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A Look at Mac Hypervisors: Parallels Desktop 9 & VMware Fusion 6

Date: December 13, 2013
Author(s): Greg King

Macs offer a number of benefits, but for many Windows users, it’s Apple’s top-rate design that helps seal the deal when pondering a new PC. But, a problem arises: What about those Windows apps? What if you don’t want to go the Boot Camp route? Fortunately, with Parallels Desktop 9 and VMware Fusion 6, two excellent alternatives exist.



Introduction

I have been a huge proponent of virtualization for quite some time.  However, up until recently, my only actual experience with the concept of virtualization at home was with test bed type setups.  I would run VMware Workstation on my desktop, and whenever a new Linux distro would come out, I would play around with it in a virtual environment rather than take the time to either reboot into a live version, dual-boot, or setup a completely different machine. 

Testing in this fashion has always been a very simple way for me to use to do just that… to test.  I still have Workstation installed on my desktop and keep up-to-date when new versions are released. However, for the past 18 months, I have been using a Mac for my work provided notebook.  Once the learning-curve passed, I enjoyed a smooth computing experience.  For what I do in my day-to-day, I can honestly say that the switch to OS X was the right choice to make.  But, I digress.

While I still run a PC at home, my Mac has proven extremely valuable – but every so often I need my Windows fix.  If I need to test a particular scenario out, or help a customer with their issues on a Windows box, I was originally dead in the water, trying to assist from memory or test when I got home.  After a bit of thinking, the choice was an obvious one.  I pulled out an old trick and decided that virtualizing both Windows 7 and Server 2008 R2 was the right move.

VMware Fusion 6 and Parallels Desktop 9

I’ve got a background with VMware.  My knowledge and experience with the platform over the years, both personally and professionally, have treated me well.  When it came time to address my virtualization needs on the Mac, VMware’s own Fusion became an obvious choice.  It allowed me to use the Windows programs I have always used, but within the Mac environment. 

Comically enough, the primary reason I needed to virtualize Windows within Mac was to run VMware’s own vSphere client.  I know there is a Web client, but who has time for that?  Running the programs that I knew inside and out, and absolutely needed for day-to-day operation while still allowing me to use my Mac, allowed me to continue to slowly learn the ins and outs of the then-new operating system.  Had I been forced to revert back to using a Windows PC full-time, or running Windows within Boot Camp, I wouldn’t have been able to continue my use and learn OS X at a pace I was comfortable with. There is something to be said for simply removing the crutch.  By virtualizing Windows within OS X, I was forced to work within the Mac ecosystem – forced to continue to learn the ins and outs without a true fallback into Windows.

That was a good many words about VMware Fusion, but it is by no means the only show in town.  When the idea of this article came up, I began to look into Parallels as well.  Having experience with Sun’s VirtualBox, I knew there were other quality options out there for OS X beyond what VMware had to offer.  Additionally, various conversations with friends and co-workers over the years about the product led me to an understanding that the company’s offering is a solid one.  With Parallels, the first mainstream virtualization product for Macs (leveraging the then-new Apple/Intel partnership), and the ability to run Windows within OS X was a reality.  Parallels has been around for a relatively long time and I knew that any look at virtualization on the Mac simply had to include it.

With all that said, this article is going to be a look at both VMware Fusion 6 and Parallels Desktop 9 for Mac.  While comparisons between the two will naturally be made, this article is not intended to be a head-to-head comparison and there will not be a winner crowned upon its conclusion.  Both are their own unique solution yet offer very similar services to the end-user.  With that in mind, let’s begin by discussing the test hardware.

The notebook used for this article is a mid-2010 MacBook Pro.  It’s an older notebook, that’s for sure, but with 8GB of system memory, a 2.66 GHz Core-i7, an NVIDIA GeForce GT330M discrete video card, and a 128GB Samsung SSD, it more than met the challenge for our testing purposes.

When we first started to work on this article, it was mid-September.  With Mavericks being so close to release, I made the choice to hold off publication until the latest out of Cupertino had a chance to reach GA status.  After making the update, I ran the same rounds of tests, touching on functionality, performance, and ease-of-use.  After updating to Mavericks, and updating both Parallels 9 and Fusion 6 to their latest builds, we completed one  final round of testing.  The final build versions used were:

With all that out-of-the-way, let’s take a look at Parallels Desktop 9

Parallels Desktop 9

Controlling the majority of Mac desktop virtualization market, Parallels is the de facto leader when it comes to running an alternate operating system on your Mac.  With the release of Desktop 9, the Parallels team turned their focus to better performance, added conveniences, and cloud services optimizations.  With support for both OS X Mavericks (10.9) and Windows Blue (8.1), a promised 40% increase in disk performance, Thunderbolt and Firewire integration, and additional display support, Parallels Desktop 9 hopes to address the needs of today’s power users who find themselves at the mercy of Windows-only programs like I’ve found myself a countless number of times over the past year-and-a-half.

Admittedly new to Parallels Desktop, I was pleased by the simple and easy installation of the application.  Like most OS X install packages, I simply downloaded the .dmg, double-click on it and it did the rest.  That’s not to say that installing a program on a Windows machine is difficult, but on OS X, once you’re past the fact that it’s a little different, it’s incredibly easy.

Once Parallels Desktop 9 is installed, the creation of a new virtual machine is a simple process.  You are given the option to install your operating system of choice from a DVD, as most of us have become used to over the years, directly from an ISO file or by importing an existing virtual machine from another virtualization product… say VMware Fusion.  You can even migrate an existing Windows install from another PC using either a Parallels USB cable, your own network, or an external storage device. This method is dependent upon the Parallels Transporter Agent (a free download from Parallels.com).

After you have chosen your guest OS – in this case, Windows – you are then given the option to choose how you would like to interact with it.  For those that prefer to keep a separated and windowed feel, you have the option to run your virtual machine “Like a PC”.  This will run the guest OS in its own window but still allow you to drag and drop files amongst OS X and the VM.  If you are more in the mood for a seamless integration of Windows, you can select to run Windows “Like a Mac.”  This does away with the traditional Windows desktop and integrates the programs and utilities that come with Windows into the OS X experience.  There will be a better example of this a little later.

As with any virtual machine, it will require a certain amount of system resources.  This means CPUs, system memory and hard drive space.  One has to obviously be mindful of the impact that these settings can potentially make on their computing experience, and as such, attention needs to be paid to the resources given to the virtual machine.  For example, if the host OS (OS X) and the guest OS (Windows) have to compete for system memory, virtual memory will come into play.  This, like in Windows, will decrease the performance of your environment as it is forced to store data on slow disk, rather than in much faster RAM.

For our Windows 7 install, we chose the “Like a Mac” option.  This provides a more seamless experience of running Windows on top of OS X.  This places the Parallels icon in the menu bar, and by clicking on it, we can interface with the virtual machine.  From here we can access the Start menu, swap between the “Like a PC” and “Like a Mac” modes (called Coherence), access the Windows OS devices and link to the Parallels’ convenience store.  At the convenience store, users can find applications such as anti-virus, book-keeping, and CD/DVD authoring software.  Think of it as an app store within the Parallels universe.

From the dock, users can bring up the Start menu.  In this manner, nested directories pop out as they would on a traditional Windows workstation.  For just programs, a folder is created and placed in the dock, and once expanded, it acts just like “All Programs” but from the Mac dock.  This is a perfect example of the seamlessness of Coherence.

When Windows boxes are opened, they appear on the OS X desktop just as they would on a Windows box.  They look and act like they would on a Windows machine.  The minimize, maximize, and close buttons are in the upper right hand of the window, completely opposite of where the similar set of buttons are found in OS X.  This is something that I promise you will get used to in due time.

If, for whatever reason, you need to issue a series of key strokes that contain keys that aren’t found on the standard Mac keyboard, you can do so by going to Devices > Keyboard and then choosing which combo you need to run.  Knowing this going into your Parallels experience can save a bit of time and headache.

While I didn’t see the need to capture any screen grabs of within Windows 8, I wanted to point out that when setting up your “Windows Experience” you are given an option to have Win8 appear and act like Windows 7.  By doing so, you boot directly to the desktop, foregoing the Metro start screen, and by installing a pair of applications (Start8 and ModernMix), you are promised a “fully functional” Start menu.  Before Mavericks, when we booted directly to the Windows 8 Start screen, it consumed the entire screen, and rendered my two standalone monitors useless as they were set to simply unusable gray screens.  Mavericks however, resolved this issue.

Speaking of Windows 8 in full screen mode, here it is with the Start8 start button installed.  This is done automatically during installation and makes the move from Windows 7 that much easier.  You do have the option to jump to the Windows 8 Metro menu; it’s pinned at the top of the Start menu.  Just like 7, you have “All Programs” and the full list of commonly accessed areas in the Start menu.

Finally, within the Windows Start menu, listed are all of the installed Mac applications.  This is convenient as it provides a centralized location to access all of your Windows and OS X apps.

Those are the basics of Parallels Desktop 9.  Our experience with the product, from start to finish, was a positive one.  My experience with previous versions has been limited to seeing it run on others’ Macs.  My first real hands-on experience with Parallels Desktop started two months ago, so there cannot be any comparisons drawn between the past and present.  That being said, there were a few expectations that I had going into this article.  I expected Parallels to simply work.  It did just that and with a considerable amount of polish.

Let’s move onto VMware’s latest offering, Fusion 6.

VMware Fusion 6

With the exception of the random outing with Sun’s useful and very free VirtualBox, my only real experience up until recently has been with VMware’s Workstation for Windows and ESX for the enterprise.  As a proud holder of a VCP5 certification, my understanding of VMware’s enterprise product has served me quite well over the past few years. 

When it came time to write up an article on virtualization on the Mac, Fusion was an obvious choice.  Brand recognition alone is enough for most people when they are looking for a software solution and in this case, VMware has a solid reputation.  I have used Fusion, as previously stated, for the past year and a half and as an everyday product, it has been rock solid.  

Just like Parallels, you are given the option to either install Windows from an .iso file or by alternate means.  You have the ability to import your Windows install from another PC, meaning either a physical to virtual, or virtual to virtual, solution.  This is achieved through the VMware developed tool, VMware Converter, which is a free download and allows the migration of another install of Windows to run as a virtual machine on your Mac.  If neither of these common methods of setup fit into your needs, there are other means of installation as well.

If you so desire, you can setup OS X to run as a guest operating system on your Mac.  While the use cases for a solution like this are rare, there are those that will likely find this very handy.  You can do this by installing OS X from the “invisible” recovery partition on your hard drive.  If you have another virtual machine, possibly from VirtualBox or even Parallels, you can direct the Fusion installer to the location of that virtual machine and it will take over from there, setting up your VM to run within Fusion. 

The only issue with that is that it requires the same amount of disk space that your virtual machine currently is using as it’s going to be its own, standalone VM, not one that can be started and stopped with either program using the same VM file or files.  If you happen to use Boot Camp, you can set that Windows install to run as a virtual machine as well.  For all those out there that run Boot Camp, this is an ideal solution as it will allow you to continue to run your Windows programs, only side-by-side with your Mac apps.

The last option is to create a custom virtual machine, and boy is it deep.

If you choose to create a customized virtual machine, you are presented with an overwhelming list of operating systems that you can run in your Fusion environment.  For Windows, you can go back all the way to Windows 3.1 if you need to, though older operating systems may or may not play nicely when virtualized.  With these older installs, “your mileage may vary” is an adequate phrase to use. 

You can virtualize many versions of OS X, all the way back to 10.5.  Selecting Linux allows you to run most all popular distros and even if your flavor of choice isn’t listed, if it runs at least the 2.2.x kernel, you should be able to virtualize it.  Say you want to test the waters with ESX, you can virtualize that too.  Also available for selection is Novell NetWare, Solaris, MS-DOS and even FreeBSD.  What these selections primarily do, at least on the surface, is set the default specs for your virtual machine.  Selecting MS-DOS for example will default to a 2GB virtual hard drive whereas something like OS X 10.9 defaults to a larger 40GB.

Getting back to a standard build, Windows 7 in this case, the new virtual machine “wizard” will step you through the process of setting up the guest OS.  There is an easy installation option that will inject the fields you fill out into the install.  These options include account name, password and product key.  You have the ability to customize your install but if you are just looking to get a build of Windows setup as quickly as possible, this option is your ticket to just that.

Like Parallels, you are given the option on how you wish to interact with the virtual machine.  You can have Windows sit side-by-side your OS X apps, or, if you prefer, run in full screen or windowed mode.  This gives you the ability interact with the virtual machine more like you would if you were using remote desktop, but with the ability to drag and drop files between operating systems.  One nice thing you can do when running in full screen is run your VM in its own desktop.  This will set the virtual machine to consume the entire screen, but allow you to switch back and forth between Windows and OS X by a four finger gesture to the left or the right.  It should be pointed out that you can do this as well within Parallels.

To access the Windows Start menu, or at least the functionality normally contained within, you must browse up to the OS X menu bar.  By clicking on the VMware Fusion icon, a box drops down containing most everything found in the Start menu, as well as much more.  From here you have the ability to interact with the virtual machine’s power state, take snapshots, send key combinations and edit the VM’s devices.

By expanding the View section, you can change how the VM works with your OS X desktop.  You can move between Unity and full screen, as well as leverage any additional monitors that might be connected to your Mac.

Gaming & Final Thoughts

One of the questions I get asked often when I discuss running Windows on my Mac is gaming.  What kind of games can I play and how well do they run?  When answered honestly, I say not well.  There are games that you can play, and like most computers, the greater the hardware, the better the experience.  With that being said, you are still running games within a virtual machine that sits ON TOP of the OS X operating system that is running directly off of your hardware.  I know that’s quite the oversimplification, but the point I am trying to make is that the running Windows on your Mac for gaming purposes only is not advisable in this editor’s honest opinion.

In this article, using both Parallels and Fusion, I attempted to play a handful of games.  I started out by installing Steam and then downloading Age of Empires II HD, Half-Life 2 and to change things up a bit, GRID 2.  Keep in mind that this is a somewhat older MacBook, a “Mid 2010” to be exact.  The NVIDIA GT 330M and its 512MB of memory should be able to handle the games we chose to test with, but how they handle them within a VM is another thing altogether.

Age of Empires II HD, remade to not look horrible at today’s resolutions, was the first game that we tested.  After installing it on both the Parallels and Fusion VMs, I began a quick game against the AI.  Running in full screen at my MacBook Pro’s default resolution of 1680×1050, the game was playable but nothing that got me overly excited.  It wasn’t that the game got choppy in certain areas, it was just an overall lethargic feel to the gameplay as a whole.  With a connected mouse, it is certainly playable but if my primary reason for running Windows within either of our virtualization apps was to play games, I would be far better served running Windows in Boot Camp instead.  Both Parallels and Fusion handled AoE II HD the same way.

Half-Life 2, personally my favorite game, in its heyday was a game that we used in our own benchmark tests, as well as its fantastic later Episodes 1 and 2.  In our testing of the two virtualization platforms, I simply ran the original HL2.  Again running in its native resolution, the game was practically unplayable.  In Parallels we averaged 18 FPS and in Fusion, 16.  Dropping the resolution down to 800×600, our experience was a little better.  In Parallels we saw 26 FPS and in Fusion, 25.  As I stated with AoE II HD, you are better off running Windows in Boot Camp, rather in virtualization.

The last game we wanted to try out was GRID 2.  Easily my favorite racing game on the PC, GRID 2 received positive marks from our own Rob Williams last summer.  Like Half-Life 2, the only quasi respectable playing experience was done at 800×600 and with the detail dialed way down.  This was not fun.

I know this wasn’t a deep-dive into what we can expect from our Windows-as-a-VM gaming experience.  I originally planned on doing something like this but after my experience with a far-from-demanding game like Age of Empires II HD, the decision was made to scrap the deep-dive into gaming on Windows running on both Parallels and Fusion.  With that being said, this is also an older MacBook, so the blame of our poor game performance cannot be fairly blamed on the either of our virtualization products.  I didn’t expect to be able to max out each game we tried, but having had considerable good fortune with playing games on this notebook when using Boot Camp, I honestly expected a little bit better of an experience than what we saw.

Final Thoughts

What is there to say that hasn’t already been covered?  These two products are by no means the only way to run Windows on your Mac.  There are other virtualization offerings and Apple itself encourages its users to use Boot Camp when that Windows-only application comes a calling.  But, in any discussion involving virtualization on the Mac, these ones looked at here deserve to be discussed before any other solution.  Both have a great track record and with these latest two builds, bring even more to the table.

Parallels Desktop 9 has been the industry standard for as long as it’s been possible to virtualize Windows within OS X.  The polish of the experience really came out in our testing.  It worked seamlessly with Windows 8.1 and the company was on top of things when Mavericks was released.  Integration with cloud storage eliminates the duplication of files on your Mac and the seamless addition of a Start menu within Windows 8 allows daily workflow to continue uninhibited.  I have not used previous versions of Parallels, so I cannot comment on the performance improvement claims that have been made.  However, the Internet is littered with stories confirming these improvements, so you are free to come to your own conclusion on that.

VMware Fusion 6 and Parallels Desktop 9

VMware Fusion 6 was admittedly well within my comfort zone.  That’s not to say that I was inefficient with Parallels Desktop or that it was cumbersome to use.  What I mean is that the operation of Fusion 6 was no different than what I was used to in previous versions.  Because of this, I can speak to performance gains with 6.  Its stability and very deep compatibility with other operating systems are certainly something to take note of when speaking about the software.  Fusion 6 is more of what I would call a power user’s virtualization platform.  Meaning, the user is free to use almost any OS they can think of on their Mac.  This is something that cannot be done on Parallels.  This is also something that many users will not need.

My take away from the past two months of testing is that both of the offerings that we’ve discussed in this review are superb solutions.  They both allow the use of Windows applications on OS X by allowing a full install of the OS to run virtually.  If I had to choose between the two, experience will win out and I would have to choose Fusion. However, I will continue to use Parallels because of its simple and easy to use design.  For most of the people that I know however, if and when they ask for recommendations, I will likely point them towards Parallels.  It’s supremely beginner friendly and truly integrates Windows and its programs into the OS X experience.

Both are incredible solutions.  It simply comes down to how you intend to use them.  For users that require a Windows machine for whatever reason, perhaps to run a program or two, Parallels will be the simplest way to go.  For power users that need the bells and whistles that come along with VMware Fusion, the choice is easy.  Whatever you decide, you won’t make a wrong decision.  Both are feature rich, stable, and optimized for Mavericks.  Both will enable you to get your job done and for someone like me, running Windows alongside OS X has been a godsend.

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