VMWare Fusion 4

Fusion 4 is the newest version of VMware's virtualization solution for the Mac, which allows you to run multiple operating systems within Mac OS X. Since we reviewed Fusion 3, VMWare has added support for Lion and the ability to create OS X Lion virtual machines, reduced the consumption of system resources to zero when you aren't running a virtual machine, redesigned the settings window, and much more.

Installation

You'll notice one major change in Fusion 4 immediately: it no longer requires an installer. Instead, you drag and drop the application into whatever folder you wish, then launch it. On first launch, Fusion will ask for authorization (which it needs only to change the permissions on some items within its application bundle) and then proceed with initial setup.

At any point in the future, you can move the Fusion application to another drive or folder, and everything will move with it. If you decide you don't want Fusion, there's no need for an uninstaller--just drag the application to the trash, and you'll remove all of it (excluding its preferences file). As someone who prefers control over how and where applications install themselves and their pieces, this is a very nice improvement over prior versions.

One other nice touch: If you're using a MacBook Air, Fusion also ships on a USB key, so you don't need to go digging for your external CD-ROM drive.

Fusion's license allows for unlimited installation on as many Macs as you use (for personal use; business users have different terms). If you use more than one Mac with regularity, this is easier on the pocketbook than is Parallels' "one machine, one license" requirement.

Running Windows

Installing Windows within Fusion 4 is straightforward: Installing the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Professional on a 2011 MacBook Pro (2.2GHz Core i7 with 4G of RAM) took me just under 15 minutes. (I was also able to install the Windows 8 Developer Preview, and it ran quite nicely, too.) Unlike Parallels 7, Fusion 4 doesn't allow you to purchase a copy of Windows from within the program itself. Fusion does include a video that shows you how to buy a copy directly from Microsoft. Even so, you'll want to buy Windows on your own, so you don't pay list price.

By default, Fusion sets up a normal Windows 7 user account, leaving the Administrator account disabled. That leads to more annoying user access control (UAC) prompts, but results in a much higher degree of security. (You can, if you wish, disable UAC to lower the annoyance level.)

VMWare has specifically tweaked Fusion to work well with Lion. For example, when you're running Windows in Fusion's Unity mode (which makes Windows apps appear as individual programs, just like your Mac ones), each of your open Windows apps appear separately in Mission Control. You can also optionally add Windows programs to Launchpad. Thankfully, Fusion does so intelligently: It doesn't add every single Windows program to that app interface.

I had no trouble at all running a normal suite of Windows office applications (including Microsoft Office, Internet Explorer, and Acrobat). The applications loaded quickly; everything worked as I expected it to. I also tested a number of games, and there the results were decent. Most older games ran just fine, and more recent games ran reasonably well, but graphically-intensive new games ran either very poorly or not at all. For example, the demo of Hard Reset ran at such slow frame-rates that gameplay was virtually impossible. That same game is playable in Parallels 7; I'd attribute the difference to Fusion's support for only 256MB of video RAM, versus 1GB in Parallels.

Hardware peripherals worked well: Fusion detected when I plugged them in, and offered me the choice of using them with either the virtual machine or the host Mac. The iSight camera worked in Windows, too.

Fusion includes a 12-month subscription to McAfee VirusScan Plus for virus protection; a full year of coverage is nice if you opt to go with a third-party solution. For this review, though, I opted to use Windows' own (optional but free) Security Essentials, which seems to be doing the job so far.

Generally, using Windows 7 in Fusion 4 was marked by an absolute lack of drama. Applications simply ran--and ran well. I had no crashes, and the occasional Windows update installed without trouble. I played some high definition video clips in Windows Media Player, and they played back with clear video and stutter-free audio. In short, Windows 7 and Fusion 4 work very well together.

Other operating systems

Windows isn't the only OS you can run under Fusion. New in this release of Fusion is the ability to install OS X Lion itself as a virtual machine. To do so, you simply point Fusion's new virtual machine assistant at the Install Mac OS X Lion.app file that you get when you purchase Lion from the App Store. (If you didn't keep a copy of this file, you can download it again.)

I installed Lion on both my 2006 Mac Pro and the MacBook Pro, and it worked well enough on both, with some limitations. I could copy and paste text between the virtual and real OS X environments, but not images. (Image copy-and-paste works in both Windows and Linux virtual machines, but not in OS X VMs.) An attempted video chat in iChat didn't work; the iSight camera appeared as a tall thin black box, without any video in it. However, a video chat via FaceTime worked fine, as did a video call in Skype.

Other limitations running a virtualized copy of OS X: You can't use more than one monitor or video acceleration of any sort. However, if you're just looking for a safe place to test software, or to run as a user with none of your typical user's add-ons, a virtualized Lion environment is a great way to get those things done.

Fusion makes it fairly easy to install and run Linux operating systems. You can use run Linux VMs in Fusion's Unity mode, hiding the Linux desktop and making Linux applications windows appear alongside your OS X apps. There's no OpenGL acceleration in Linux virtual machines, though.

VMware also has a collection of nearly 2,000 downloadable virtual appliances (ready-to-run configurations of operating systems and/or applications), many of which are free of charge. After downloading, you can be up and running with these systems with a couple of mouse clicks.

To manage your collection of virtual machines, Fusion 4 provides an updated Virtual Machine Library window. This window makes it easy to see the state of your virtual machines at a glance, and you can Control-click on any virtual machine to resume it, modify its settings, and handle other administrative tasks.

The currently-selected virtual machine is clearly highlighted, so there's never any question as to which machine will be affected by your actions. This window hides itself when you launch a virtual machine, which is nice. It'd be really nice if it then unhid when you closed that virtual machine, but it doesn't.

Fusion is a complex program, but Fusion 4 goes a long way to making that complexity easier to manage. For example, the revised Settings panel (used to set each virtual machine's options) resembles that of System Preferences, and is easy to understand and use.

You may be annoyed to find that you can't move this window around. That's because it's not really a window, but an overlay that's locked onto the virtual machine window. At first, I disliked this feature...until I opened more than one virtual machine at a time. As an overlay, it's completely clear which virtual machine you're modifying; this wouldn't be the case if the window were freely movable.

For help with Fusion, there's a relatively thorough in-app help, along with some useful online videos (though it'd be nice to see more than the handful that exist now) at the VMware Learning Center.

Snapshots

One of Fusion 4's nicer improvements is in its snapshots feature, which creates periodic (or on-demand) "copies" of a virtual machine. (A snapshot represents the state of the machine at a certain point in time, including running applications and open windows.) Once saved, you can activate a snapshot and use it at any time you wish. In Fusion 4, saved snapshots are presented in a Time Machine-inspired interface, which makes it easy to move back through a large number of snapshots.

In addition, the Snapshots window clearly shows branches, which are snapshots saved off of other snapshots. Fusion has always offered this ability, but in Fusion 4, it's much easier to see and work with the branches.

This feature is incredibly useful; using it, you can create unique virtual machines within the same virtual operating system. You could, for instance, create an OS X virtual machine running OS X 10.7, save a snapshot, then install the OS X 10.7.1 update, and save that snapshot. You can then save additional snapshots off either the 10.7 or 10.7.1 "branches," keeping two distinct installations going. (Of course, any time you activate a saved snapshot, you won't have access to any work you've done within the other saved snapshot.)

Macworld's buying advice

Fusion 4 is a nice upgrade from Fusion 3; it's fast and stable, the interface is very Mac-like, and its drag-and-drop installation is about as easy as it gets. The redesigned virtual machine settings and library windows are great improvements over their predecessors. It'd be nice if Linux virtual machines supported OpenGL acceleration, and overall, video acceleration isn't as speedy as it could be.

Given the reduced ($40) cost, current Fusion 3 users should upgrade to Fusion 4 to take advantage of its new features and capabilities. If you're new to the virtualization market, or contemplating switching from another program, Fusion 4 works great for typical Windows office usage, and is a great solution if you're wanting to experiment with other operating systems. About the only area it really falls short in is virtualized gaming and other tasks requiring the fastest accelerated 3D graphics.

This story, "VMWare Fusion 4" was originally published by Macworld.

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