Review: VMware Fusion 3

VMware modernizes its platform for Windows 7 and Snow Leopard. (October 31st, 2009)

Virtualization on the Mac has had to move forward rapidly in the past several months: where it was once enough to run basic tasks in Windows XP, users increasingly expect an experience much like what they would have in Boot Camp. That's all the more true with the launch of Windows 7, where the visual effects are not only useful but often essential. Between this and the changes in the background brought about by Mac OS X Snow Leopard, VMware's Fusion 3 has much ground to cover. We hope to find out in our review whether it's an essential upgrade or simply nice to have.

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Product Manufacturer: VMware

Price: $80 ($100 for 1 yr. free major updates)

The Good

  • Runs Windows 7 with full UI features.
  • Better Unity and full screen integration.
  • Very simple Windows-to-Mac migration tool.
  • Better copy-and-paste plus multi-display support.
  • Proper 64-bit, Snow Leopard and Mac OS X Server support.

The Bad

  • Performance claims somewhat exaggerated; 3D and HD still too slow.
  • Visual errors in Exposť modes while running in Unify mode.

Setting up and the migration tool

Those who've used at least VMware Fusion 2 will find much of the version 3 setup process familiar at first; that's not necessarily a bad thing, as it's uncomplicated. The chief addition here is an initial setup page that guides you through creating a virtual machine (VM) based on your goals, such as using your Boot Camp partition or creating a new partition from scratch. Settings are very familiar, though it's noteworthy that Fusion 3 now has support for using four cores in a virtual session -- a boon for Mac Pro and Xserve owners that can devote a whole quad-core (or better) processor just to a single instance.

We primarily tested using a Boot Camp partition, and creating a VM in this case is extremely easy; it recognized a Windows 7 installation quickly and automatically installed necessary VMware software. The process takes several minutes but isn't unreasonable.

The single largest addition to the setup process is the integration of a clever Migration Assistant tool. Much like Apple's software of the same name, it's meant to transfer an existing system to a new one -- in this case, to create a VM on a Mac from a Windows PC. It's relatively painless as it actually uses Bonjour zero-configuration networking to find the Windows computer on the local network and make the conversion. We would definitely take heed of VMware's advice to use Ethernet for the process, however, as this is not a quick process: with the OS alone taking several gigabytes and likely many apps and documents to bring over, Wi-Fi will simply be too slow and unreliable. It's also a good idea to have a large amount of space free as the finished VM will likely involve more than the total amount of disk space used by the Windows system.

Windows 7's app performance and integration

By far the single largest improvement in Fusion 3 is Windows 7 support. It now has a native Windows 7 graphics driver and, if your Mac's graphics hardware is sufficiently advanced, the full 3D-accelerated Aero Glass interface as well as DirectX 9 and OpenGL 1.4 for 3D. VMware promises that the memory overhead should be reduced and that performance as a whole should be improved, including for the Mac when the VM is running.

In our experience, Microsoft's newer OS runs surprisingly well for all its core features. On a 2007-era 24-inch iMac with a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo, 3GB of RAM and a Radeon HD 2600 XT for graphics, all Aero Glass features were switched on and often ran as quickly as they do in Boot Camp, or at worst slightly slower than when native. This includes Aero Peek (singling out an app window by mousing over its preview in the taskbar) and Flip 3D (the pseudo-3D task switcher). For simple tasks, Windows 7 may as well be running natively. Many regular, 2D apps also work well in this environment, too. It's hard to differentiate between Google Chrome's performance in a VM versus native mode, and much of the lag in typing in certain conditions is gone away. Just for these we're recommend Fusion 3 if you intend to stay current in operating systems.

However, it's quite clear that the performance isn't quite there to truly treat the VM as a substitute for demanding tasks. Even with 1.5GB of RAM assigned to the VM, visually intensive apps that draw on DirectX 9 and OpenGL features tend to choke. Zune 4.0 can handle many visual transitions smoothly on our iMac but is prone to periodic stutters during music playback, clearly showing that it's limited. Trying to play an video in Unity mode -- a key advertised performance feature -- also didn't work well. Window resizing isn't quite that fast and feels more like resizing an app on a Windows netbook: that is, usable but jittery.

Also, while it's true that many modern 3D games will now run, their performance will leave a lot to be desired. A visually complex game like Valve's Left 4 Dead 2 will load and show full graphical detail but will also run very slowly where it runs smoothly in Boot Camp: we counted less than one frame per second where it easily runs over 30 frames per second in native Windows mode. Despite improvements, Fusion isn't a substitute for a native partition for games or 3D modelling, especially since it doesn't know how to position non-full screen 3D (as evidenced below).

Thankfully, basic integration between the Mac and Windows components is still as straightforward as ever and has received some boosts of its own. Besides dragging and dropping files between partitions, which now has better support for images, text and Outlook attachments, it's now much more reasonable to run Fusion in full screen on a multi-monitor Mac with a 4096x4096 or higher output. Once again, it's a definite advantage for Mac Pro users.

Full screen and Unity views

In previous editions of VMware's app, full screen mode was a fairly unceremonious transition. You could switch in and out but wouldn't have any particularly deep tie back to Mac OS X. That changes drastically in the new Fusion update: there's now a visible toolbar for controlling some of the key settings of the VM while in full screen, even to where you can stop the VM without shutting down Windows itself. That by itself can be a timesaver for those who need to run Linux, Windows or other operating systems with undivided attention.

Most of the real changes to appreciate are in Unity mode. Even more so than before, Windows in Unity can be almost invisible. There's now a Mac OS X menu bar item that imitates the Windows Start menu but with VMware-specific features like suspending the VM. It's uncanny to launch a type-to-search for a Windows app in a Mac OS X menu and find it as though you were using Microsoft's own system, even if Windows isn't actually running. Many Mac commands have now worked their way even deeper into the platform and are almost uncanny; it's strange to use Command-Q to quit a Windows app, use Dock Exposť for one particular task in or to see recently opened apps in your Mac's Recent Items list. Combined, they eliminate a psychological barrier that in the past often forced you to consciously switch between Mac and Windows mindsets with Unity active.

There are still some quirks to both full screen and Unity modes, however, and most of these appear to do more with visuals than anything else. As mentioned earlier, performance for intensive tasks doesn't improve in either of those modes, and we've also noticed a tendency for odd visual glitches in Unity mode. With multiple windows open, Dock Exposť tends to overlap the graphics of one window on another and makes it difficult to pick out an app by eye instead of by text description. We've also noticed that some apps like to take priority in graphics, and QuickTime significantly overlaid its graphics on top of every other Windows app when Exposť of any kind was active.

A note on Snow Leopard and 64-bit support

Although it's all but transparent to most users, 64-bit and Snow Leopard support has to be mentioned as an important ingredient for VMware's update. The feature lets it at least run Windows in 64-bit mode and should be a performance boon for Mac users whose systems have more than 4GB of memory by giving Fusion the same access to memory as a native 64-bit Mac app.

We'd add that Mac OS X Server users should be especially satisfied, as this is the first Fusion release to work properly when a Snow Leopard Mac boots into the 64-bit kernel and has a virtual EFI that ensures Mac OS X Server will work properly. Corporate owners who intend to offer services in virtualized apps can likely now consider an Xserve without having to sacrifice features or gamble with compatibility in the process.

Wrapping up

In many senses, VMware's improvements are a necessary catch-up. In order to stay current, the company simply had to modernize its platform. But as it's done in Fusion 3, the transition has been surprisingly smooth. Where Vista was hobbled by running Aero Basic and very limited 3D, Windows 7 now feels like a proper neighbor to Mac OS X when the two run side-by-side. It should also quickly become the de facto tool for gracefully switching to the Mac as you can preserve an old PC almost entirely without having to cut the cord for Windows-native apps until you're truly ready.

That sense of companionship is particularly relevant in Unity mode, as jumping back and forth between Mac and Windows apps is seamless, and it's easier to launch or manage apps without the temptation to switch back to single window or full screen views.

If there's a flaw, it's in the expectations that VMware sets for what you can do. Aero Glass and typical VM-friendly apps will work, but despite marketing speak we'd treat the extra graphics support as useful for compatibility alone, not as a redefinition of what you can do with virtual operating systems. Gamers will still want Boot Camp at the ready, and we'd recommend that serious VM users have as fast a system as possible if they want a transparent experience. The addition of quad-core iMacs couldn't have come at a better time.

Even with that performance overhead, we'd still say that Fusion 3 is easily the go-to app if you depend on Windows for testing or still need a connection to Windows before you move completely to the Mac universe. At $80 it's inexpensive enough to be both a viable companion to a copy of Windows and a worthwhile upgrade from an earlier version of Fusion if Windows 7, Snow Leopard or both will play a large part in your future.

by Jon Fingas


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