Mac virtualization face-off: VMware Fusion 5 vs. Parallels Desktop 8

Windows 8 and OS X Mountain Lion support are promoted, but existed already in the previous versions. So what else is new?

It's a rare year that sees updates to both OS X and Windows, but 2012 marks such an occasion. About a month after Apple released OS X Mountain Lion and two weeks after Microsoft finalized Windows 8 (not shipping until Oct. 26 but available for download by developers and Microsoft partners) come updates to two products that bring the two OSes together.

Those products are VMware's Fusion and Parallels Desktop, which let you run Windows, OS X, Linux, and Chrome OS virtual machines on OS X hosts. Both Fusion 5 and Parallels Desktop 8 extend the host support to OS X Mountain Lion and the client VM support to Windows 8 and OS X Mountain Lion. Both cost $50 for an upgrade from a recent version. New Fusion licenses also run $50, while new Parallels licenses cost $80. Note that both VMware and Parallels offer enterprise editions that provide the kind of policy management of Windows VMs that IT often imposes on actual Windows PCs.

[ Also on InfoWorld: OS X Mountain Lion vs. Windows 8 | See InfoWorld's slideshow tour of OS X Mountain Lion's top 25 features and test your Apple smarts with our Apple IQ test: Round 2. | Keep up with key Apple technologies with the Technology: Apple newsletter. ]

But if you read the promos carefully, you'll notice not much is actually new. For example, both products' previous versions also run on OS X Mountain Lion and support Windows 8 and Mountain Lion clients, if not quite as smoothly as the new versions do.

Worse, both companies' marketing sometimes implies they offer more than they do. For example, both companies note AirPlay mirroring support as a new feature when, in fact, this OS X Mountain Lion capability requires no changes in an application to support it -- anything on your screen is mirrored, no matter how old it is.

Is either worth the $50 upgrade fee? I don't think so. Worse, for both products, this marks the second time in a row their companies have offered pricey minor updates -- a behavior that users should not support.

VMware Fusion 5: Few new features, and not very savvy ones at that Since 2011's version 4, Fusion has been my tool of choice for running Windows on my Mac. I'm rethinking that decision with Fusion 5.

First, there's very little useful in the new version -- certainly nothing that justifies the $50 upgrade cost. The big selling point is support for Windows 8 and OS X Mountain Lion VMs, but Fusion 4 also supported these OSes as VMs. You just had to tell Fusion you were running Windows 7 or OS X Lion, respectively. Because Windows 8 is really Windows 7 plus the Metro environment and OS X Mountain Lion is a minor revision to OS X Lion, telling that little fib when you install either OS into a new VM works fine -- and saves you the $50 upgrade cost to Fusion 5.

When you run OS X Mountain Lion or Windows 8 on Fusion 5, you don't get much more than you do running them on Fusion 4. I saw no differences running OS X Mountain Lion, and for Windows 8, all I got was a few Windows 8-specific shortcut keys such as to open the charms bar or switch to the Windows Desktop.

The shortcuts are not consistent, so using them is more hassle than just sticking to the mouse. For example, on a PC, Windows-C opens the charms bar and Windows-D switches to the Windows Desktop. In Fusion, you use Command-Shift-C for the charms bar and Command-D for the Windows Desktop. Some shortcuts add Shift if there's an existing Mac shortcut that would conflict, while others do not; it's a guessing game as to whether to hold Shift (and holding Shift when it's not required doesn't work). The right approach would be to use a consistent modifier-key combination to represent the Windows key.

Also, I was very disappointed to discover that I could not use Apple's gesture-capable hardware in the Windows 8 VM. Sure, you can perform mouse actions on a Magic Trackpad, Magic Mouse, or built-in MacBook trackpad, but Fusion 4 allowed the same. What you can't do is use the pinch and expand gestures, the rotate gestures, or any of the other gestures that the Apple hardware is designed for (and that work in OS X Mountain Lion) and that Windows 8 supports.

As an application, Fusion 5 works with a few native OS X Mountain Lion features, such as better supporting Launchpad for access to Windows applications and passing notifications in the guest OS to Mountain Lion's new Notifications Center. However, these are minor conveniences not worth $50.

Fusion 5 promises to run some Windows-only USB and Bluetooth hardware not supported by the Mac and to make them accessible to the OS X host. I have no such hardware to test whether this feature works as advertised, but this capability might be handy in Windows-dominated workplaces that use Windows-only peripherals -- which I suspect is a small number.

All in all, Fusion 5 feels like VMware trying to get another $50 from excited users who assume wrongly that the new OS X and Windows require a new virtualization product -- they don't. It should have been a free upgrade.

If you spring for Fusion 5, be sure to install the 5.01 patch to solve some performance problems in the 5.0 version.

Parallels Desktop 8: Overpriced upgrade with few useful additions As with VMware Fusion 5, the big selling point of Parallels Desktop 8 is already offered in the previous version: support for OS X Mountain Lion and Windows 8 VMs. Installing Windows 8 in Parallels Desktop 8 is no different than installing any version of Windows -- no subterfuge needed as in Parallels Desktop 7. But Parallels Desktop 8 does introduce an annoyance in installing Windows: The installer runs in a small window you can't resize, so it's extremely difficult to read and follow the prompts.

Parallels has also revamped the creation of OS X Mountain Lion VMs, but the change is for the better. The process for installing OS X Mountain Lion in Parallels Desktop 7 is a pain, requiring you to extract the InstallESD file from the Mountain Lion installer package -- which most users don't know how to do, even though it's easy -- as opposed to simply pointing to the installer itself as you'd expect. Parallels Desktop 8 doesn't require this contortion to install OS X Mountain Lion.

Once you've installed OS X Mountain Lion in Parallels Desktop 8, you'll find no real difference from running it in Parallels Desktop 7. Likewise, running Windows 8 in Parallels Desktop 8 is mostly like running it in Parallels Desktop 7.

Like VMware Fusion 5, the enhancements in Parallels Desktop 8 are minor, such as supporting notifications, but at least there are more useful additions in Parallels Desktop 8. For example, you can use OS X Mountain Lion's dictation feature to enter text into a Windows app. This is a Mountain Lion feature most OS X apps can support, even older ones like Word 2007, if they use the standard OS X text services. By contrast, for some strange reason, VMware Fusion does not support dictation, and this Mountain Lion-standard option is grayed out in its Edit menu.

Parallels Desktop 8 also offers the "open in Internet Explorer" option in Safari. If you come across one of the dwindling number of websites that use ActiveX or other Windows-only features, you can easily open it in IE via Windows.

Perhaps the most useful new capability in Parallels Desktop 8 is support for Windows 8's gestures via MacBooks' built-in trackpads and Apple's optional Magic Trackpad (but not the Magic Mouse, given limitations in the Apple hardware). Gestures such as pinch and expand are especially convenient in the Metro environment, and the forthcoming Office 2013 works with gestures beyond what Metro uses, such as rotation. As OS X gets savvier about touch support, more Mac users will use touch gestures on their Macs, so it's natural to expect them to also work in a Windows 8 VM.

Parallels Desktop also offers a consistent way to access Windows 8's new shortcuts that require the Windows key. For most such shortcuts, press Command-Option on the Mac where Windows expects the Windows key. It's a nice, consistent approach, unlike as is the case in VMware Fusion. For the Windows key alone (which lets you switch between the most recently opened apps and the Start screen in Windows 8), just press the Mac's Command key; VMware Fusion uses the same gesture.

Parallels Desktop 8 does have an interesting ability to download and install a developer's desktop version of Google's Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" mobile operating system. It's basically the same as running Google's Android emulator on your Mac via Terminal, so I'm not sure why you'd run it in a VM instead.

All in all, why Parallels charges $50 is beyond me -- as in the case of VMware Fusion 5, it's an unconscionable price. Parallels Desktop 8's update price should be no more than $15.

Another reason I hesitate to recommend Parallels is that the company mercilessly spams customers (through its partner Avanquest) with emails selling upgrades and other products. I've tried for years to opt out and finally had to block them at the ISP level. If you buy Parallels Desktop, I suggest you flag avanquest.com as a spam domain in your email server or client.

Fusion 5 versus Parallels Desktop 8: Making the choice At the end of the day, there's slightly more to justify upgrading to Parallels Desktop 8 than there is to Fusion 5. But if you have the previous versions, you likely won't need to upgrade to either.

If you plan to run Windows 8 extensively, my choice is Parallels Desktop 8 because it supports Windows 8 a tad better. If Windows 8 is not in your Mac's future, keep what you have. If you own neither and need Windows virtualization, flip a coin: Either of the two will suffice.

This story, "Mac virtualization face-off: VMware Fusion 5 vs. Parallels Desktop 8," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Keep up on the latest developments in mobile technology and security at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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