For those who need (or want) to run Windows (or other operating systems) on their Intel-powered Macs, the leading products in the segment are Parallels Desktop for Mac () and VMware Fusion (plus, there’s also Sun Microsystems’ VirtualBox). A year ago, VMware Fusion was the new kid on the block, with version 1.0 earning four mice in its initial review. Now, VMware Fusion 2.0 is available, offering both bug fixes and many features designed to make running alternative operating systems on your Mac as easy as possible.
VMware has added a ton of features to Fusion 2.0, many of them aimed at easing OS X-Windows integration. As before, you can drag and drop files and folders between Windows and OS X. But now you can also copy and paste formatted text from one OS to the other (not just plain text, as in 1.0).
You can also create mirrored folders: You can set up your Windows virtual machine (VM) so that its Desktop, Documents, Users, and Pictures folders are actually pointers to those same folders in OS X. When you save a document in Word for Windows to the Documents folder, for example, it’ll be saved to your user’s Documents folder in OS X, not to your Windows virtual machine’s Documents folder. As a result, you can access these files at any time from OS X, Time Machine will back them up, and Spotlight will index them. The downside to this mode is that you may be confused by seeing Windows apps on your OS X desktop, and vice versa, and accidentally delete a file you need. (You’ll see Windows files even when Fusion isn’t running.) This feature is off by default, and if you choose to enable it, you’ll need to remember that you’re seeing files from both operating systems in each folder.
As of version 2.0, you can also enable application sharing, which will make programs in your Windows’ virtual machines visible to OS X, and vice versa. You can enable this sharing from OS X to Windows, Windows to OS X, or in both directions. Once enabled, you’ll see Windows applications listed in the Open With section of the Finder’s contextual menu—control-click on an Excel file, for example, and you’ll see an option to open it directly in Excel for Windows. (For this feature to work, the folders in which the documents reside must be shared with the VM.) If you do a lot of work between the two operating systems, this feature can be a real timesaver.
You can share Internet applications in a similar manner. You can specify a default OS X browser or e-mail program, for example, to open the hyperlinks you click on in Windows; the same goes for RSS feeds, Telnet, FTP, and a few other Internet protocols. It’s a bit odd to click a link in Windows and have the OS X Mail program respond, but it works as expected.
Fusion also automatically maps standard OS X keyboard shortcuts to their Windows counterparts: press command-C in Windows, for example, and Fusion will automatically send it to Windows as control-C. You can also define your own shortcuts for Windows keys that don’t have a Mac counterpart.
Finally, printing is now much simpler. Windows virtual machines will now automatically see any printers that are set up on your Mac, and create each one as a Windows printer. Excel spreadsheets and photographs generally printed fine on my Brother multifunction printer, but you’ll get the best results if you install native drivers in your Windows VM. This can be easily done for networked printers, as both OS X and Fusion virtual machines can use them at the same time. USB-connected printers, however, will need to be specifically assigned to your virtual machines. This can be a bit of a pain if you print from both OS X and Fusion virtual machines, as you’ll have to repeatedly assign and release the printer, depending on which OS you’re printing from.
Fusion 2.0 shone in my tests with both Linux and Windows XP Pro; I even found Vista more usable than it had been with the prior version. (XP Pro remains my Windows OS of choice for use on a Mac.) The speed of typical office applications (Microsoft Office 2003 in XP Pro, OpenOffice.org in Linux) was fine, even with image-laden documents and large spreadsheets. Programs loaded quickly, and I was able to run multiple programs at once in both virtual machines without any noticeable slowdowns. For most users, speed won’t be an issue; you’ll likely notice that you’re not running your “real” operating system only when programs in the other OS put maximum stress on RAM or CPU usage—if then.
Overall CPU usage has decreased to the point where you can comfortably leave Fusion running in the background, even with an open (idling) virtual machine. On my Mac Pro, a Windows XP Pro virtual machine sitting open in the background typically used between 3 and 8 percent of my CPU; in the prior version of Fusion, that would have typically been 10 to 20 percent. Fusion also spreads the workload nicely across multiple CPU cores.
When Fusion 1.0 came out, Parallels Desktop for Mac provided better 3-D graphics support (of interest to gamers and anyone who uses DirectX-based 3-D applications). Fusion 2.0 tilts the advantage in the other direction. While both Parallels and Fusion now support DirectX 9.0c with shader model 2, the Fusion implementation performs better than that of Parallels. That means Fusion can run many 3-D Windows programs that Parallels Desktop can’t. (If you need OpenGL support, Parallels still has the advantage there, as Fusion lacks OpenGL acceleration.) I tested a number of recent games, for the most part successfully: A few ran perfectly, and most ran to some degree, with occasional odd colors and graphical glitches.
While Fusion won’t replace Boot Camp for the latest games, it worked very well with older titles. I had no trouble running Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4, Combat Flight Simulator 3, and Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer. Performance in most was excellent—audio was spot-on, and frame rates were generally fine. My game pad and flight stick both worked, as did my steering wheel, albeit without force feedback. Overall, Fusion makes a very good gaming system for old Windows games, though its abilities will vary by title.
I was also able to use some Windows-only 3-D-enhanced Web projects—World Wide Telescope and Photosynth—both of which require good 3-D graphics support in order to run.
If your interests lie beyond Windows, Fusion offers new easy install options for Ubuntu, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and Mandriva Linux variants: Fusion will walk through the install process, and also automatically install VMware Tools during the install. (VMware Tools is a set of add-ons that bring useful features to Windows and Linux virtual machines—with the tools installed, you can resize virtual machine windows via drag and drop, and the mouse no longer need to be captured to be used within the virtual machine.) With Ubuntu and Red Hat (using the Gnome window manager), you can even use Unity mode to integrate your Linux and OS X programs’ windows, and drag and drop is supported between Linux and OS X. I tested the new features with Ubuntu Linux 8.0.4, and found that they worked as well as they do with the Windows-based operating systems; there was even support for multiple monitors. Fusion has also upped the list of supported operating systems; you can now install over 90 different operating systems, including OS X 10.5 Server.
Fusion’s Virtual Machine Library, new in version 2.0, gives you a one-window overview of all your virtual machines. Installed VMs are listed on the left side of the window, with a small screenshot (updated every 10 seconds) of each machine’s screen and its current status. On the right side of the window is a much larger screenshot of the currently-selected VM’s screen, along with the name of the installed operating system and room for some notes. This window makes it very simple to manage multiple virtual machines, as you can see everything you need in one spot. You can even grab a screenshot of a running virtual machine by selecting it in the list, then dragging its large screenshot to your OS X desktop.
Backups and other features
One area of concern in the last version Fusion was its limited support for snapshots—“pictures” of your virtual machine, taken at a given point in time. Snapshots make it simple to roll back the state of a virtual machine; if your VM were ever to be infected by a virus, for example, you could just restore it to a prior snapshot. In Fusion 1.0, each virtual machine supported just one snapshot. Fusion 2.0 allows you to create as many snapshots as you like, and provides a nice interface for managing them. Fusion even uses command-S for the Create Snapshot menu item, making it really easy to create a snapshot whenever you wish.
Fusion also includes AutoProtect, which lets you set up automatic snapshot creation every 30 minutes, every 60 minutes, or once per day. You can also specify how many snapshots you’d like to keep; Fusion then uses these settings to keep a mix of hourly, daily, and weekly snapshots. Once AutoProtect is set, snapshots happen automatically—a dialog appears on your screen during the save, but it only takes a few seconds to create each snapshot.
Other nice additions to Fusion 2.0: Virtual machines can also now support more virtual CPUs—up to four on an eight-core Mac Pro, for example. (Parallels, on the other hand, will support up to eight virtual CPUs on that same eight-core Mac Pro.) There’s a new command-line interface that lets you script interaction with virtual machines—you can automate actions or snapshot creation, for example. A built-in importer tool lets you convert virtual machines created in Boot Camp into standalone VMs; you could (if you wish) remove the Boot Camp partition altogether. There’s also a new disk-resizing tool that can increase the size of your virtual machine’s hard drive. It’ll do so automatically for OS X Server and Windows Vista VMs; Windows XP Pro will still require a disk partitioning app.
One of my chief complaints about Fusion 1.0 was that Unity mode—in which the Windows interface and desktop disappear, and your Windows programs appear to be running directly on your Mac desktop—only worked on one monitor of a multi-monitor Mac. Fusion 2.0 offers much better multi-monitor support. Unity mode now works across all connected monitors; you can drag and drop a Windows application’s window anywhere you like. In addition, you can use full screen mode on just one monitor, or on as many monitors as you have attached (up to eight, according to VMware). Each attached display appears as an additional display within Windows, too, giving you full control over its behavior. In my testing, these features worked perfectly.
Not quite perfect
Technical support, which was an issue with the first release, is still an issue: You get 30 days of technical support (via e-mail) for free when you buy the product, but there’s no phone support available at all. After 30 days, you must either rely on the (admittedly good) online sources, or purchase per-incident support packages. These packages are still e-mail only, and at $25, $70, and $100 (for one-, three-, and five-incident packs), you could quickly spend more on support than you did on the program itself.
Macworld’s buying advice
VMware Fusion 2 brings a host of new features to the table, improves performance across the board while reducing CPU usage, supports more guest operating systems (including OS X Server), and does it all for the same price as the original (and if you’ve already purchased Fusion, it’s free). From handling the Microsoft Office suites to playing many older and current Windows games to making it painless to experiment with other operating systems, VMware Fusion 2 is more than capable of handling nearly any task you may think to throw at it. For a relatively inexpensive $80, you get the current state of the art in OS X virtualization applications.