation in a virtual session, or to mix and match Windows and Mac
applications on the Dock or the Mac desktop.
For the past few years, a pair of commercial programs, Parallels
Desktop and VMware Fusion, have been available as
virtualization options for Intel Mac users. Each has been pushed to
match the other's features, performance, and $79 list price. (Note that
each is frequently on sale on their respective websites - and each
offers special pricing for customers of the other.) The release of Mac
OS X 10.7 Lion was quickly followed by new versions of each (Parallels
Desktop 7 and VMware Fusion 4) within days of one another.
Parallels Desktop was first released in June 2006, soon after the first
Intel Macs. As a result, for many Mac owners, it became the name they
think of when they think of virtualization, and it garnered bonus
points for coming to the Mac platform at a time when better-known
virtualization companies like VMware were ignoring it.
VMware has a long history producing virtualization software for PC
networks and desktop users with products for (among others) Windows and
Linux. They released their Mac version, Fusion, in mid-2007, a year
after Parallels Desktop.
To over-generalize, Parallels' products have looked and felt more like
Mac software than VMware's, which have tended to have more of a
PC-style industrial design. Parallels Desktop was also first to release
features to better integrate Windows applications into the Mac desktop
experience, with icons on the Dock and program windows that can
optionally float on the Mac desktop rather remaining "trapped" in a
On the other hand, I found the last couple of Parallels Desktop
versions buggy and unstable. For me, Parallels Desktop versions 5 and 6
may have had the looks of a flashy sports car, but they spent too much
time in the shop. VMware Fusion may have had all the visual appeal of a
truck, but it much more reliably carried the load. As a result, it was
the one I tended to use.
Virtualizing Mac OS X
The new versions of each of these programs take advantage of a change
in Apple's licensing language regarding virtualization. (You may wonder
why any Mac user would want to run OS X in a virtualization session
window. It can be handy for developers, giving them in effect another
Mac on which to test potentially buggy prerelease versions.)
OS X 10.5 Leopard and OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard allowed Mac owners to run
OS X in a virtual session on their Macs - but only the server versions.
The fine print of the OS X 10.7 license expands that to allow the
installation and use of both the server and desktop versions of Lion in
virtual sessions - but doesn't allow similar use of desktop versions of
early OS X releases.
That's too bad. I was disappointed that Apple dropped Rosetta from
Lion, the technology that allowed Intel Macs running OS X 10.4 through
10.6 to use software developed in the PowerPC-era. Running one of these
versions in a virtual session would be workaround for Lion users who
still need to run PowerPC software. An awkward one, to be sure,
requiring booting up the older Mac OS in a window in order to run an
older program, but one that might be worthwhile in some cases.
The limitation is one of licensing language, not a limitation of the
technology. VMware demonstrated that, perhaps by accident. In November,
the company released a modest 4.1 upgrade version to Fusion. While it
wasn't on the "new features" list, users quickly discovered that the
new version allowed them to create desktop Leopard or Snow Leopard
VMware Fusion 4.11
prevents the use of virtual non-server Mac environments.
Within a few days, VMware replaced that with a 4.11 release, which,
like earlier versions (and like Parallels Desktop), refuses to allow OS
X 10.5/6 desktop discs to be used and refused to run desktop Leopard or
Snow Leopard virtual systems created with the 4.01 version.
The error message VMware
Fusion gives when you try to run non-server OS X virtually.
The previous version of both
products will run under Lion - though I needed to reinstall Parallels
6.x before it would run on my Lion system. (Then again, as I've said, I
was never a big fan of that version of Parallels in any case.)
Both new versions offer pretty
similar set of new features - improved graphics performers (of most
importance, I suspect, to Mac users wanting to run Windows games),
integration with new Lion features like Mission Control, and the
ability to create desktop Lion virtual systems.
Parallels remains prettier. See for instance, the virtual machines list
from each program.
prettier than VMware.
VMware Fusion is
far more utilitarian than Parallels.
But beauty is only skin deep. The new version of Parallels seems less
buggy than the past couple of versions and is one that I'm much happier
using. I do find that Mac web browsers - and especially Safari - become
sluggish while a Parallels session is running, though this is not as
bad as it was with the past couple of versions.
Industrial-strength Fusion continues to just keep ticking - but with
the improvements to Parallels, this is less of an advantage.
More of a Fusion advantage: Fusion continues to offer support for a
range of guest operating systems.
7 in Parallels.
Similarly, while both support last October's Ubuntu (11.10) release,
based on past performance when April's new release comes out (ver.
12.04), I'd expect Fusion to support it, but not Parallels. VMware - to
a large extent because of its well-developed Windows and Linux
ecosystem - offers about 1,900 downloadable "appliances" - preinstalled
operating systems, often preconfigured for specific functions.
Parallels' equivalent "convenience store" offers only about 100.
(On the other hand, once again Parallels' Create a New Virtual Machine
window is much nicer looking than Fusion's equivalent - and offers
users quick links to several of the more popular non-Windows virtual
Parallels' Create a
New Virtual Machine window.
Virtual Machine Assistant.
Another plus for Fusion - for home users, a single purchase can be
legally installed on multiple Macs. Parallels requires a copy for each
Mac in your household.
A plus for Parallels, though - it can be configured to provide more
memory for video (assuming you've got lots of installed RAM). Add in
better support for Windows' DirectX, and the result is better gaming
So which should you get? For the past couple of years, Fusion was the
clear winner for me. This time around, with Parallels pretty much
getting over its instability issues, it's pretty much of a draw.
Parallels is prettier and more Mac-like and offers gamers better video
performance. Fusion supports more operating systems and pre-made
appliances and can be installed onto multiple Macs in one household.
If you're happy with a previous version of either, neither new version
is a "must have" upgrade, although gamers wanting every ounce of
potential performance will definitely like the boost.
And if you're new to virtualization but need or want to run another
operating system (or multiple copies of Lion) on your Mac, either will
do just fine.