As of today, Parallels is probably your best solution, as it can support up to eight virtual CPUs on an eight-core Mac Pro—Fusion 2.0 can only support four cores on the same machine. In addition, Parallels’ CPU benchmark results in Windows were higher than those for VirtualBox or Fusion on both of my Macs, even with the same number of CPUs. To see the benefit of the added CPUs, I benchmarked a four-CPU Windows XP Pro Parallels virtual machine against a two-CPU Windows XP Pro Fusion virtual machine on my Mac Pro using the CPU portion of the PerformanceTest benchmark. The final score showed the Parallels four-CPU machine outpacing the two-CPU Fusion machine by 73%.
One thing to be aware of is that if you assign all the cores on your Mac to the virtual machine, the performance of your OS X programs will suffer—with all four cores assigned to my virtual Parallels Windows machine on my Mac Pro, I found mouse and window movements to be very choppy, and had trouble switching from one program to the next, as the CPUs were all busy with Windows. But if you’ve got numbers to crunch, throwing as much CPU power as you can at the problem makes a lot of sense.
I am a geeky hobbyist—I want to experiment with a bunch of different operating systems and web applications.
If you want to experiment with a wide range of operating systems and ready-to-use “appliances,” then VMware Fusion 2 is your best bet. The company’s Virtual Appliance Marketplace features nearly 1,000 ready-to-use virtual machines, many of which are completely free. Just download the appliance you’d like to test, launch Fusion, and point it at the downloaded file. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.
VirtualBox can also install VMware appliances format, too, but it takes more effort. The program can read the hard drive, but not the configuration file. So you’ll need to first create a virtual machine, and then point it at the downloaded appliance. It’s not a lot more effort, but it’s not click-and-go either. However, if you really are a geeky hobbyist, you may appreciate this hands-on nature to running the appliances. Just keep in mind that VirtualBox doesn’t support more than one CPU or 3D graphics; if you’re OK with those tradeoffs, perhaps the added setup work is worth the money saved.
I’d like to run OS X Server in a virtual machine.
Both Parallels and Fusion support virtualized OS X Server installations. Being a typical home user, however, I don’t have a copy of OS X Server for testing, and I haven’t looked at how well either programs handles Server. As noted earlier, though, you can download both for free and try it out with your own copy of OS X Server. (As of this writing, VirtualBox doesn’t support OS X Server as a guest operating system.)
I must have native support in the virtual machine for a FireWire device I use every day
Sorry, but none of the virtualization apps support FireWire directly—you can share files from an OS X-mounted FireWire drive, of course, but you can’t connect something like a FireWire scanner directly to a Windows virtual machine. For true FireWire support, you’ll need to use Boot Camp.
I want to watch high definition Windows video files.
If you really want to use high definition video in your virtual machine, the first thing I would tell you is that you really need to do it in Windows XP Pro. I had so many issues with HD playback in Vista in all three apps that it made me long for the days of black and white television and rabbit ear antennas! If you absolutely must have Vista and HD video playback, then Boot Camp is probably your best bet.
With that said, I found that Fusion did the best job with HD video playback in XP Pro. The videos I tried played back smoothly in both windowed and full-screen modes on the Mac Pro and the MacBook Pro. Parallels was close behind, but especially on my MacBook Pro, some videos didn’t play smoothly in full screen mode.
I want to do everything—run Windows games, experiment with new operating systems, run Office applications, and watch high definition video.
So you want, basically, my recommendation on the one virtualization application that’s the best all-around solution? As of today, my recommendation would be VMware’s Fusion 2. VirtualBox, while free, simply gives up too many features to the competition to win an all-around title—but it’s a solid performer for those with basic needs and a minimal budget. Parallels 4 is a solid upgrade with some compelling new features, but the bugs I ran into during my testing and its less-polished DirectX 3D performance relegate it to second place…for now. Going forward, I fully expect that the next round of updates to these three programs will both address current issues and bring exciting new features to the table. A little competition is a wonderful thing!