Review: Parallels Desktop 8 vs. VMware Fusion 5

At a Glance
  • VMware Fusion 5

    Macworld Rating
  • Generic Company Place Holder Desktop 5 for Mac

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When you hook up more than one display, both programs let you toggle between using all of those displays in full-screen mode or just one. If you set Fusion to use all displays, and then run Linux or Windows, the virtual OSs will take over all the screens and create their own desktops in Mission Control; OS X uses up just one. Parallels handles Linux and OS X the same way; if you’re running Windows, you can choose to run it in true OS X full-screen mode (a Mission Control desktop is created), or just have it fill all of the displays.

In Linux particularly, Parallels handled the multiple screens poorly: It used only two of my three in full-screen mode, and those two appeared as one ultrawide display. Fusion used all three, and each was treated as a separate screen.

Despite these disparities, both programs actually handle full-screen modes better than Apple’s own apps when you have more than one display. Those apps fill one screen and leave the rest blank. Fusion even offers a cool mini-toolbar (when running Windows) that lets you drag the full-screen window to any of your other displays.

Parallels issues notifications when you send special keystrokes to Windows.

Both apps also now work with Notification Center. Fusion will use it to send Fusion-related messages, such as a notification of an available update. Parallels goes further: It will notify you not only about updates, but also when you do things such as sending special keystrokes to a Windows virtual machine.

In theory, Parallels will also pass along messages generated by Windows 8’s new toast notifications technology. However, in testing with Messages, a supposedly toast-enabled Start app that ships with Windows 8 (not the IM client that ships with OS X Mountain Lion), I was unable to get these to work. Given that Windows 8 isn’t shipping yet, and that Parallels has stated that full Windows 8 support isn’t yet complete, that failure isn’t surprising.

Neither Parallels nor Fusion offer in-app settings to control which notifications you see; you’ll have to use OS X’s Notifications System Preferences panel to fine-tune their behavior.

If you wish, both programs will also integrate Windows apps into OS X’s Launchpad. In Parallels, you can add any individual Windows program to the Launchpad by Control-clicking its Dock icon and choosing Add to Launchpad, as you would with any OS X app. Fusion has an option to show Windows programs in Launchpad, but it didn’t reliably find all my Windows apps.

Parallels 8 adds this toolbar button to Safari, making it simple to open any site in IE for Windows.

Parallels 8 has some other Mountain Lion-specific features, but one in particular caught my eye: It adds a new Open in IE button to Safari’s toolbar.

This button comes courtesy of a Safari extension that’s installed when you install Windows, though you’re not asked about it during that process. If you do a lot of work with cross-platform testing or development of websites, the button is a great timesaver: One click, and you’re looking at the current Safari page in IE for Windows. (It’s easy enough to disable if you don’t want to use it, but I would prefer to be asked before programs modify other programs during installation.)

Parallels also supports some Mountain Lion gestures, including pinch-to-zoom, swiping between full-screen apps, and two-finger scrolling. (Swiping works only when you’re in Parallels’ Coherence mode (again, when each Windows app is treated just like any other stand-alone Mac app.) In my testing, these gestures generally worked well, though not consistently in all apps. You can’t, for instance, pinch out and scroll between tabs in IE, as you can in Safari.

Unrelated to Mountain Lion, Fusion includes a revamped virtual machine library that lets you organize your virtual OSs into folders, and you can choose between icon and list views; you also get an at-a-glance view of each virtual machine’s disk space and snapshots. They’ve also addressed one of my pet peeves: Snapshots (which record the current state of your virtual system, making it easy to restore or recreate) now get their own window, which means I don’t need to stop working just to browse my snapshots. There’s a new one-click snapshot feature, too, which makes taking a snapshot as easy as possible. Finally, an embedded help center contains a series of how-to videos that cover many basic Fusion tasks.

Bottom line

Given the similarities in features and performance between these two programs, deciding on one or the other isn’t easy. If your needs include gaming in virtual Windows installations, Parallels is the preferred option. Similarly, Fusion is the one to get if you love experimenting with lots of different virtual OSs, thanks to VMware’s huge library of ready-to-run OS “appliances.”

Beyond that, it comes down to some little things. Fusion, for instance, manages app windows better than Parallels, while Parallels offers better gaming and 3D performance.

Then there is the issue of cost. At this time, Fusion 5 is selling for $50 (no upgrade pricing), and Parallels for $80 (or $50 if you’re upgrading from an earlier version or “crossgrading” from Fusion). More significantly, Parallels uses a per-machine license. A two-license version is $100, but you’ll need licenses to cover each Mac you use. Fusion, on the other hand, allows one license to cover as many Macs as you personally use. So if you’re in a multi-Mac household, Fusion could save you a bunch of money.

Still, both are excellent programs, and you can’t go wrong either way. Thankfully, both have free trials available, so you can download and try them out to see which works best for you.

Updated 10/01/12 to clarify the options for installing an OS X virtual machine.

At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating
  • Generic Company Place Holder Desktop 5 for Mac

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