Despite Mac OS X’s recent run of success, Windows is still the dominant platform, especially in the world of business. As such, there may be times when you need to run Microsoft’s operating system – perhaps there’s an application your company uses that’s only available for Windows or you’re a web developer and you need to test your sites in a native Windows web browser. You may also enjoy certain PC games that aren’t available for OS X. Whatever the reason, your Mac can provide an excellent solution to the problem. Indeed, there are a number of ways to run Windows on your Mac.
If you only need to use one Windows program you could use CodeWeavers’ CrossOver XI Mac (US$59.95, www.codeweavers.com), which allows you to run such applications without having to install Microsoft’s operating system on your Mac.
If, on the other hand, you need a full-fledged Windows installation, there are several other options. You could, for example, use Apple’s own Boot Camp, which lets you install Windows on a separate partition of your hard drive. Alternatively, you could install one of three third-party virtualisation programs: Parallels Desktop 7 for Mac ($89.95, http://www.parallels.com/au/); VMware Fusion 4 ($49.75, www.vmware.com/) or VirtualBox (free, www.virtualbox.org). Each of these allows you to run Windows as if it were just another OS X application.
Of those four options, Boot Camp gives you the fastest Windows experience, but to use it you will first have to reboot your Mac into Windows, after which you’ll be unable to use OS X while it’s running Microsoft’s operating system. And though VirtualBox is free, it’s complex to set up and it lacks the bells and whistles you get with VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop. This leaves those last two as your best options.
So how do you decide which one is best for you? We’ve looked at that question repeatedly over the years. In the past, we’ve been able to find reasonably clear distinctions between the two; depending on what you needed to do, one or the other would be the right choice. This time, however, the differences aren’t so clear – or, rather, they’re much, much smaller. Both VMware Fusion 4 and Parallels Desktop 7 perform so well that apart from a couple of exceptions that we note over the following pages, picking one over the other for a given task is basically a coin toss. This means that the choice comes down to more subjective criteria.
Each application fits into your workflow in a slightly different way, so here we’ll outline those differences, small though they may be and give you a sense of how the two compare and operate.
Note that the majority of this comparison is focused on running Windows on a Mac. That’s what most people use these programs for. You can also use them to run Linux, Unix and other more exotic operating systems, but that’s not the focus of this feature.
Version 4 of VMware’s virtualisation app has added support for Lion (OS X 10.7) and the ability to create OS X Lion virtual machines, reduced the consumption of system resources, redesigned the settings window and more.
You’ll notice one change immediately: Fusion no longer requires an installer. Instead, you can drag and drop the application into whatever folder you wish and then launch it. The program’s licence also allows unlimited installation on as many Macs as you use.
Installing Windows within Fusion 4 is also straightforward. When we installed Windows 7 Professional on a MacBook Pro, it took just under 15 minutes. Unlike Parallels Desktop 7, Fusion 4 doesn’t allow you to purchase a copy of Windows from within the program itself.
Version 4 has been specifically tweaked for OS X Lion. For example, when you’re running Windows in Fusion’s Unity mode (in which the operating system’s apps appear as individual programs, just like your Mac ones), open Windows applications appear separately in Mission Control. You can also add Windows programs to Launchpad.
We didn’t have any trouble running a normal suite of Windows office applications (including Microsoft Office, Internet Explorer and Adobe Acrobat) with Fusion 4. They loaded quickly and everything worked as expected. Game performance was also decent. Most older titles ran just fine, more recent ones ran reasonably well, though graphically intensive new games ran either very poorly or not at all.
Hardware peripherals functioned just fine, too. Fusion offered us the choice of using them with either the virtual machine or the host Mac. The iSight camera worked fine in Windows. Installing OS X Lion itself in a virtual machine worked well, though there were some limitations. We could copy and paste text, but not images, between the virtual and real OS X environments. Chatting via FaceTime and Skype was fine, but we couldn’t use iChat video.
One of Fusion 4’s better features is its ability to create snapshots – copies of a virtual machine’s current state, including open apps and windows. You can create a virtual machine running OS X 10.7, save a snapshot of it and then install OS X 10.7.1 and save a snapshot of that, too. You can then activate a snapshot any time you wish.
Current Fusion 3 users should keep an eye out for promotional pricing and then upgrade to get version 4’s new features. New users or switchers from Parallels will find that Fusion 4 works well for typical Windows use and it’s a great solution for experimenting with other operating systems. About the only area in which it falls short is virtualised gaming and other tasks that require the fastest accelerated 3D graphics available.
Parallels Desktop 7
The latest release of Parallels Desktop has an updated interface, along with a slew of performance improvements and new features, including a simplified configuration screen and support for OS X Lion’s full-screen mode.
The program is quick and easy to install and you can put it wherever you like, so it doesn’t have to be in your Applications folder. You must, however, activate Parallels Desktop 7 the first time you run it; the program currently requires one licence per computer.
After activating, a wizard helps you install Windows; you can even purchase the OS (Home Premium, Professional or Ultimate versions) from within Parallels itself. You can also install OS X Lion from the wizard or download other operating systems from the Parallels Convenience Store.
During setup, Parallels asks whether you want to set up the virtual machine like a Mac or a PC. If you choose the Mac option, you get a fully-integrated environment, with easy sharing between the virtual machine and OS X. Choose Windows and you get a more isolated virtual machine. You can, however, change those settings later. Once we had set everything up, we ran Microsoft Office 2010, Adobe Acrobat and a number of other common applications without any trouble. We also tested a number of games and were amazed at their performance. Parallels’ support for USB peripherals is quite good, too.
Like VMware Fusion 4, Parallels Desktop 7 allows you to install OS X Lion itself as a virtual machine (as long as you’re running it as your root operating system). We tested this and it worked as expected, with a few caveats. We couldn’t, for example, copy and paste text or images between the virtual machine and the host operating system. Also, video chats in iChat had problems with crashing, though FaceTime worked fine. But for general usage – such as testing software safely or testing the system as a user without any login items – running OS X Lion in a virtual machine works great.
Overall, Parallels 7 is a fast, stable and highly customisable way to run Windows on a Mac. If you’re a current Parallels 6 user, upgrading to version 7 – especially if you’re running OS X Lion – should be on your to-do list. If you’re new to the virtualisation market or contemplating switching from another program, then we recommend that you download a free trial from Parallels and see how well it fits into your workflow.
Purchase and licence
For new and existing customers, VMware Fusion 4 will set you back $49.75. Parallels Desktop 7 is more expensive at $89.95, but if you already own a copy it costs $49.95 to upgrade. Remember that you’ll also have to buy a copy of Windows to use either application.
However, there’s a big hidden cost in the pricing and that’s the software licence. VMware Fusion’s licence – for non-business users – allows installation and use on any Macs that you own or control. Parallels, on the other hand, requires one licence per machine and uses activation to check those serial numbers. So if you want to run your virtualisation program on more than one Mac, Fusion costs less – potentially much less.
Installation and general operation
Installing VMware Fusion 4 is surprisingly simple – just drag and drop the program to any directory you wish. There’s no installer to run and you can store it anywhere. When you first launch the program, it will ask for your administrative password and then activate its extensions. These extensions aren’t permanently installed in some low-level system folder where you’ll never find them; instead, they remain within the Fusion application bundle and are automatically activated on subsequent launches without requiring your password again. More importantly, they’re deactivated when you leave the program. In fact, when you quit Fusion, unless you choose to leave the Windows applications item in your Mac’s menu bar, absolutely nothing related to it is left running.
This setup also makes uninstalling a snap – just drag the app to the Trash and you’re done. Fusion is a very complex program and making it as easy to install and uninstall as any simple utility is a major engineering accomplishment.
Parallels Desktop 7 has an installer – its extensions go in the System folder and are always present, even when the program isn’t running. In addition, two background processes continue to run after you quit. These don’t take much RAM or CPU power (20MB and 0.3 per cent, respectively, on a Core i7 MacBook Pro).
Preferences and virtual machine settings
Both programs offer a lot of options in the Preferences menu, though Parallels provides more and consequently has a more complicated Preferences screen. Both are reasonably well organised and do a decent job of categorising their various settings.
One thing that we didn’t like about Desktop 7 is that Parallels automatically enrols you in its Customer Experience Program, which collects anonymous usage data; you have to opt out of this by disabling it in the Advanced section of the Preferences menu. Fusion offers a similar program, but you opt in, not out.
The two applications take a different approach to changing a virtual machine’s settings. Desktop 7 uses a floating window that’s independent of the virtual machine you’re configuring; while Fusion 4 dims the virtual machine and presents a fixed window on top of it in the centre of the screen. The floating window in Parallels lets you easily toggle from the settings to the virtual machine, though you can also lose track of the settings window if you click another window to the foreground.
Fusion’s Settings window mimics that of System Preferences, while Desktop 7’s uses a tabs-and-lists layout. Some users may prefer one approach over the other, but we found that they both work reasonably well.
As noted, both Parallels desktop 7 and VMware Fusion 4 perform very well with Windows 7. Macworld’s Lab ran both programs through WorldBench 6 benchmark suite (using Windows 7) and the results were very close. In overall score, Fusion 4 beat Desktop 7 by about 4 per cent (118 to 113). In individual results, some tests had VMware’s offering as the faster, others had Parallels’ program ahead and some were too close to call. If you distil all those numbers down to their essence, what you have are two fast and capable virtualisation solutions for general Windows use.
That said, for particular users in some businesses, certain applications may perform better in either one or the other. To check for any potential speed differences, both companies offer free demos and it would be well worth your time to install each program and test for yourself. Overall, though, when it comes to performance, we’d call it a tie.
Programs of this complexity require updating – there’s just so much going on that there will always be another feature to add or bug to fix. The two companies handle updates very differently, however. Parallels pushes out updates rapidly, so users get the latest features and fixes as quickly as possible. Fusion has a slower update pace. Both programs have in-app updating now, so that portion of the routine has become simpler than it was in the past.
So which company’s update methodology is better, frequent small ones or occasional larger updates? That’s really a matter of personal preference. Some people like knowing that they’ve always got the latest bug fixes and features, while others may prefer longer periods between required updates. The important thing though, is that both companies do actively update their products. Again, we would call it a tie.
If you’d like to use the power of your virtualisation application to look beyond Windows’ borders, Fusion offers a far broader universe of alternatives. Though both support virtual appliances – downloadable, ready-to-use combinations of an OS, plus applications – VMware’s library (www.vmware.com/appliances/directory) is huge, with over 1,900 appliances available.
Parallels’ library (www.parallels.com/ptn/download/va) contains just 98 entries. So if exploring the wild blue yonder of other operating systems, email appliances and other virtual solutions is your cup of tea, Fusion is the way to go. (Parallels can, in fact, use VMware’s appliances, but they must first be converted to Parallels’ format. To us, though, it seems a bit unfair to give Parallels any credit for riding on VMware’s coat-tails.)
Both programs have an integration mode (VMware calls it Unity, while in Parallels Desktop 7 it’s called Coherence). In either mode, Windows programs appear side by side with Mac ones in the OS X graphical user interface. But there’s a subtle difference in the way Parallels and Fusion implement this mode.
While it appears that each Windows app gets its own window, when you’re using Desktop 7, OS X actually treats them all as one. You can see this when you activate Mission Control. Regardless of how many Windows programs you’re running, they’re all lumped together as one Desktop 7 entry.
If you’re using Fusion 4, on the other hand, the window for each Windows application really is an independent entity. This means that when you’re using Mission Control with Fusion, each Windows application gets its own separate entry, grouped with its open windows.
If you prefer to think of your virtual machine as a single entity, you’ll probably prefer Parallels’ behaviour in Coherence mode. If, however, you’re using the integrated mode, it makes more sense to treat the windows as Fusion does, so that each application is a distinct entity, with its own windows, in OS X.
If you want to run Windows to play games you can’t play on your Mac, Desktop 7 is the best choice. In testing, it easily outperformed Fusion, especially when we were trying to run newer games. Desktop 7 supports up to 1GB of VRAM, versus only 256MB in Fusion. It also does a better job of supporting DirectX; one game we tried looked fine using Desktop 7 using DirectX, but awful in Fusion – switching to OpenGL in Fusion solved that problem, but not all games offer this option.
Overall, Desktop 7’s 3D engine seems to work much better for games in Windows than Fusion’s. So if Windows gaming is your thing, Parallels is your product.
On a related topic, only Parallels Desktop 7 includes accelerated 3D graphics in Linux virtual machines.
And the winner is…
Running Windows on your Mac may not be something you want to do, but rather something you have to do. The good news is that there are two excellent programs to help you with the task. Choosing which one to use may be the most complicated part of the process; once you’ve chosen a program, getting Windows up and running in either one is surprisingly fast and easy.
So which virtualisation solution should you purchase? In our comparison, Fusion comes out ahead (four wins, one loss and three ties). But you may care more about some points of comparison than others. For that reason, we suggest you download each program’s free trial version and see how each one works in your specific environment and for your specific needs.
Both programs are excellent; you won’t be disappointed by either one’s performance. Your selection will come down to your feelings on these subjective items – and for that, nothing beats spending some hands-on time to see what really works best for you.
The many versions of Windows
Whether you choose Parallels Desktop 7 or VMware’s Fusion 4 to run Windows on your Mac, you still have to choose which version of the operating system to run. Here are your options.
There is no reason to install Vista. If you’re thinking of doing so because you happen to have a free copy lying around, don’t – it’s worth paying extra to get Windows 7. Trust us on this.
Even though Windows 7 has been gaining traction in the corporate world, many companies still use XP. If yours is one of those firms, you should install the Professional version; the Home edition isn’t compatible with some business networks.
Also, if you do have to install XP it’s worth getting the 32-bit version. The 64-bit edition was a bit of an experiment for Microsoft and it lacks support for some device drivers. And if you need to run XP because of your company’s IT policy, there’s a good chance they may still be running old 16-bit applications – which won’t work on the 64-bit version.
If the main reason you need Microsoft’s operating system is to connect to corporate networks, your company will already be using Windows 7 Enterprise edition (pictured right) and you won’t need a copy of your own. See whether you can get a DVD of the Enterprise edition from your IT department.
If you need a copy of your own, then you’ll want either the Professional or Ultimate versions. These connect to corporate domain networks easily and the latter also has extras like Windows Media Center. The non-upgrade version of Ultimate is priced $491.99, but is widely available for much less; Professional lists for $471.99, but is also available at substantial discounts. Avoid the Home edition unless you really are using Windows only at home. You’ll want to install the 64-bit edition as most corporate IT departments that have rolled out Windows 7 are use this version.
If you purchase Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate, you can download Windows XP Mode (www.microsoft.com/windows/virtual-pc/download.aspx) – a virtual machine version of XP Professional 32-bit. That enables you to still use legacy XP apps and connect to corporate networks running XP.
Microsoft recently released a Beta version of Windows 8. Featuring a new ‘Metro’ interface, it is the company’s aim to have one operating system that runs on all your devices. Set to ship later this year, pricing is currently unavailable.