VMware Fusion 3 – Windows on the Mac Made Easy

by Brett Thomas on January 11, 2010 in Software

Own a Mac, but require the use of Windows from time to time? With today’s robust virtualization solutions, there are better alternatives than rebooting with Bootcamp or using emulation. Fusion 3 is one of these, and we put it to the test to see if it’s worth its $80 price tag, and also whether or not free alternatives are the more attractive choice.

Performance; Final Thoughts

No review of software like this would be complete without a bit of discussion on how things actually perform. Unfortunately, this is a bit of a mix, which shouldn’t really fool anyone who’s familiar with virtualization to begin with. There’s a lot of overhead in running a whole second operating system, fooling it that its host doesn’t exist while providing access to critical system resources in a limited fashion. VMWare Fusion, like VirtualBox, offers its own set of tools (automatically installed upon creation of the VM, thankfully) to enable a bit more horsepower and let the guest OS “see” things more efficiently, but this is never as simple or effective as running the OS natively.

First, the good – If you are using VMWare to complement your Mac by giving it access to business programs or other Windows-only software with requirements for a machine built a year or so before your Mac, it’ll run great. In fact, you can comfortably run Windows XP with a whole host of good software (even games!) right on top of your Mac OS, particularly if you’ve opted for a system without integrated graphics and with a decent amount of RAM.

VMware Fusion 3 - Windows XP under Mac OS X

My 15″ MacBook Pro (2.4GHz Core 2 Duo, NVIDIA 8600M GT, 2GB Corsair RAM) had no problems running even Half-Life 2 and Oblivion straight from the VM. Oblivion choked a little bit more, but hardly to some level that I couldn’t play it. It’s a great option for me to be able to play many of the games that exist on Steam now without having to boot into Windows. It’s a sure bet that anything business-like will perform without a hitch.

Next, the bad – DirectX 9.0c. That’s it. Forget DX10, much less anything else. This is the last shader model set that MS has given VMWare access to, and unfortunately it’s not likely that we’ll see a massive move forward in the near future. That means that as a gamer, bootcamp is probably still your best option if you want to play modern games.

Also, you need to remember that the computer is running a whole virtual second computer inside of it, meaning that tasks which are particularly CPU intensive are going to suffer. It probably isn’t sensible to be running your [email protected] on this puppy, and you will find bits of stuttering if you ask too much of it. If you run Unity mode (again, a likely reason to purchase this), it’s worth noting that you shouldn’t be planning on giving the virtual machine a whole lot of RAM, so you won’t want to crank too many applications at once.

Final Thoughts

I’d love to say that VMWare Fusion is a perfect choice for Mac users, and that you won’t find any heartache in using it. However, it is still virtualization and no matter how badly I want to say that it bridges the Mac/Windows gap, virtualization on its own has flaws. That being said, I can safely say that most of the issues I can claim regarding VMware Fusion have little to do with the product itself, and more to do with the technology in general. If I were running this on an 8-core Mac Pro, I’d probably not even be able to levy most of those complaints.

VMWare Fusion is, for all its purported flexibility, a one-trick pony. Make no mistake – you won’t buy this for real gaming on your Mac or to run a few Linux VMs. You can bootcamp for free to play the games or run VirtualBox to explore a new OS. Fusion is for the people who want a Mac but need Windows, whether for work or comfort or just the pains of migration.

VMware Fusion 3

In this task, it’s impossible not to recommend it – it’s expensive, but it’s one-of-a-kind. VMWare’s close relationship with Microsoft means that it’s always going to be ahead of the curve on Windows compatibility, hopefully even to the new DirectX models in time. The Unity view is fantastic, and makes running a Mac at the office (for security, ease of use, or otherwise) an absolute treat.

Thanks to the migration assistant, it only takes a few minutes to migrate your entire previous Windows life to your Mac, without having to mess with ANYTHING (even your network settings and permissions). It runs a lot of very good games (though not the newest or the prettiest), it runs your familiar programs, it keeps your documents and never misses a beat on any of it. It’s even easy enough to get running that you can use it to migrate your relatives who you’re tired of giving tech support to (you know the ones, we ALL have them) onto a mac, without them ever really feeling they lost their prior system.

Fusion is a great product that I know I’ll be keeping on my system. Though it doesn’t receive an editor’s choice (the cost is, unfortunately, a bit high for what it really is when you factor in a whole operating system on top of it), VMWare Fusion is a great product. In fact, if it ever drops to the $50-60 range, it would be a “must-have” for any Mac user to finally end the “no software” argument. Until then, if you’ve been finding yourself missing Windows (or at least bits of it), look no further – it’s not just your only real option, it’s actually a good one.

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