Until recently, VMware and Parallels had nearly identical features, and even had release schedules that practically synchronised each year.

But VMware seems to have slowed down its development of Fusion, letting Parallels take the limelight as the go-to virtualisation for the Macintosh. That doesn’t mean VMware Fusion is a spent force – far from it. Fusion 4 has some important distinctions from the Russian upstart that can make it more attractive to some users.

The core functionality of Fusion 4 remains unchanged, allowing you to run virtualised images of x86 and x64 operating systems within Mac OS X. As with Parallels, the focus is very much on Windows, although Linux and UNIX systems can also be installed.

But unlike Parallels, VMware does not provide any Linux OpenGL graphics acceleration. Which is a shame, as it means all the latest user interface effects – such as the Unity interface in Ubuntu – cannot be viewed and utilised. 

And unlike Parallels which allows you to divert buckets of memory to the graphics adaptor, up to 1GB in fact, Fusion gives you a fixed amount; for example 256MB for Windows 7.

VMware advertises Fusion 4 with more than 2.5x faster 3D graphics than Fusion 3. We ran a simple test of our usual FEAR test at Maximum detail settings. The hardware was the same MacBook Pro 2.4GHz – although this time the test was on a Windows 7 rather than XP VM. We still saw a faster result though, moving from 16 frames per second to 22fps.

There is some love for non-Windows operating systems in the form of ready-made Linux/UNIX VM images, downloadable from VMware. And because the company is a long-time specialist in professional and enterprise virtualisation, there’s a large selection of pre-configured VMs available.

VMware Fusion 4: New features

The first change for VMware Fusion 4 is found in the installation process. Unlike earlier versions of Fusion and competitor Parallels, which require an install process that scatters files across your system after gaining admin privileges, Fusion 4 just asks you to drag the app from its disk image to your drive; typically your Applications directory.

The Virtual Machine Library window is now laid out in a grid rather than vertical list, and servers as a more centralised launch centre for installed virtual machines.

When changing the settings for each VM, a panel that’s reminiscent of OS X’s own System Preferences glides into view in the centre of the VM’s display. This gives a great overview of all settings available, including one we’ve been waiting to see for some time: USB device global preferences.

By default, every time you plug in a new USB device, Fusion would ask if you wanted to connect it to the host or VM computer. This process gets tiresome when you have VMs running in the background or on different desktop spaces, and you must click through VMware’s splashscreen on every new thumbdrive you plug in. Now, under USB & Bluetooth/Advanced USB Options, you can elect to have any new USB device always connect to the Mac, or always to the VM. It saves much frustration.

Redesigned is the Menu Bar that appears in full-screen mode. This can appear on the screen left, right, top or bottom, a small black tab with handy shortcuts to Settings and other options. We set it to Automatically Hide and Show, out the way on the screen left edge.

Full-screen mode is supported in the new Lion fashion, from diagonal arrows in the top-right corner of a VM window. Strangely the VM will expand into the same desktop space it started in, rather than create a new Desktop as Lionised apps normally do. We actually find VMware’s scheme more convenient than Apple’s as you can still work in the adjacent monitor in a dual-display setup.

VMware Fusion 4: Lion on Lion

Perhaps the biggest new asset in VMware Fusion 4 is the ability to create and run virtualised versions of OS X itself. The main hindrance to this in the past has been Apple’s OS license agreement, which forbade the virtualisation of its client operating systems (OS X Server is not restricted in this way). Those terms changed with OS X Lion, paving the way for first Parallels and now Fusion to support the setup.

But just like Parallels 7, and as with VMware’s support of Linux, there is no graphics acceleration included. This leaves the virtualised Apple OS feeling somewhat slow and juddery, as so much of the Mac interface is normally accelerated by Quartz Extreme, which offloads screen rendering to the GPU. Additionally, QuickTime video and Flash video are off the menu.

Also sadly lacking are most of the gesture controls available to OS X through a trackpad. You can use two-finger scrolling though, which is an improvement on Parallels support.

A feature that has matured nicely is Snapshots. This combines the best of Apple’s Time Machine incremental backup system, with Microsoft’s System Restore insurance, that lets you return a Windows box back to an earlier state.

NEXT PAGE: Original Macworld review >>

Fusion 4 is the newest version of VMware's virtualization solution for the Mac, which allows you to run multiple operating systems within Mac OS X

Since we reviewed Fusion 3, VMWare has added support for Lion and the ability to create OS X Lion virtual machines. It’s also reduced the consumption of system resources to zero when you aren't running a virtual machine, redesigned the settings window, and much more.

Installation

You'll notice one major change in VMware Fusion 4 immediately: it no longer requires an installer. Instead, you drag and drop the application into whatever folder you wish, then launch it. 

On first launch, Fusion will ask for authorisation (which it needs only to change the permissions on some items within its application bundle) and then proceed with initial setup.

At any point in the future, you can move the Fusion application to another drive or folder, and everything will move with it. If you decide you don't want Fusion, there's no need for an uninstaller - just drag the application to the trash, and you'll remove all of it (excluding its preferences file). As someone who prefers control over how and where applications install themselves and their pieces, this is a very nice improvement over prior versions.

Another nice touch: VMware Fusion 4 also ships on a USB key so if you're using a MacBook Air or Mac mini, you don't need to go digging for your external optical drive.

Fusion's licence allows for unlimited installation on as many Macs as you use (for personal use; business users have different terms). If you use more than one Mac with regularity, this is easier on the pocketbook than Parallels' "one machine, one licence" requirement.

Running Windows

Installing Windows within VMware Fusion 4 is straightforward: we installed the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Professional on a 2011 MacBook Pro (2.2GHz Core i7 with 4G RAM) in just under 15 minutes. 

(We were also able to install the Windows 8 Developer Preview, and it ran quite nicely, too.) 

Unlike Parallels 7, Fusion 4 doesn't offer you the chance to purchase a copy of Windows from within the programme itself. But Fusion does include a video that shows you how to buy a copy directly from Microsoft. Even so, you'll want to buy Windows on your own, so you don't pay list price.

By default, Fusion sets up a normal Windows 7 user account, leaving the Administrator account disabled. That leads to more annoying user access control (UAC) prompts, but results in a much higher degree of security. (You can, if you wish, disable UAC to lower the annoyance level.)

VMWare has specifically tweaked Fusion to work well with Lion. For example, when you're running Windows in Fusion's Unity mode (which makes Windows apps appear as individual programmes, just like your Mac ones), each of your open Windows apps appear separately in Mission Control. 

You can also optionally add Windows programmes to Launchpad. Thankfully, Fusion does so intelligently. It doesn't add every single Windows programme to that app interface.

We had no trouble at all running a normal suite of Windows office applications (including Microsoft Office, Internet Explorer and Acrobat). The applications loaded quickly; everything worked as we expected it to. 

We also tested a number of games, and there the results were decent. Most older games ran just fine, and more recent games ran reasonably well, but graphically-intensive new games ran either very poorly or not at all. 

For example, the demo of Hard Reset ran at such slow frame-rates that gameplay was virtually impossible. That same game is playable in Parallels 7; we'd attribute the difference to Fusion's support for only 256MB of video RAM, versus 1GB in Parallels.

Hardware peripherals worked well. Fusion detected when we plugged them in, and offered us the choice of using them with either the virtual machine or the host Mac. The iSight camera worked in Windows, too.

Fusion includes a 12-month subscription to McAfee VirusScan Plus for Windows virus protection; a full year of coverage is nice if you opt to go with a third-party solution. For this review, though, we opted to use Microsoft's free Security Essentials, which seems to be doing the job so far.

Generally, using Windows 7 in VMware Fusion 4 was marked by an absolute lack of drama. Applications simply ran - and ran well. We had no crashes, and the occasional Windows update installed without trouble. We played some high-definition video clips in Windows Media Player, and they played back with clear video and stutter-free audio. In short, Windows 7 and Fusion 4 work very well together.

Other operating systems

Windows isn't the only OS you can run under Fusion. New in this release of Fusion is the ability to install OS X Lion itself as a virtual machine. 

To do so, you simply point Fusion's new virtual machine assistant at the Install Mac OS X Lion.app file that you get when you downloaded Lion from the App Store. (If you didn't keep a copy of this file, you can download it again.)

We installed Lion on both our 2006 Mac Pro and the MacBook Pro, and it worked well enough on both, with some limitations. We could copy and paste text between the virtual and real OS X environments, but not images.

(Image copy-and-paste works in both Windows and Linux virtual machines, but not in OS X VMs.) An attempted video chat in iChat didn't work; the iSight camera appeared as a tall thin black box, without any video in it. However, a video chat via FaceTime worked fine, as did a video call in Skype.

There were other limitations running a virtualised copy of OS X. You can't use more than one monitor, nor video acceleration of any sort. 

However, if you're just looking for a safe place to test software, or to run as a user with none of your typical user's add-ons, a virtualised Lion environment is a great way to get those things done.

Fusion makes it fairly easy to install and run Linux operating systems. You can use run Linux VMs in Fusion's Unity mode, hiding the Linux desktop and making Linux applications windows appear alongside your OS X apps. There's no OpenGL acceleration in Linux virtual machines, though.

VMware also has a collection of nearly 2000 downloadable virtual appliances (ready-to-run configurations of operating systems and/or applications), many of which are free of charge. After downloading, you can be up and running with these systems with a couple of mouse clicks.

To manage your collection of virtual machines, VMware Fusion 4 provides an updated Virtual Machine Library window. This window makes it easy to see the state of your virtual machines at a glance, and you can Control-click on any virtual machine to resume it, modify its settings, and handle other administrative tasks.

The currently-selected virtual machine is clearly highlighted, so there's never any question as to which machine will be affected by your actions. This window hides itself when you launch a virtual machine, which is nice. It'd be really nice if it then unhid when you closed that virtual machine, but it doesn't.

Fusion is a complex program, but Fusion 4 goes a long way to making that complexity easier to manage. For example, the revised Settings panel (used to set each virtual machine's options) resembles that of System Preferences, and is easy to understand and use.

You may be annoyed to find that you can't move this window around. That's because it's not really a window, but an overlay that's locked onto the virtual machine window. At first, we disliked this feature until we opened more than one virtual machine at a time. As an overlay, it's completely clear which virtual machine you're modifying; this wouldn't be the case if the window were freely movable.

For help with Fusion, there's a relatively thorough in-app help, along with some useful online videos (though it'd be nice to see more than the handful that exist now) at the VMware Learning Center.

Snapshots

One of VMware Fusion 4's nicer improvements is in its snapshots feature, which creates periodic (or on-demand) "copies" of a virtual machine. 

(A snapshot represents the state of the machine at a certain point in time, including running applications and open windows.) 

Once saved, you can activate a snapshot and use it at any time you wish. In Fusion 4, saved snapshots are presented in a Time Machine-inspired interface, which makes it easy to move back through a large number of snapshots.

In addition, the Snapshots window clearly shows branches, which are snapshots saved off of other snapshots. Fusion has always offered this ability, but in Fusion 4, it's much easier to see and work with the branches.

This feature is incredibly useful; using it, you can create unique virtual machines within the same virtual operating system. You could, for instance, create an OS X virtual machine running OS X 10.7, save a snapshot, then install the OS X 10.7.1 update, and save that snapshot. You can then save additional snapshots off either the 10.7 or 10.7.1 "branches," keeping two distinct installations going. 

(Of course, any time you activate a saved snapshot, you won't have access to any work you've done within the other saved snapshot.)

Macworld Verdict

Fusion 4 is a nice upgrade from Fusion 3; it's fast and stable, the interface is very Mac-like, and its drag-and-drop installation is about as easy as it gets. The redesigned virtual machine settings and library windows are great improvements over their predecessors. It'd be nice if Linux virtual machines supported OpenGL acceleration, and overall, video acceleration isn't as speedy as it could be. Given the reduced cost (around £25), current Fusion 3 users should upgrade to Fusion 4 to take advantage of its new features and capabilities. If you're new to the virtualisation market, or contemplating switching from another program, Fusion 4 works great for typical Windows office usage, and is a great solution if you're wanting to experiment with other operating systems. About the only area it really falls short in is virtualised gaming and other tasks requiring the fastest accelerated 3D graphics.



Rob Griffiths

Macworld.com

VMware Fusion 4: Specs

  • Apple Macintosh with 64-bit-capable Intel processor (Core 2 Duo, Xeon, Core i3, i5, i7 or better)
  • 2GB RAM (4GB or more recommended)
  • 750MB free drive space for VMware Fusion, and at least 5GB for each virtual machine
  • Mac OS X 10.6.7 or later
  • OS X Lion recommended
  • Apple Macintosh with 64-bit-capable Intel processor (Core 2 Duo, Xeon, Core i3, i5, i7 or better)
  • 2GB RAM (4GB or more recommended)
  • 750MB free drive space for VMware Fusion, and at least 5GB for each virtual machine
  • Mac OS X 10.6.7 or later
  • OS X Lion recommended

OUR VERDICT

The virtualised Linux and OS X experience is neutered by incomplete graphics support; this is the main issue with what is otherwise the most robust and dependable virtualisation package for the Macintosh. Now at half the price of Parallels Desktop 7 for Mac, Fusion 4 is still a useful step up on version 3 and comes recommended.

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