VMware has been a pillar of the OS virtualization business for years, having catered to developers and IT administrators with workstation and server versions of its tools that allow Windows users to run Linux, or different versions of Windows, in contained environments. The advent of Intel-based Macs gives the company a new market: Everyday users who simply need to run programs from one OS without disrupting another. Parallels has over a year's headstart in development and is currently the de facto virtualization program for Mac users. We will look at how VMware Fusion stacks up against the competition.
Installation and configuration
It is possible to create purely virtual environments in VMware Fusion, but I decided to do what I believe many home Mac users will do, which is to base my virtual machine on an existing Boot Camp partition. This gives me the option of running apps natively when Fusion might not be up to the task. I set up both environments for Windows XP Professional and found that it was fairly painless and self-evident. New Boot Camp users will want to avoid activating Windows until after they've installed the necessary VMware Tools application inside of the Microsoft OS. The perceived change in hardware when switching to VMware Fusion forces Windows to reactivate, which isn't fatal but is certainly an unneeded hassle.
I must mention that VMware did their best to make things convenient for the user who has not installed Windows in Boot Camp. VMware provides a Windows Easy Install assistant that asks a few simple questions, such as where you would like the virtual hard drive stored, how large should it be, and the license key of your Windows CD. It then proceeds to install without requiring any further interaction. This is simply the easiest Windows installation ever, easier than installing Windows on a PC.
VMware also provides free downloads of virtual machines that are already made, typically using free or open source operating systems like Linux. This makes it easy to get more than just a Windows virtual machine running.
The setup of the virtual machine is easy to understand and flexible. Individual devices can be attached or disabled before the virtual machine runs, or on the fly, using a status bar below the virtual machine in single-window mode. The latter is especially handy if you have a cell phone or similar device that only supports Windows. Since most Macintosh built-in hardware is attached through hidden USB connections, you can selectively switch Bluetooth or the iSight camera to the Windows machine as well.
I definitely appreciated the option of using one or two virtual processors, but the two-core option is only useful in the Mac Pro due to the performance hit on Mac OS X. This offers a welcome choice for VMware Fusion users who might want to run a demanding editing tool one moment, but need to step down the system load when starting the virtual machine (VM) for a simpler program, such as Internet Explorer.
Integration with the Mac: file sharing and Unity mode
Swapping files between the Mac and Windows is perhaps the most straightforward aspect of Fusion. Files can be dragged into the VM as though they were native to the OS itself. In testing, I had no corruption or permissions problems. It's also possible to setup shared folders that remain in sync if you need to regularly update files in one environment and see the changes in another. None of these features are especially new to Parallels owners, but their integration is as seamless.
The true darling of Fusion is its Unity mode. It is easy to call it a clone of the Parallels Coherence mode, but in practice I found that it's a more logical scheme than the Parallels offering. VMware's software intelligently recognizes Windows programs and populates a dedicated application launcher inside Mac OS X. There's no need for a Windows taskbar or a separate Dock icon in the Start menu. In fact, Unity is better in some ways than Windows itself, since the launcher uses a Spotlight-style live search to find programs that can be repositioned anywhere on the screen.
Speed and integration with the Mac in Unity is as good as in single-window mode, and includes drop-shadows and Expos?; even for relatively complex apps with custom skins, such as Steam or WinAmp. The only caveat is the lack of 3D support, which isn't a real issue for the Fusion target audience.
Performance and 3D gaming
In the past, running a virtual machine meant accepting degraded performance. This is not as true as it once was. On a MacBook 2Ghz with 2GB of RAM I assigned 1GB to the virtual machine. I recommend having a minimum of 2GB of RAM installed for optimum performance. VMware supports multiple processors so that the guest operating system and applications can take advantage of the dual core chips in the host computer. Fusion worked well with launching Office, running Photoshop CS3 benchmarks, browsing the Internet, and instant messaging. In fact, once Windows had started, it was faster launching Office 2007 in Fusion than it took to launch mac:Office 2004, which is emulated by Apple's Rosetta technology.
Gaming is still very demanding of virtual machines. VMware is limited to DirectX 8.1 compatibility, which reduces the number of games that may run to a fairly old set of software. VMware is not alone. Their competitor, Parallels, faces similar problems with their advertised DirectX 9 support. When you Attempt to play games that are not listed as compatible, the results may be disappointing.
As a typical Mac user who wants to run a few Windows-only programs without interrupting Mac OS X, it is easy to recommend VMware's first effort in the Mac virtualization market. Fusion runs well and supports some of the more exotic components. The multi-core support and the largely transparent Unity mode deliver great performance and usability over Parallels, especially considering the identical $80 price tag.
For 3D applications, using a Boot Camp partition delivers the best results. For everything less demanding, Fusion is an appropriate and satisfying solution. A lot of consideration went into its design and coding, and the result is an application that is a good Mac citizen on your computer, even as it brings in non-Macintosh operating systems and applications.