Review: New Parallels, Fusion virtual desktops for OS X fail the smell test

Parallels has interesting ideas that only half work, and Fusion adds almost nothing new beyond better hardware support

By , InfoWorld |  Virtualization, desktop virtualization, Fusion

Every time there's a new version of OS X, there's also a new version of Parallels Desktop and VMware Fusion, the two desktop virtualization products that let you run Windows, Linux, and OS X in virtual machines on your Mac. As Apple has sped up the pace of new OS X versions, the Parallels and Fusion upgrades have gotten, well, skimpier, with fewer compelling new features.

Yet the price remains the same: for Parallels, $50 to upgrade from the previous version, and $80 from any version before that or for new purchases; for Fusion, $50 to upgrade from the previous two versions, $60 otherwise. Like last year's upgrades, this year's versions fail the value test. It's becoming a tax on using Windows on a Mac, and most people I know rarely fire up Windows on their Mac after the first few months of switching, unless their business requires it.

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With the imminent arrival of OS X Mavericks, Parallels has released Parallels Desktop 9 and EMC VMware has released VMware Fusion 6. You can run the previous versions -- 8 and 5, respectively -- in Mavericks, so you don't have to get a new version to maintain compatibility with Apple's latest OS. Although both companies tout "new" Windows 8.1 and OS X Mavericks guest-OS compatibility in their new versions, I ran Windows 8.1 Preview and OS X Mavericks beta just fine in the previous versions. Further, OS X Mavericks beta runs both products' previous versions without a hitch. You don't need a new version of Parallels or Fusion just because of OS X Mavericks or Windows 8.1.

Because the OS updates are compatible with older versions of the virtualization programs, it becomes even more essential that the upgrade price match the new capabilities' value.

Of the two, Parallels Desktop has the greater number of interesting features (it did last year as well) -- ironically, they're meant to improve Windows 8 by adding a true Start menu and by making it work more like OS X.

VMware Fusion 6: Nothing much new hereMost of Fusion 6's enhancements are under the hood. You can allocate more RAM to each VM (64GB, up from 8GB) and use larger drives (8TB, up from 2TB). Fusion 6 also supports -- as any app does, with no modifications needed -- new OS X Mavericks capabilities such as the options for multimonitor setups that let you put a full-screen app window in its own desktop and use an Apple TV-connected monitor as if it were a monitor attached to your Mac.

When running Windows 8, Fusion 6 lets you place Metro apps (those purchased from the Windows Store) onto your Mac's Dock, in addition to the traditional Windows 7-style applications.

VMware didn't take the opportunity to standardize how it maps the Windows key commands in Fusion; as in the last version, sometimes you press Command and sometimes you have to press Cmd-Shift with the key to get the Windows key equivalent. That's a real usability blocker.

In other words, Fusion 6 is not much of an upgrade. Make no mistake: Fusion is a fine product, but there's no reason to pay $50 for the current version.

Parallels Desktop 9: Making Windows 8 a little less objectionableUnlike Fusion, the new version of Parallels tries to add something new for users to experience.

A neat idea is shared access to your cloud storage -- be it iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, and/or SkyDrive. Its appeal may not be so apparent until you realize that these cloud storage services copy their files to your local devices in a cache while you're connected; if both your Mac and VM access one of these services, you end up with two caches taking space. When running Windows, Parallels displays the iCloud (including Photo Stream), Google Drive, and Dropbox caches on your Mac as if they were local folders in Windows. They're actually aliases.

Likewise, your SkyDrive folder in Windows is supposed to appear as an alias on the Mac, in the Devices section of Finder windows. But even after installing the SkyDrive desktop app in the Windows 7 portion of Windows 8 (so that it appears in the File Explorer), I couldn't get it to display on the Mac.

Also, if you use SkyDrive on the Mac, it's not aliased to your Windows VM as the other services are, nor to Box in either direction. Cloud aliasing doesn't work if you're running an OS X VM on your Mac either.

But most of what Parallels proposes to make Desktop better in the new version has to do with Windows 8. Nearly everyone who's used Windows 8 strongly dislikes it; everyone I know who's tried it has bought a Mac or found one of the few remaining Windows 7 PCs at Dell or Hewlett-Packard instead. Not a single person I know went with Windows 8 by choice -- and these people were not fanboys of any platform.

So making Windows 8 work better is a laudable goal that may have limited appeal. After all, one of the beautiful aspects of running Windows in a VM is that you aren't forced to switch to a new version when you get new hardware. A Mac can be a Windows 7 PC you run forever.

But let's say that you have to run Windows 8. Parallels Desktop 9 claims to make it less obnoxious.

First, Parallels promises that you'll get a real Start menu, not the silly button in Windows 8.1 that merely switches between the Start screen and the Desktop -- which the Windows key on your PC (or Command on your Mac) already does for you. But Parallels' Start menu is not there out of the box. To get it, you need to ... well, I don't know. I couldn't figure it out, and Parallels didn't respond to my several queries. You might as well get an app like Start8 for your current VM and not fool with the new version of Parallels Desktop.

Parallels also promises that you can run Metro apps in windows on your Mac's Desktop, rather than in Windows 8's ungainly full-screen-only Start Screen mode. I guess the folks at Parallels took InfoWorld's suggestions for improving Windows 8, even if Microsoft didn't. However, you can't run Metro apps in their own windows within the full-screen Windows Desktop -- where this feature would be most useful. Worse, I couldn't get this feature to work as advertised on the Mac Desktop, either. Parallels' PR shows multiple Metro windows on the Desktop, sized appropriately. But in my tests, every Metro app took a full screen (and required switching to what Parallels calls Coherence mode) -- a major waste of screen real estate if you have a 27-inch monitor as I do.

There are some promising under-the-hood improvements in Parallels Desktop 9. For one, Windows apps can update while Windows is asleep, using the Power Nap mode in late-model Macs that allows OS X background app updates during sleep. Another is direct support for Thunderbolt drives, which can be directly connected to the Windows VM, if formatted as NTFS, FAT, or ExFAT. Then there's the ability to print straight to PDF from any Windows app's Print dialog box, offered by OS X for years. (Unlike some of the other Parallels additions, these actually work!)

Linux gets more support in Parallels Desktop 9, including new compatibility with the Mint and Mageia distros, as well as the ability to share apps between a Linux VM and OS X, as you could long do with Windows apps and OS X.

None of Parallels' enhancements are worth the upgrade price, especially given the futility of the key features, but at least they try to make your virtual life better.

What you should get: Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion? I suspect few people buy new copies of Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion these days (they're $80 each, by the way). Most users have probably been using one or the other for a while and are trying to decide whether to upgrade. I wouldn't pay money for VMware Fusion 6, and I would buy Parallels Desktop 9 only if I were using Windows 8 a lot. Most users can stick with what they already have.

If you're new to virtualization on the Mac, get Parallels Desktop 9. Although both Fusion and Parallels will run Windows 8, 7, Vista, and XP without issue, as well as OS X Lion and later and the popular Linux distros, it's clear that Parallels is more invested in its product and is offering more Mac-like usability and clever features.

However, Parallels implements its new capabilities haphazardly, a lingering issue over the years. I dropped Parallels for Fusion two years ago for that reason, and I dumped Windows six years ago as my primary platform due to the uneven quality. As someone who already has the previous versions of both products, I'm slightly tempted to upgrade to Parallels Desktop 9 but not at all intrigued by VMware Fusion 6.

As you can tell, I'm leery of returning to a world of mediocrity -- Parallels is too PC! That alone should make you think twice before spending your hard-earned money to upgrade or switch to either of these products.

This story, "Review: New Parallels, Fusion virtual desktops for OS X fail the smell test," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Keep up on the latest developments in mobile technology and security at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Read more about virtualization in InfoWorld's Virtualization Channel.

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