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Mac Virtualization Update: VMware, Parallels, and VirtualBox

When the first edition of my book “Take Control of Running Windows on a Mac” came out, just over 5 years ago, running Windows at anything approaching full speed on a Mac was still a novelty. At that time, the leading options were Apple’s Boot Camp dual-boot system and Parallels Desktop, a virtualization program that let Windows run within Mac OS X — but without the heavy performance penalty of PowerPC-based software like Virtual PC. Then VMware got into the game with their own virtualization program, Fusion, and things started to get really interesting. Every few months or so since then, either Parallels or VMware has rolled out an upgrade that made their product the apparently superior choice for a while. The two companies have battled on features, performance, and price, and that competition has raised the level of quality of virtualization on the Mac. It’s been a good thing. (The emergence of a solid yet free competitor, Oracle’s VirtualBox, hasn’t hurt either! I’ll get back to VirtualBox later in this article.) Of course, Apple has consistently improved Boot Camp as well — and Windows itself has become much, much better too.

What hadn’t happened until this month was major releases of both Parallels and Fusion appearing at almost exactly the same time. I’ve used both Parallels Desktop 7 and VMware Fusion 4, and I thought this would be an appropriate time to offer a brief “state of the union” on virtualization software for the Mac. Before I begin, I want to make a few things clear:

  • This is not a review; it’s an overview. Although I’ll mention some of my real-world experiences, in this article I’m not going to get into the detailed analysis and testing that a proper review requires.

  • Although I have a bit more in-depth experience with Fusion, on account of having written a book about it (“Take Control of VMware Fusion 3”), I use both Parallels and Fusion about equally on my own Macs. (And, by the way, I would happily write a book about Parallels, too, if the opportunity presented itself.)

  • I’m not going to talk about CodeWeavers’ CrossOver products here. CrossOver lets you run selected Windows apps on your Mac without having Windows itself installed, and that may be exactly what some people need. But it’s a different category of product — with its own virtues and limitations — and not comparable to full virtualization software.

  • Everyone’s experience is different, mine (obviously) included. You’re entitled to your opinions, but let’s not clutter the comments with complaints or partisan sniping. And if you have an affiliation with either developer, it’s only proper to disclose that fact in your remarks.

The Similarities -- As I write this, I have yet to see a complete, objective feature comparison chart for Parallels 7 and Fusion 4. A checklist on the Parallels Web site hasn’t yet been updated to reflect the changes in Fusion 4 (and would, naturally, be expected to favor Parallels regardless). The Wikipedia comparison page, too, still reflects Fusion 3.1. In any case, checklists of this sort can be difficult to interpret when applications implement similar features differently; they can be spun all too easily to make it appear as though any application is superior; and they seem to give equal weight to all features, whereas most users care about only a few. Rather than attempt to create my own table comparing features exhaustively, I want to concentrate on the highlights.

Both Parallels 7 and Fusion 4 can do all of the following:

  • Run under Lion, with full support for gestures, Mission Control, full-screen mode, and Launchpad (even for individual Windows applications).

  • Run nearly any version of Windows or Linux — plus Lion, Lion Server, and Snow Leopard Server (but not regular Snow Leopard) — as a guest operating system.

  • Run a copy of Windows on a Boot Camp partition as a virtual machine.

  • Run Windows applications that use OpenGL 2.1 or DirectX 9 with Shader Model 3.

  • Install and configure a new copy of Windows in a highly automated manner.

  • Assign up to 8 virtual processors and up to 8 GB of RAM to any virtual machine.

  • Easily import or migrate an installation of Windows from a real PC, from a Boot Camp partition, or from a competing virtualization program.

  • Mirror common user folders (such as Desktop, Downloads, and Pictures) between Mac OS X and Windows.

  • Disappear into the background so that Windows applications intermingle with Mac applications.

  • Use Mac apps to open Windows files and hyperlinks, or vice-versa.

  • Use standard Mac or Windows keyboard shortcuts, as you prefer.

  • Move text and graphics between Windows and Mac environments using copy-and-paste (and, in some cases, drag-and-drop).

  • Print from Windows applications to shared Mac printers without having to install Windows printer drivers.

  • Let you choose whether USB devices should be assigned to the host Mac or to the guest operating system.

  • Store snapshots of your Windows state in a Time Machine-friendly way, to reduce the time and space required for backups.

  • Encrypt virtual machines.

(Again, I’ll say a few words about how VirtualBox stacks up later on.)

Running Parallels 7 and Fusion 4 side by side on my Mac, I’m struck by how similar they are. Their terminology and user interfaces differ somewhat — but much less than in years past, and little enough that I can easily lose track of which application I’m running at any given time.

The Differences -- With so much the same, it seems that the two developers are increasingly struggling to come up with new ways to differentiate their products; there’s just not much left that one could ask from a virtualization program. However, I can still point to some spots in which one or the other appears to have the upper hand.

Parallels 7 lets you share video cameras (including built-in iSight or FaceTime cameras and external USB video cameras) between Mac OS X and Windows. In Fusion 4, by contrast, you can use a camera in either host or guest operating system but not both at the same time. For people who don’t already have Windows 7, Parallels offers a way to purchase and download it from within the application. I haven’t tried this myself, but I’ve heard the process is far from user-friendly. Parallels also offers an iOS app called Parallels Mobile ($19.99, but currently on sale for $4.99) that lets you open, suspend, resume, and interact with virtual machines running on your Mac — as well as with Mac OS X itself. That’s nifty, but not extraordinary; you can use any VNC client (including some iOS clients that are free) to connect to any Fusion virtual machine, although configuration requires a few less-than-obvious steps. Parallels also lets you suspend a Boot Camp virtual machine, whereas in Fusion you can suspend only guest operating systems with their own virtual disks.

Fusion 4 offers a few nice capabilities not found in Parallels 7, too. Fusion is now a self-contained application that you can install or uninstall by drag-and-drop or even run from a USB flash drive, and when you quit it, no background processes remain active. (Parallels 7 insinuates itself more deeply into your system, and leaves some bits running after you quit.) Fusion 4 also supports virtual Bluetooth (letting a virtual machine directly access Bluetooth devices) and Remote Disc (so you can access a DVD or CD on another Mac or PC on your network), both capabilities Parallels 7 lacks. Both applications let you shrink virtual disks to save space; in Fusion 4 you can do so even if the virtual machine has snapshots, while in Parallels 7 you must delete all snapshots before shrinking the disk. And Fusion doesn’t restrict your choices to shutting down or suspending a virtual machine; you can also pause it, temporarily freeing up system resources, and then resume it instantly. Finally, Fusion can claim to be a completely 64-bit, Cocoa application, while Parallels has some 32-bit components and uses Cocoa along with a couple of other frameworks. I’m at a loss to know how being a 64-bit Cocoa app affects any ordinary user’s everyday experience, but it does at least seem to be a good foundation for the future.

Performance -- The very first version of Parallels I used — on a Mac that is now too old even to run Lion — ran Windows so fast I could hardly believe my eyes. It felt, to me, just like running Windows on modern PC hardware. I experienced no lags, no delays — nothing to complain about at all. So, when the next version of Parallels touted vastly improved performance, I didn’t see what was interesting about that. I hadn’t felt anything I needed to do was too slow, so I didn’t need or notice faster speed. Now that both Parallels and Fusion are many times faster than they were in the early days, and my hardware itself is also faster, I find almost all claims about speed to be meaningless in my particular case.

Now, understand that I’m not a gamer. (And if I were a gamer, I wouldn’t be the sort who’d get hung up about minuscule differences in frame rate.) I don’t edit video or render 3D animations or perform complex mathematical modeling in Windows. Maybe the users who do those sorts of things can genuinely feel the difference between one version of Parallels or Fusion and the next, but I can’t. What I have done is run office applications such as Outlook and Word, Web browsers such as Internet Explorer and Safari, and video apps such as the Amazon Unbox Video Player. For uses like those, even older versions of both Parallels and Fusion felt perfectly peppy to me — and even when running on much slower hardware than I have today. In short, for the ways in which I use Windows, I couldn’t care less about whether X is 10 percent faster than Y in some benchmark or other. It doesn’t affect me, and I’ll bet that the same is true for a large number of Mac users who run Windows.

I say all that to put my remarks about performance in perspective.

In 2010, MacTech did a series of benchmark tests comparing the performance of then-current versions of Parallels (version 5) and VMware Fusion (version 3). In that comparison, Parallels soundly beat Fusion in all but a tiny handful of tests. It wasn’t close, and it wasn’t ambiguous: Parallels was definitively ahead in terms of objective speed tests. That fact apparently led a lot of people to conclude that Parallels 5 was therefore better than Fusion 3, and I thought that represented unsound reasoning. The fact that a Porsche can go faster than a pickup truck doesn’t mean it’s better; it’s only better if you’re planning on driving faster than the pickup’s top speed, and you value speed more than cargo capacity. I do not in any way dispute the benchmark results; I simply want to point out that for many users, they’re irrelevant.

Anyway, that was then; what about now? Both Parallels 7 and Fusion 4 claim much better performance than their predecessors, but what everyone wants to know is how they compare to each other. VMware sent me a reviewer’s kit that contained a bunch of benchmarks comparing Fusion 4 and Parallels 7. According to those test results — which VMware has not yet made public — Fusion 4 is very slightly ahead of Parallels 7 in most respects, and very slightly behind it in a few. On the whole, these tests suggest that the two applications are so close to each other in terms of overall performance that the differences are statistically insignificant. Naturally, I take test results with a grain of salt when they come from a developer comparing its own product to the competition’s. I have no reason to mistrust VMware, but it’s only natural to cast one’s own product in the best possible light. One of these days, MacTech (or another independent tester) will publish their own results, and we’ll be able to evaluate the comparative performance with greater objectivity. I can’t predict how those tests will turn out, but I can predict that they won’t change my perception of how fast I can type or check my email. For all practical purposes, these two programs are equally fast.

And that’s the real point. Benchmarks test specific, objective, measurable things. They may have no bearing whatsoever on the tasks you personally find important. A commenter on my announcement about Fusion 4’s release claimed, and I confirmed, that in certain situations, Parallels 7 can resume a suspended virtual machine more quickly than Fusion 4 can. That’s the sort of thing that may or may not show up in benchmark tests. And maybe it’s extremely important to you; it happens not to be important to me. As with all such statistics, I urge you not to get caught up in abstract numbers.

Instead, I suggest — as I have done for years — that you download the free trial versions of each app and try them out for yourself, running the kinds of software you need and doing the sorts of tasks that are important to you. If you can’t feel a difference in performance, then for you, there is no difference. And if you do feel a difference, that’s useful to know; but use your time with the trial versions to evaluate their other features, their interfaces, their documentation, and their technical support too. You may find that factors such as these tip the balance in one direction or the other.

Pricing and Licensing -- For a long time, Parallels and Fusion have had the same retail price, $79.99, but thanks to various widely available coupons, sales, bundles, and other promotions, the typical street price for either has been closer to half that. With their latest releases, upgrade pricing for both apps has raised some eyebrows.

Parallels charges $49.99 for an upgrade from versions 5 or 6 (it’s free for those who purchased Parallels after 1 August 2011) while offering registered Fusion users a competitive crossgrade price of only $29.99. I can’t help but notice an interesting trend here. Parallels has had paid upgrades each of the past 5 years; all were $49.99 except the upgrade to version 4.0, which was $39.99. If you had purchased Parallels 1.0 for full retail price and bought every upgrade thereafter, you would have paid a total of $559.91 to date (not counting the cost of Parallels Mobile, if you purchased that too). That makes Parallels an expensive product to keep up with, and the fact that Fusion owners get a lower price than those who have been giving Parallels their money every year is bound to feel a bit harsh to those long-time customers.

Meanwhile, VMware is selling Fusion 4 to everyone — upgrading or not — for the reduced price of $49.99 through the end of the year (it’s free for those who purchased Fusion 3 after 20 July 2011, the day Lion was released). Bafflingly, this promotion has provoked an outcry that VMware isn’t offering special “upgrade” pricing. But they are; it’s just that they’re offering that lower price to new purchasers too for a limited time. In its entire history, Fusion has had only two paid upgrades, the previous one being to version 3.0 (for $39.99). So a Fusion owner who bought the original release at full retail price and every subsequent upgrade would have paid only $169.97 to date, a mere 30 percent of what a Parallels owner would have paid. Moreover, Fusion’s new license agreement says that, except for commercial and educational settings, one license is good for all the Macs you own or control; the Parallels license requires you to buy a separate copy for each Mac. And to top it off, a coupon code has been making its way around the Internet; you can save 20 percent ($10) on your purchase of Fusion 4 by entering the code FUSION20 at checkout.

In summary, someone with Parallels 6 must pay $49.99 to upgrade to Parallels 7, but can get Fusion 4 for $10 less — $39.99 — while someone with Fusion 3 can upgrade to Fusion 4 for $39.99 or switch to Parallels 7 for $10 less — $29.99. But if Parallels continues its past upgrade pattern, switchers enticed with this low pricing will be invited to lay out another $50 next year for version 8 (and likewise in future years), which seems to me to blunt the offer’s appeal somewhat.

What about VirtualBox? -- I promised I’d have a few things to say about VirtualBox. VirtualBox started as an open-source project, and even though it’s now owned by Oracle, it’s still available in an open-source version (you compile the code yourself) or in precompiled, free-for-personal-use forms for various platforms. Much is made of its (lack of) cost, but keep in mind that the $50 you could pay for Fusion is a fraction of what you’ll have to pay for Windows itself. In other words, free is good, but running Windows on a Mac means shelling out some cash anyway; and to a certain extent, you get what you pay for.

Don’t get me wrong: VirtualBox is no slouch, and it’s gotten dramatically better since its early days. It supports a wide variety of host and guest operating systems and has a long feature list. Like Parallels and Fusion, it offers a mode in which the virtualization environment mostly disappears, putting Windows applications on the same visual footing as Mac apps; it also features shared folders, snapshots, 3D graphics acceleration, and support for most common hardware — including multiple displays. Its performance is solid, if not quite to the level of its commercial peers. And it even lets you assign up to 32 virtual CPU cores to a virtual machine.

So what’s not to like? Well, as of version 4.1.2, VirtualBox runs just fine under Lion but it doesn’t take advantage of Lion-specific features such as Mission Control, Launchpad, and full-screen mode; nor does it support running Lion or Lion Server as a guest operating system. It lacks automated setup of Windows virtual machines, won’t run Windows from your Boot Camp partition or use your Mac printers automatically, and has less integration overall with Mac OS X. And the user interface, as well as the documentation, betrays the software’s open-source roots: it just isn’t pretty to look at.

And yet, VirtualBox truly is adequate — and I don’t mean that as a dig. It gets the job done, and for those who need only occasional access to Windows on a Mac, giving up certain features for a savings of $50 might be an excellent compromise. You have nothing to lose by trying it, even for an extended period of time, and you can always migrate to a commercial alternative later if you want to.

Final Thoughts -- With each passing year, the number of tasks that can be accomplished only in Windows, and not natively in Mac OS X, decreases. This is due in part to the rise of Web applications, in part to Windows apps being ported to Mac OS X, and in part to new Mac-only or cross-platform applications that are superior to the older Windows-only options. Lots of people still legitimately need to run Windows on a Mac, but that number is certainly shrinking.

Boot Camp continues to work fine, but I gave up on it long ago. I consider it unnecessarily awkward and inflexible compared to virtualization software. Plus, the performance gap between Boot Camp and virtualization has shrunk significantly, and very few applications and external devices work under Boot Camp but not in a virtual machine. The only real question for the vast majority of people who still need to run Windows on their Mac is which virtualization program to use. As of Parallels 7 and Fusion 4, that’s more of a toss-up than ever. Although I’m sure both developers can still squeeze out a few more percentage points of performance, my sense is that we’re close to reaching the theoretical limit of how fast Windows can run on a Mac (and it’s plenty fast). In addition, improvements in Windows itself and in the various virtualization programs have made setting up and using Windows on a Mac so easy and seamless that users can often ignore the differences between operating systems, freely downloading and running nearly any software without regard for the platform it was written for.

Over the years, I’ve read hundreds of comments all over the Internet by users of one of these products or another who became disenchanted with their first choice for some reason and decided to switch to another one. Complaints have ranged from bugs and missing features to poor customer service to user interface aesthetics. Although I’ve never tried to calculate the totals, my impression is that users have historically been more likely to become unhappy with Parallels and switch to Fusion than the other way around, and that more people have switched from VirtualBox to a commercial alternative than the reverse. But as I said earlier, everyone’s experience is different. I wouldn’t try to convince you that any of these options is superior all around or the best choice for everyone. You’ve got to decide what’s best for you — and maybe that’s different now from what it was last year; maybe it’ll be different again in another year. If you’re happy with what you have already, you’ll be happier still after upgrading to the latest version of the same program. If you’re unhappy, this is the ideal time to check out the competition.

But be circumspect when you read claims about this type of software. I’m aware of some misinformation being spread deliberately, of some unscrupulous tactics being used to promote one of these products. That’s a pity; Parallels, Fusion, and VirtualBox are all fine programs that should be able to compete solely on their merits. Try them yourself and make up your own mind — remember, your experience is the only one that truly counts.


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Comments about Mac Virtualization Update: VMware, Parallels, and VirtualBox
(Comments are closed.)

I'd like to see comments on running either in Snow Leopard and running Lion as a client. This seems to be the way to run programs like Quicken unless Apple decides to change the Snow Leopard EULA. Seems a shame to have to run your main system in the older system, but that's what Steve (Tom) wants.

Seems like any final comments on virtualization will come after iCloud is released which for me will be the main reason to run Lion. Not finding Lion compelling otherwise.

A good overview that shows important points to consider. And ones that aren't usually mentioned.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-09-20 10:02
The way I read the Lion license agreement, you can only run it in a virtual machine under Lion, not under just any version of Mac OS X. I understand that some people interpret it differently.

Legalities aside, I've never tried this particular arrangement with either Parallels or Fusion. It might be possible, and it might even give you the best of both worlds. I don't have a convenient way to test this at the moment, but perhaps someone else will do so and post their experiences.
You are a very good writer!
kenstee  2011-09-19 20:47

Given your relationship with Fusion perhaps it would have been more appropriate for someone else to write this POV which - to be honest - reads at times like a promotional piece for Fusion.

While everything may in fact be accurate and totally unbiased - this obvious conflict-of-interests does raise some eyebrows - so to speak.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-09-19 21:23
Ken, what do you think Joe's relationship is with VMware (Fusion is a product, not a company).

The way to solve conflicts of interest is through disclosure, which happens early on when Joe notes that he has written a book on this topic.
kenstee  2011-09-20 02:09
Apparently he writes books about VMWare products. Which is fine. No need to get defensive.

This being the case he should have recused himself from writing this article which really is slanted towards the positives of VMWare's product. While this may be the reality of the situation it just, well, looks bad and lends much less creditability to his POV. Let's face it, there is an economic incentive as the more programs they sell the more Tidbit books on the program are potentially sold or distributed.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-09-20 04:33
But it's disclosed up front. Thus if someone doesn't know Joe's breadth of knowledge and independence of thought, that disclosure is in place to let them discount his opinion.

The reason I asked my question of you is that I wasn't sure what you were concerned about.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-09-20 02:23
Ken, no one, and I mean no one, has Joe's level of experience with all the virtualization programs on the market. He's very clear about what he's done, and realistically, he's earned just as much from writing about Parallels in "Take Control of Running Windows on a Mac" as he earned from "Take Control of VMware Fusion." And, as he said, we're totally open to the idea of writing a similar book specifically about Parallels Desktop.

I also fail to see any bias in the article - Joe is totally up front about features that the two programs have in common, and he devotes attention to features that one program has that the other lacks. And, as he said at the beginning, this is not a review - it's impressions from someone who is extremely familiar with the field and with the products.

If you have reproducible experience with Parallels Desktop 7, VMware Fusion 4, or VirtualBox 4 that contradicts what Joe is saying here, please share it.
Although I use Fusion and have never used Parallels, I have no opinion or preference concerning their relative merits -- before or after reading the article. I don't think it sounded like "a promotional piece for Fusion" at all; if anything, it sounded so neutral as to possibly diminish its utility to some people trying to make a choice.
An excellent review. Very informative and informed! Well done!
Bill Gruber  2011-09-20 00:10
Unfortunately the FUSION20 discount mentioned no longer seems active.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-09-20 13:06
Thanks - hard to know when these things expire. I've marked that bit in the article as deleted now to indicate that the code is no longer active.
There's one angle not really covered here; that of moving VMs between platforms. With Fusion, it's possible to set a VM up on a Mac and deploy it to an ESX box; with VirtualBox from 4.1 up, a VM can be built on one platform and deployed on another (personally, I build VMs on OS X and deploy on Solaris).

Also, while I can't speak for Parallels, Fusion and VirtualBox both run Solaris, RHEL and Ubuntu guests a treat; setting network interfaces to bridged mode even allows me to serve Sun Rays from a VM.

Finally, VirtualBox 4.1.2 handles Solaris 11 Express without fuss; and snapshotting can come in really handy in a dev / eval context :-).
Br Bill  2011-09-23 20:40
I can also verify that both Fusion 3 and Parallels 6 can run FreeDOS, for those that want to do so.
Great summary, Joe.

One bullet point you list as a capability of both programs (as do their manufacturers) is the ability to run a Windows Boot Camp partition as a virtual machine. I've used several versions of both Parallels and Fusion and have never seen either one of them actually accomplish this in a functional manner.

The problem is that as soon as you open the Boot Camp partition in either Parallels or Fusion, Windows sees significant "hardware changes" and thinks you're using a new computer, requiring you to re-activate Windows. Next time you boot up in Boot Camp the same thing happens, and you get caught in a never-ending cycle of constantly reactivating Windows.

Maybe I'm missing something obvious (I hope I am), but if not I think it's disingenuous for either of these products to claim this capability.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-09-20 09:57
In my experience, the first time you run a Boot Camp installation of Windows as a VM in either Parallels or Fusion, you're prompted to reactivate (that's unavoidable, and well documented by both companies—but also not a big deal), but as long as you install Parallels Tools or VMware Tools, you're not prompted to reactivate in the future. That's how both are designed to work.
Don OShea  2011-09-20 01:46
Having used Parallels for many years, it seems that it is now employing the Gillette strategy: Sell'em a cheap razor and charge 'em for the blades. Kaspersky security used to be included for 1 year. Now it's a 3 month trial daily or weekly alarms and warnings to purchase the in-app add-on at a price that in some cases is considerably greater than the initial cost of the application.
Robert A Carpenter  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2011-09-20 02:50
I guess I've always ignored all of the security deals that come with the different virtualization products. I run AVG Free 2012 on my XP virtual machine and Microsoft Security Essentials on my Win7 virtual machine. Since I'm not using Windows constantly, I'm happy to use the free options.
Robert A Carpenter  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2011-09-20 02:48
I also noticed that the FUSION20 coupon code is no longer valid. I upgraded to Fusion 4.0 simply because I wanted the self-contained application. I had problems with the Fusion 3 kernel extensions interfering with another USB device (my gamepad).

Parallels 7 eliminated the conflict, but it still had kernel extensions loaded at startup on my Mac. Fusion 4 only loads the kernel extensions while it's running. That made the sale for me.

I also didn't like the fact that Parallels assumed that I wanted to use Coherence mode and set everything up to share data between the Mac and Windows. I could undo everything that Parallels did, but I would've preferred if it had asked me first.

That said, at this point, I'd say the differences between the two main contenders (VMWare Fusion and Parallels 7) are pretty small. I have both simply because I didn't wait for Fusion 4.
Jim Keller (bigpics)  2011-09-20 03:07
I wish someone WOULD comment on Code-Weaver's CrossOver product.

I only need one Win application - as I have many thousands of WordPerfect files (20 years worth) I'm not about to convert one by one (which have to be converted on a Windows machine - as Word for Mac won't convert them at all) - and the complicated ones convert like crap or worse. So I see WordPerfect has Gold certification on Cross-Over (when I last checked a few years ago it wasn't supported at all) - and will presumably meet my entire Windows program needs for a single $40, one time purchase.

I'd also like to avoid mucking up my new Mac with as few Windowish bits as possible, but don't know if CrossOver would be better or worse in this regard.

Can anyone cite their personal experience with the program??
I posted my experiences here. Kind of a mixed bag.
Robert A Carpenter  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2011-09-22 03:31

I've used CrossOver Mac since it was released. It all depends on your Windows compatibility needs. If you truly only need WP, then I'd suggest downloading the CrossOver demo and installing WP on it and see how it goes.

However, back in the day, Corel did use Wine (the technology behind CrossOver) to create a Linux version of WordPerfect. Therefore, it's probably a decent candidate for success.

I wouldn't want Joe to compare it in this article because it's a totally different beast. If you're expecting anything near 100% Windows compatibility, you'll be disappointed by CrossOver. However, it does work well on lots of Windows programs.

Also, that $40 one time purchase is only the case if you don't need to upgrade it because the current version is broken in a future OS X version. That does happen. It still should end up cheaper for you since you don't have to purchase Windows as well.
Robert A Carpenter  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2011-09-22 03:40

As I feared, looking at Codeweavers' site, the compatibility of WP depends on the version you want to run. The current version, X5, has a rating of "known not to work". However, X3 is given a gold (everything works as designed) rating. Other versions have an "unknown" rating.

I completely understand why you'd be interested in CrossOver Mac if you only need this one Windows program to work. You're the prime user for CrossOver. I'd just make sure you get a WP demo (if you don't already own it) and try it with CrossOver before spending money on it.
Durbrow  2011-09-20 03:35
Can anyone compare Parallels and Fusion tech support? My experience with Parallels has been highly negative but I am not sure if Fusion's is much better.
Br Bill  2011-09-23 20:50
I've found VMware support to be really good for the PC products, but slow and sparse for Fusion.
Jörgen Olsson  2011-09-20 05:36
I use virtualization in order to show how software behaves in different environments, such as Mac vs Windows vs Linux. Since I do this on a MacBook Air that often needs to run on battery, it is very important to me that the virtualization environment use little resources as possible.
I did some very unscientific tests with Fusion 3 and Parallels 6 and saw that Fusion used more CPU, according to my Mac's Activity Monitor, than Parallels.
Did you do any tests in this regard, comparing Fusion 4 with Parallels 6?

Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-09-20 09:58
No, sorry, I have not done any testing to compare CPU usage between Parallels and Fusion.

Read my findings here:

I found that Fusion 4 used _way_ less CPU than P7.
Jörgen Olsson  2011-09-27 11:48
Thanks Shea - that was just what I was looking for.

Dave Goldman  2011-09-20 05:52
Would any of these options allow me to upgrade to Lion but continue to run my couple of Rosetta-requiring applications under a virtual Snow Leopard? I might well spring for virtualization software for that purpose!
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-09-20 09:59
Yes, but only if you're running Snow Leopard Server (not regular Snow Leopard) in a virtual machine.
Roger Worrod  2011-09-20 08:15
I can't help feeling that if you really need to run a majority of Windows apps, you may as well buy a PC! But why no mention of 'CrossOver'? I had 'Power Translator' from OS7.6 up to Classic, but there was never an OSX version. Having built up my own essential dictionaries over the years, there was no way I could make use of them on Leopard (and the Tiger iBook that I kept for translations went on the blink). I can run the (PC) Power Translator in a CrossOver 'bottle' without being 'forced' to fund Microsoft!
I am now looking for a way to live my life free of the 'new' Microsoft Effect i.e. having my life dictated to by the App Store & iTunes...
We're using Crossover for a very specific application (Rakefet). It emulates Windows 95-98. The speed isn't bad but there really is no interface - the Windows application just appears as a window in the Mac. Ie, there is no Windows Desktop.
The greatest advantages that we appreciate are 1) its cost, 2) we didn't have to buy Windows, and 3) we don't have to worry about running anti-virus or have constant Windows & Adobe updates.
The only disadvantage has been trying to talk to the Rakefet people when they tell us to modify some Windows parameter, but so far I have gotten it to work.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-09-20 11:31
I did mention CrossOver, but only to say I wasn't going to talk about it—because this is an article about virtualization software, and CrossOver doesn't fit into that category. If that's what works best for you, fantastic!
Jim Keller (bigpics)  2011-09-20 17:31
If I can open WordPerfect (and access all my legacy files, tables with formulas, and use WP's superb reveal codes feature when I need total control over the placement of text elements and features) without buying both Windows and a virtualization environment, I'll be just fine.

So even the mention was helpful. Still, since you're so knowledgeable it would be nice to know if you think the product and the company are the real deal for covering the territory they say they're staking out and are likely to be around for a few years......
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-09-20 18:38
I have absolutely no idea what the company's long-term prospects might be, but they have been developing this software for a number of years; they're clearly not some fly-by-night outfit.

I have never used CrossOver with WordPerfect, so can't comment there. You should be aware that the UI is going to be a bit odd, because in place of Windows they use X11 as a window server. Integration with your Mac apps won't be on par with either native Mac apps or Windows apps running in a virtualization environment. But if those things aren't important to you, it might be an ideal solution.
Jim Keller (bigpics)  2011-09-21 03:34
Hey, thanks so much. Code-Weavers have given their "gold" level certification to the version of WordPerfect I run (X3), and as long as I can get to my old docs and the formulas in my financial tracking table keep working, I can live with a quirky UI.

VM vendors are struggling to invent novel features? Great! This means you'll finally have more time to write about PC gaming and bootcamp! ;-)

Seriously though, I suspect there's an audience for bootcamp users who'd like to know the ins and outs of enabling AHCI for maximum performance with their SSD, as well as the one-time Windows reactivation (mentioned by a previous poster) necessary when booting a Windows bootcamp install from Fusion.

Raimund Hocke  2011-09-20 09:52
A brilliant article :-)

ssartor  2011-09-20 11:50
Does anybody have experience moving a virtual hard drive from VirtualBox to either Parallels or Fusion? I've got a working Windows XP setup in VB but would like to explore either Parallels or Fusion..

Thomas Carlson  2011-09-20 12:03
I found your cost comparison interesting. But, you left out another thrifty option... continue running whatever you have instead of upgrading to the latest and greatest. Fusion 3.1.3 works just fine for me as I only use Windows XP for a few mundane tasks. I don't see any compelling reason to upgrade.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-09-20 12:08
As with any software upgrade, it's always up to you. If you don't see any reason to upgrade, then don't! But for me, and I'd wager for most people, all the bug fixes, new features, and compatibility improvements are worth it.
Daniel Griscom  2011-09-20 16:47
For me, the big deal is VMWare 4's new "no background processes after quitting" feature. I've used Parallels for a long time, and it installs a background process that always runs, even restarting after a reboot. I've even had this process lock up and suck down my CPU when I'd not used Parallels for months (it was tough to figure that one out). I don't understand why a company would think it OK to silently use memory and CPU cycles on a user's machine forever; here's hoping Parallels follows VMWare's lead.
This is a great discussion and comparison. I own Parallels 5 and Fusion 3. Although i use mainly parallels on my personal Mac, I will probably move to Fusion only. The new licensing scheme for Fusion will cover the three Macs in my home. In today's day a single computer license is outdated. Thanks for quantifying the upgrade costs. I have been very discouraged by Parallels money grubbing approach. Another strike. Then there's Parallels terrible marketing spam and relationship with Nova Development--a terrible spamvertiser. It took extraordinary effort to stop their spam! Parallels is fine software, but I don't like their licensing, pricing or marketing. They drove away this customer.
Richard Nevill  2011-09-20 19:27
I have been searching Fusion's website to see where their new license allows installing on multiple computers as stated in the article. The only EULA I can find says that the purchaser can install Fusion on only one machine unless a 10 machine license is purchased.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-09-20 20:24
I don't know if the new license agreement is on their site anywhere, but it's certainly built into the product itself. Quoting the relevant section:

"You may install and use the Software for personal, non-commercial use on any Apple-branded products running Mac OS X (“Mac Computer”) that you own or control.

If you are a commercial enterprise or educational institution, you may install and use the Software on a number of Apple-branded products running Mac OS X (“Mac Computer”) that you own or control equal to the number of licenses purchased. Installing and using the Software on multiple Mac Computers with a single license is prohibited even if the computers are not running the Software concurrently."
Ronald Pottol  2011-09-20 19:37
What about Time Machine? I think Parallels can use a sparse bundle, but Fusion does not, though you can put your VM in one. Backups in a default setup with Fusion will kill you, as the whole image gets backed up each time. You can use the snapshots to improve it's behavior, or stick the vm in a sparse disk image.

Rolling out a centralized backup server, and I expect that VMs will be the biggest user of space, because we use Fusion, and it doesn't play nice with Time Machine.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-09-20 20:21
As I said in the article, Parallels 7 and Fusion 4 are equally Time Machine-friendly—IF you use snapshots (and, ideally, have them auto-update regularly). There's no getting around that first huge backup, but afterward, hourly runs will have only small files to back up. Neither Parallels 7 nor Fusion 4 uses sparse bundles for virtual disks, even optionally.
W Magill  2011-09-21 01:59
Ok, I give up... why can the Server version of Snow Leopard run, but not the "regular? In my experience, the only difference between server and not is the management program. In fact, I run all of the server apps on regular Snow Leopard with no problem.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-09-21 04:15
It's a matter of Apple's licensing. Apple only permits Snow Leopard Server to be virtualized, and so Parallels and VMware are required to enforce that. I can't answer why Apple made that decision, and I don't agree with it, but that's the way it is.
Dave Goldman  2011-09-22 07:25
Ah, but I *own* a copy of Snow Leopard. So could I install it myself onto a virtual machine?
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-09-22 07:28
Actually you can't own Snow Leopard—like me and everyone else, you can only license it! The license (you can read it yourself) says that you're only entitled to virtualize the Server version. But as I said, whether you agree with that or not, both Parallels and Fusion enforce the license, so the software won't let you install regular Snow Leopard.
Dave Goldman  2011-09-25 04:40
Dmytrii Nagirniak  2011-09-22 00:51
Thanks a lot for the great overview.

Especially the Differences part of it.

I used it to determine the value of each product for myself.

And it turned out that (for MY needs) VMWare Fusion 4 is a clear winner.

If somebody is curious, here is the comparisson:
I’m a little surprised that no one mentions Linux in these reviews/comparisons. I suppose there is a big audience of us out here that want to know.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-09-22 07:23
I did mention Linux (but only just). There's much more of a need to run Windows on a Mac than Linux; after all, Mac OS X is already Unix so you can already run many *nix programs unmodified.
Well. Let me gently make a request for someone to address these two virtualization applications in the context of Linux. It may be no more exotic a niche than power outlining and Nisus macros.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-09-23 06:49
I'm not saying it's exotic, only that far fewer people need to run it on a Mac than Windows. I personally have no need for it, since all the *nix software I need runs natively in Mac OS X; and since I haven't worked extensively with it myself, I can't make any useful comparisons or observations about it.
Bruce McCallum  2011-09-22 22:29
…very few applications and external devices work under Boot Camp but not in a virtual machine.

My understanding was that external USB dongles for secured software would work only in Parallels or Boot Camp. External devices like slide scanners requre Boot Camp or Parallels. Have Fusion, and would consider purchasing Parallels if this is so.
Dennis  2011-09-23 01:07
I found that VirtualBox will run Snow Leopard client, even on the newest Mini or Air, but the other two virtualizers do not. That makes a huge difference to people who still need occasional Rosetta applications.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-09-23 09:28
InfoWorld has published a comparison of Fusion 4 and Parallels 7, including a few benchmark tests. They pretty much match what I said. In overall score, the two are almost identical (7.9 for Fusion vs. 7.8 for Parallels). In the benchmark tests InfoWorld ran, Parallels is slightly ahead overall, and much higher in CPU performance, while Fusion is superior in 2D & 3D graphics, memory, and disk performance. Some of the other observations that article makes are also worth consideration.
relever  2011-09-23 17:52
Great article for those trying to choose between the Fusion and Parallels
I am a 4 year user of Parallels
Pros: works great for me (running WindowsXp on my iMac)
Cons: probably the most expensive software to keep current of any software on my Mac. Customer service is challenging
Bottom line: I will continue to use parallels for as long as need to run Windows applications on my Mac
Matti Haveri  2011-09-25 11:30
Is it possible for non-admin users to use a Boot Camp partition in VMware 4?

Previously I tried to run VMware 3 from a Boot Camp partition. It worked OK, but the show-stopper for me was that I always had to authenticate non-admin users when booting up Windows 7.

Did I miss something?
Matti Haveri  2011-09-25 11:32
I'm running Mac OS X 10.6.8 in my Mac mini and the only way to get VMware 4.0.1 to run Mac OS X 10.7.1 guest in full screen is to first boot VMware in Single Window, _then_ switch to Full Screen.

Booting 10.7.1 guest straight to Full Screen does not work because then the 10.7.1 login screen is briefly shown, but then it is scrambled and unusable.

Is there a fix coming for this?
Matti Haveri  2011-09-25 11:34
I have a Mac mini late 2009 (Macmini3,1, 4GB, 2,66 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo).

It can't boot into 64-bit mode, I guess due to boot ROM limitations.

But should I install 32- or 64-bit Mac OS X 10.7 guest in VMWare?

VMware KB Article: 2005334 says "...Ensure Operating System is set to Apple Mac OS X and Version is set to OS X 10.7 64-bit".

p.s. I tried it and both 32- and 64-bit Mac OS X 10.7.1 guests seem to work OK (as long as I don't boot straight into Full Screen mode, that is...).

So it is best to always use 64-bit, right?
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-09-25 11:40

All these questions are best addressed to VMware. I don't know the answers, but someone at VMware surely does.

I really think it comes down to pricing now.

I currently own a Parallels 6 license which still works fine for me on Lion. However I now have an additional Mac which means I not only need to pay the upgrade cost from 6 to 7 but `I would also need to purchase an additional license for my second Mac.

As VMWare can be ran from both machines with a single license and less frequent major releases it seems like a no brainer to make the switch.
Matti Haveri  2011-10-01 15:35
Regarding my questions above, I got answers from VMware:

Accessing Boot Camp partition from a nonadmin user works the same way in Fusion 3 and 4: it prompts you for admin password for authentication if you start the Boot Camp from a non-admin user. I filed a feature request so that I don't have to babysit non-admin users starting up from a Boot Camp partition.

My Mac mini late 2009 (64-bit Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 64-bit EFI, but only 32-bit kernel without hacking the stock Apple EFI). But even in Mac OS X 10.6, VMware recommends installing 64-bit Mac OS X 10.7 guest. BTW, this Mac mini, like MacBooks by default now boots into 64-bit kernel in Mac OS X 10.7.

The only way to get VMware 4.0.1 to run Mac OS X 10.7.1 guest in full screen is to first boot VMware in Single Window, _then_ switch to Full Screen. VMware could replicate the issue and is investigating it.
Matti Haveri  2011-10-01 15:39
BTW, VMware confirmed that I can boot into Mac OS X 10.7, and run Mac OS X 10.6 _server_ guest (Mac OS X 10.7 guest does not need server version) to access Rosetta applications. But nowadays Mac OS X 10.6 server seems to be too expensive ($300-500) for this task. So for this reason I'm still running Mac Os X 10.6.
Chuck van der Linden  2011-10-03 18:10
I'm new to macs but not virtualization. Thanks for a great summary of the differences between the two major paid-players. I wish there had been a little more coverage of virtual box, which I've been using at home on my Win7 system and have been very happy with.

As you point out, it's very important to understand how the differences will affect your specific work. As an example I'm a software QA guy, so I do a lot of testing and use VM's as testbeds. This makes snapshots VERY important to me, the ease of making them, ability to maintain more than one (as I can do under Hyper-v for example) snapshot, and speed of restoring to a known state all become something of paramount importance to my work.

This likewise renders some features completely irrelevant.. For example running a VM from bootcamp partition generally means no snapshots (since you are running for a physical partition, and not a virtual disk) which means that feature has zero value for my work