VMWare: New kid on the block

Editor’s Note: This is part three in our five-part series looking at the best software for running Windows on Intel-based Macs.

VMWare has been providing virtualization software for Windows users for years. VMWare Fusion, which has been available as a free public beta since late December 2006 (I tested build number 36932), is the company’s first Mac product.

Fusion is still in beta. No ship date for a final version has been announced. Given that, many features are missing or incomplete.

Installation

Like Parallels, Fusion installs with a standard OS X installer. But when it comes to installing Windows, you have to run Windows’ installation program yourself. Fusion supports 19 different versions of Windows, from 3.1 through the 64-bit versions of Windows XP and Vista. You can also install Linux systems (including Red Hat and SUSE), Novell’s Netware, Sun’s Solaris, FreeBSD, and MS-DOS.

Fusion’s other key differentiator is its support for what VMWare calls “virtual appliances”—preconfigured bundles of operating systems and applications that you can download and install with a few mouse clicks. For example, I downloaded MindTouch Deki, which lets you collaborate on documents wiki-style. I expanded the archive and then double-clicked on the resulting file. The appliance booted its operating system, configured itself, and was ready to use in about a minute (see “Virtual Appliance.”)

If you’ve ever wanted to test-drive Linux, a Fusion virtual appliance is far and away the easiest way to do so.

Software support

Running Windows apps in Fusion is much like running them in Parallels: for the most part, they just work. I found the speed in both Word and Excel to be more than acceptable; I was able to scroll through a long Word document from top to bottom in roughly the same amount of time it took me to do so while running Office 2004 in Rosetta on my MacBook Pro. Pirates of the Caribbean 2 played as well as it did in Parallels.

Fusion has a full-screen mode, too, but nothing like Parallels’ Coherence mode. You can move files and folders between OS X and Windows via drag and drop, but setting up a shared documents folder is much tougher than it is in Parallels.

Hardware support

Fusion’s hardware support is mixed. It supports Bluetooth if you install Apple’s Boot Camp drivers. Like Parallels, Fusion will let you use your Bluetooth mouse within each program; unlike Parallels, Fusion lets you bind new Bluetooth devices to the virtual machine. And Fusion supports both cores in Intel Core Duo chips. In its latest release, VMWare has added “experimental” support for accelerated 3-D graphics, which worked just fine in my testing.

On the downside, Fusion has no FireWire support, except as a source of shared folders on a hard drive. I couldn’t get my Wacom graphics tablet to work.

Who it’s good for

Overall, given that this is still a beta release, I was impressed with Fusion. It’s got a ways to go before it’s a polished Parallels competitor, and it isn’t ready for people who need a stable, full-featured Windows environment. But it’s a good start.

VMWare Fusion beta (Build 36932)

Pros: Prebundled “appliances” let you quickly install useful preconfigured systems and applications; uses both cores in Core Duo chips; can run 64-bit Windows.
Cons: Tricky to set up shared folders; plenty of beta issues; sketchy USB support; no FireWire support; no accelerated graphics.
Price: free (for beta)
Company: VMWare

[ Senior Editor Rob Griffiths runs the MacOSXHints.com Web site. ]

Virtual Appliance: VMWare’s virtual appliances are fully configured and ready-to-run software programs—such as MindTouch Deki, shown here—that you can download.
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