The latest version of VMware Fusion 3 brings invaluable new functions to the Windows virtualisation software for Macintosh.

Almost overnight, running Windows on a Mac became a viable option when Apple adopted Intel processors in 2006. As well as installing Windows directly onto a separate disk partition, allowing you to work natively in Windows, virtualization software packages appeared that enabled the simultaneous use of Windows from within Mac OS X - and all without rebooting.

The first commercial offering was Parallels Desktop for Mac, followed shortly after by VMware's Fusion. The two companies have been playing tag since, each adding features and functionality to match and then trump their competitor.

With the latest VMware Fusion 3, VMware has introduced key new functions that particularly address the running of Windows 7 and Vista, as well as numerous small interface and performance tweaks.

The most visually arresting sight is the new graphics system, which finally enables the use of Windows WDDM graphics. When Microsoft launched Vista, it introduced a new way to draw screen graphics - the Windows Display Driver Model - which is built around a new composite desktop graphics system.

The WDDM graphics update attempted in one swoop to reduce Windows' infamous blue-screen-of-death crashes, while also introducing the new desktop transparency effects known as Aero Glass.

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So now, when running relevant versions of Windows Vista or Windows 7 in VMware Fusion 3, you'll see semi-transparent edges to windows, while the Flip 3D application switcher can be invoked using the Windows-Tab keys (once you've deselected ‘Enable Mac OS Keyboard Shortcuts' in Fusion's preferences).

And in Windows 7, there are Aero Peek live thumbnails in the dock, along with Aero Shake and Aero Snap effects available.

Where the previous Fusion 2 supported DirectX 9.0c with Shader Model 2, Fusion 3 lists DirectX 9.0c with Shader Model 3. VMware has also added OpenGL 2.1 support in VMware Fusion 3, albeit only for Windows XP virtual machines - so Compiz effects in Linux remain out of reach.

In the OS X top menu strip, a new icon appears by default which lists currently open apps in the Windows virtual machine (VM). Also here are links to View, Virtual Machine and Window settings.

Under ‘View', you can elect to use Unity, which switches off the usual Windows desktop, leaving just open apps to mingle with OS X apps. In Unity mode, the Windows colour scheme also switches back to opacity alongside Mac apps, rather than full Aero transparency, and trailing ghosts appear behind dragged windows.

The integration of Apple's Exposé is useful, though, so that VM windows will appear like normal Mac windows when the function is invoked.

There was also some minor issues such as undocked Windows apps losing their contents until they'd been refreshed by clicking on the app icon in the Mac Dock.

NEXT PAGE: More new features, and benchmark tests >>

The latest version of VMware Fusion 3 brings invaluable new functions to the Windows virtualisation software for Macintosh.

Among the many new features (VMware lists 50 in total), it's now possible to have a Windows VM span across more than one monitor. And in line with Apple's steady move to 64-bit processing, Fusion 3 is now a 64-bit application.

This is especially welcome for a heavy-duty application such as this, that can make use of several gigabytes of RAM if more than one VM is running at once. And while we couldn't test this feature, Fusion 3 is now specified to support 4-way SMP in quad-core systems.

VMware offers the opportunity to download and import free trials of Windows OSes within VMware Fusion 3, using the new VHD Test Drive support. At time of press, we only found Vista and Server 2003 R2 Enterprise Edition available.

Also included with the full installer is McAfee Virus Scan for Windows. This is installed by default, so if you don't want any anti-virus software slowing your system down, you'll need to deselect this from the Customise button at the install stage.

Migration from a real Windows PC to a virtual PC on the Mac has been improved, and is easy to achieve over a network, where Parallels favours the use of a specially built USB cable that emulates a network link.

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We tested the graphics capability using our standard gaming test of FEAR, this time running inside a Windows XP Pro SP3 VM, with 1GB of RAM. Testing was carried out on an Apple MacBook Pro 2.4GHz (Early 2008), fitted with an nVidia 8600M graphics card with 256MB video RAM.

With the game set to 'Maximum' quality rendering and a 1024x768 resolution, we recorded average framerates of 16fps. With the quality setting reduced slightly to 'High', this figure rose to 22fps.

We also used WorldBench 6 to get an idea of the real-world system speed of VMware Fusion 3. Note that VMware Inc is also a licensed user of IDG's WorldBench software, and has pointed out that due to inconsistencies in some virtual PC's clock timing, the results gathered may be slightly higher than reality.

On the same MacBook Pro, Fusion 2.06 achieved a score of 71 points. The previous version of Fusion's competitor, Parallels 4, scored 73 points in the same setup.

Moving to the new VMware Fusion 3.0, we saw a final result of 74 points, showing particular improvement in the Autodesk 3ds DirectX section of the test.

In use, Windows VMs felt suitably snappy and responsive, and we were also able to play high-definition video without obvious stuttering.

NEXT PAGE: Our expert verdict >>

VMware Fusion 3: Specs

  • Intel-processor Macintosh
  • Mac OS X 10.58 or later
  • 1GB RAM
  • 700MB available disk space
  • nVidia 8600M/ATI Radeon 2600 or better recommended for Windows Aero support
  • Intel-processor Macintosh
  • Mac OS X 10.58 or later
  • 1GB RAM
  • 700MB available disk space
  • nVidia 8600M/ATI Radeon 2600 or better recommended for Windows Aero support

OUR VERDICT

There were a few glitches in the rendering of Windows 7 virtual machines, but not enough to spoil the essential operation of this powerful package. We’ll cover the new Parallels 5 in a forthcoming review to see how the two options now compare. In the meantime, we found that in Fusion 3, VMware has made some notable and useful improvements over its predecessor, adding a some extra speed, along with the key upgrade in the appearance of Windows Vista and later Microsoft OSes.

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