Mac virtualization face-off: VMware Fusion 4 vs. Parallels Desktop 7

Neither Fusion nor Parallels offer major improvements for Windows users, but they add welcome support for Mac OS X Lion virtual machines

In the Mac-based desktop virtualization world, there are two significant choices: Parallels Desktop and VMware Fusion. Both have been updated to take advantage of Mac OS X Lion. In addition to supporting Lion as a host, both take advantage of Apple's change in policy that lets users run the desktop version of Mac OS X Lion in virtual machines. Prior to Lion, Apple restricted such usage to Mac OS X Server. Both Parallels and Fusion of course run various versions of Windows and Linux, their primary use case.

As our review of Parallels Desktop 7 noted, there's not much compellingly new to that product since its last update, a year earlier. Does VMware Fusion 4.01 up the ante in any significant way? Not really. Just as Parallels Desktop 6 runs fine on Mac OS X Lion, so does VMware Fusion 3.1; the main reason to upgrade to Fusion 4.01 is to gain the ability to run Mac desktop VMs, a handy feature if you're a Mac developer or tester.

[ See InfoWorld's slideshow tour of Mac OS X Lion's top 20 features. | Learn why IT won't like Mac OS X Lion Server. | Keep up with key Mac OS X, iOS, and other Apple technologies with the Technology: Apple newsletter. ]

I disliked the difficulty of installing Mac OS X Lion in Parallels Desktop 7; the software assumes you don't have a local copy and thus defaults to re-downloading the whole 4GB image file. If you've already downloaded the Lion installer image, Parallels makes you jump through arcane hoops to use it. That's not the case with Fusion 4.01, which works with the Install Mac OS X installer file just as easily as it does with a Windows or Linux .iso file -- that is, easily. Ironically, what Fusion won't do is connect you to the Mac App Store to download a fresh copy of the installer, as Parallels Desktop does. You need to get it yourself, which is not at all difficult. But it shows that Parallels assumed newbie users, whereas VMware assumed more technical Mac users.

Like Parallels Desktop, Fusion can't install Mac OS X from an existing partition, a Time Machine backup, or a disk image. And like Parallels Desktop, Fusion doesn't see FireWire or Thunderbolt drives, so once you're running the Mac installer or Lion itself in a VM, you can't use the migration tools that Apple provides for such transfers. Because most FireWire and Thunderbolt drives also have USB ports, you can switch buses for that migration, then go back to the speedier bus for everyday operations. Just note this means you can't back up your Mac VM separately via Time Machine if you don't have a USB drive for that purpose.

So, VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop are equivalent in their Mac VM support, save for their installation differences.

They're also close in their performance, though Parallels Desktop 7 outscores Fusion 4.01 in the PassMark suite of Windows benchmarks, running 9.5% faster overall. (I tested both on an early-2011 MacBook Pro with 8GB of RAM and a 2.0GHz Intel Core i7 running Mac OS X 10.7.1 Lion with the VMs on a FireWire 800-connected 500GB external drive.) When it gets down to specific performance aspects, they differ strongly. Parallels Desktop is much faster (63.3%) for CPU operations than Fusion, but Fusion sigificantly outperforms Parallels Desktop in all the other categories: 2D graphics (by 32.5%), 3D graphics (by 53.3%), memory (by 17.9%), and disk (by 7.7%), as the table below shows.

The bottom line is that gamers and simulation users will get a bigger bang from Fusion, whereas number crunchers will do better by Parallels Desktop.

Both programs offer similar presentation views and configuration options, and both support Lion's new Mission Control multi-application-window display. Fusion adds the ability to encrypt the VMs for more secure storage. On top of that, you get a virtual Bluetooth driver for use with the Mac's Bluetooth for file transfer and device connections, as well as audio support to Mac OS X Leopard and Snow Leopard Server VMs. These are all nice enhancements that may or may not be worth the $50 upgrade price if you're using the $90 Fusion to run just Windows or Linux. However, I appreciate that VMware is charging $50 to upgrade a two-year-old product, whereas the $80 Parallels is charging the same $50 to upgrade a version released only a year ago.

One area where Parallels has a meaningful advantage is in its $20 iOS app, which lets you run VMs wirelessly from your iPad or iPhone, as well as run the host Mac OS X itself through a VNC connection. There's no such add-on for Fusion, though you can control both the Mac OS X host and its VMs with standard VNC client apps on iOS; this Parallels advantage is not that great. (To control Fusion VMs with a VNC client, you need to enable such control in Fusion's preferences.)

But one area where Fusion outdoes Parallels Desktop is its support for Windows 8. Although you can install the developer preview edition of Windows 8 in both applications' VMs, Parallels' drivers and related tools cause the Win8 screen to remain black except while restarting or shutting down, rendering it unusable. Fusion's drivers and related tools work just fine in Windows 8. I'm not suggesting that either program should be required to support an unreleased OS, but it's a happy surprise that Fusion does.

The bottom line is that Fusion, like Parallels Desktop, is not a necessary upgrade for most users. But if you want to run Mac and Windows 8 VMs, it's a reasonable investment.

This story, "Mac virtualization face-off: VMware Fusion 4 vs. Parallels Desktop 7," was originally published at Follow the latest developments in Mac OS X, Windows, and virtualization at For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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This story, "Mac virtualization face-off: VMware Fusion 4 vs. Parallels Desktop 7" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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