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Parallels versus Fusion

Review There can be only one
Fri Nov 27 2009, 15:54

MAC OSX IS A MATURE, robust and elegant operating system that has been jealously eyed by all but the most fanatic Windows users ever since its initial release in march 2001.

boxesMost Macolytes are happy to use the operating system, which is currently in its sixth incarnation, exclusively on their precious Apple hardware, and since the Cupertino company moved into the Intel camp as far a processors are concerned, the number of software titles available for modern Macs has increased exponentially.

There are, however, some cases in which Mac users are forced to abandon their convictions and turn to the Dark Side. Boot Camp is Apple's solution for anyone forced by circumstances beyond their control to run Microsoft Windows on a Mac platform and, despite Apple's reluctance to officially support the Vole's OS, it is perfectly capable of running the latest Windows 7 iteration in its manifold forms.

But the major problem with Boot Camp is that it requires a reboot every time you want to switch between OSX and Windows. There are, however, two recently-updated virtualisation solutions that allow Intel macs to run both OSX and Windows side by side - but which is the most useful?

VMware Fusion 3 costs £53.95 for a single user license, but the company is currently offering an enhanced package that includes free upgrades for the next 12 months at £67.37. Version 3 is fully optimised for Snow Leopard with a new 64-bit core engine and supports all of Windows 7's flashy bits including Aero and Flip 3D.

Parallels 5 is currently available for £52.99 and offers the same level of integration whilst making some bold boasts about being the fastest Windows virtualisation solution for Windows on Mac.

On the surface, both packages are pretty similar with neither having a unique selling point. They are both incredibly simple to install and will happily cope with either an existing Boot Camp installation or a fresh install from a genuine Windows disk. But here is where things start getting pricey and complicated. Unless you happen to have a Windows 7 installer disk lying around the house (don't bother even trying with the OEM version that came with your Windows box - in most cases it won't work), you will have to fork out a large wad of cash to even get started.

Windows Home Premium currently retails at a wallet worrying £150 and that's what you'll need if you want to see all of Windows 7's pretty interface enhancements. And let's face it, if you have become accustomed to using the visually gorgeous Snow Leopard, then you're going to want the very best OS version Redmond has to offer.

Before we look at each software package, we would be remiss not to mention that the first time we tried to install Parallels 5 onto a heavily-used version of OSX 10.6.2 we had an utter nightmare of a time. The application wouldn't run at all and we spent many frustrating hours with Parallels tech support trying to get it to do anything other than fail miserably. After spending four hours in a virtual desktop session with one of the development engineers, in which the very innards of our unfortunate Mac Pro were probed at console level, we finally gave up. A fresh install of 10.6.0 from the original installer disks solved the problem, and a subsequent updating of that set-up to 10.6.2 ran equally well, but taking such drastic measures in order to get Parallels running will be a price we suspect most users will be unwilling to pay.

Fortunately Parallels offers a free 30 day trial of the software which can be password activated once everything is up and running, so we highly recommend that you take the try-before-you-buy option before committing yourself to a painful re-install of your entire system.

If you are moving over to a Mac from an existing PC, both packages offer migration assistants that will dump the entire contents of your Wintel box into a virtual machine on your new Apple system using nothing more complex than an ethernet or firewire cable.

Once you do have everything running tickety-boo, both packages offer impressively seamless integration of OSX and Windows 7. We found that Parallels coped better with our multi-monitor set-up. Fusion refused to render the screen fully at some resolutions, resorting to letter-boxing and other random weirdness on occasion, and did a much better job of recognising and installing the various bits of audio and video kit attached to our review machine. Fusion managed to talk to all of our third party devices eventually but needed some gentle prompting in places. Both packages managed to make network connections without fuss or bluster, and we had Internet Explorer and Google Chrome hooked up to the Internet in a matter of minutes.fusion-noscreens

So far, so much the same. Both packages offer a plethora of ways in which they sit beside OSX and this is where Parallels pulls into a slight lead. Window mode puts your virtual Windows desktop in a resizeable window that can be resized and positioned anywhere on your Mac desktop. Files and folders can be dragged and dropped in either direction and this is probably the most useful mode if you are transferring information between the two systems.

Crystal mode is the least intrusive of the bunch and creates a Windows Applications folder in your Mac Dock. Fire up a Windows app and it appears on top of all of your Mac stuff as though Windows wasn't even running. Best bet for the Mac purist we reckon.par-crystal

Full Screen mode does what is says on the tin. Multiple monitors can be used here and you can switch back to OSX by hitting command-alt return or by mousing up to the top left corner of your main monitor, which neatly peels back to expose a small slice of the Apple desktop.

Modality shrinks the Windows 7 screen down to a tiny window allowing you to watch what's going on but nothing much else. We're not sure of the usefulness of this mode and it feels a bit tacked on, but we're sure someone will like it.

Everything moves along at a slick pace and after a while you'll hardly notice you are running two full-fat operating systems. The only clue is that the Windows bits and pieces have a slightly different graphical feel but switching between Windows and OSX soon become intuitive and seamless.

Fusion, on the other hand, seems to make less of an effort to pander to the Mac faithful, instead making the whole experience seem more like two separate entities fighting for dominance. There are just two display modes, full screen and unity, the first of which is self-explanatory and the second of which puts Windows apps into their own windows on the Mac desktop. We should note that we had problems with unity mode working erratically but reinstalling the VMware Tools application fixed the glitch. When it is working, Unity mode places an Icon in the OSX top menu bar which takes over from the Windows button on the Windows 7 dock.

We also encountered issues with distorted sound on a number of occasions, and the Boot Camp installation that we were using seemed particularly sensitive to damage, having to be repaired on a number of occasions and completely disappearing more than once.

As mentioned before, Fusion was more reluctant than Parallels to talk nicely with the various storage devices and other bits and bobs attached to our review machine and needed much greater user interaction to get everything running properly. We also found that switching between display modes took much longer than with Parallels - up to ten seconds to settle down in some instances - and that reboots would sometimes cause the virtual machine to randomly move on-screen icons and widgets. More than once we had to reset screen resolutions, which is a pain when you are running three of the darned things. Fusion also generally felt more sluggish, with Aero effects feeling jumpy almost to the point where we wanted to switch them off.

So which would we buy? Both packages do pretty much the same job for around the same price but, as you will probably have already gleaned from our remarks, there is a clear winner. Parallels was a pain to install - although the tech folks insisted that our case was an isolated incident - but looks slicker, is easier to configure, feels faster, makes better use of high end multi-core Macs and has better integration with the host OS. Fusion was a doddle to install but feels much less comfortable to use, almost like switching to a separate machine.  But the real question is, is it worth buying either? Well, not until you have checked out the 30-day trial of both. Windows users will probably get on better with Fusion - mainly because things need to be fiddled with, and fixed when they break - as altogether it offers a more PC-like experience. Mac fans will get on better with Parallels, as it behaves more like a very complex Mac application than a virtual computer running in tandem.

It might also be worth pointing out that running Fusion and Parallels on the same machine, as this review required, is the gateway to a world of pain. Each application seems to footle with the Windows install in its own inimitable way and switching between the two packages causes untold problems. It's one or the other, and never the twain shall meet. You have been warned.

If you absolutely must run Windows 7 on your Mac, and you don't have the patience to wait the 90 seconds or so that it takes to start up Boot Camp, or you regularly have to copy and paste large amounts of data from Mac documents to Windows documents and vice versa, then Parallels is an elegant solution. If you want to play PC games, you might just as well use Boot Camp, or get your mum to buy you an Xbox for Christmas. µ

 

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