Update (Sept 7): Check out the latest my usability and comparison report of VMware Fusion 5 and Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac here now!
Update (Aug 31): I’ve just gotten hold of both VMware Fusion 5 and Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac. So do check back soon for an update to this article in about a weeks time after I’ve had some time with both of them. For now, you may want to check out my first impressions of Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac.
It’s without a doubt that the very recent release of VMware Fusion 4 and Parallels Desktop 7 for Mac has invigorated the on-going comparisons between the two popular virtualization solutions for Mac users.
Both has its own merits and depending on your expectations and needs from the virtualization solution, both choices will deliver what it promises to you.
Now that it has finally been released, a fairer comparison can now be made between the two.
In writing this article, I would be looking for the strengths of both VMWare Fusion and Parallels Desktop. And in each of those strong points, I would also compare what the other has to offer. And I’d also summarize to a few key decisions makers on which solution you would eventually choose.
I would not however be listing down all the features and functionalities and then compare them side-by-side. I would also not rely on synthetic benchmarks to compare the performance between the two. Instead, my assessment would be from the usability point of view, which IMHO just makes more sense.
So let’s start with VMWare Fusion 4 and where it excels.
1. VMware Fusion: Vast guest operating system support!
First up, I believe one of VMware Fusion 4‘s best point (and well, VMware in general) is its supportability of many popular guest OS.
This is perhaps one of the main reason why you would want to run VMWare Fusion, instead of Parallels. I mean, it even officially supports Novell NetWare! And on a personal basis, I do need to run a Solaris guest OS at times to run tests for work and only VMWare allowed me to run Solaris 11 Express without any issues.
So, if being able to run a vast array of operating systems as the guest OS is important to you, then look no further. VMware Fusion 4 would be on of your best choice in this area, especially so if you need to OSes other than just Windows, OS X or Linux.
But wait, what about Parallels Desktop 7 then? Well, if you just need to run Windows, the various popular Linux distributions (I’ve personally tested Ubuntu, Fedora, and Red Hat and they work fine) and OS X, the Parallels works well too. However, when I tried to boot Solaris Express 11 on Parallels Desktop 7, it just hung at the boot-up screen. It didn’t even go all the way into booting up the Solaris image where I can then proceed to install the OS!
2. VMWare Fusion: Great Linux support for Unity view
To be honest, this feature took me by surprise. It looks and works really great. And this is perhaps where VMware Fusion 4 has been able to excel pretty well against Parallels Desktop.
Basically, what this allows you to do is to have Linux applications run as if it was part of the Mac OS X OS. You can also see from the screenshot on the right how VMware Fusion 4‘s Applications Menu would also display the Linux guest OS’ Applications menu.
Very cool and really useful if you use quite a number of linux-based applications in your line of work.
I have however only managed to test this on a Red Hat based VM image and did not fully test this on other Linux distributions, such as Ubuntu or even SuSe Linux. However, I would think that all major Linux distributions would work just the same.
This Unity mode however is not supported on Sun Solaris if you are wondering.
As for Parallels Desktop 7, it’s Coherence mode on Linux (such as Ubuntu) was kinda weird.
If you see the screenshot on the left, you’d notice that the Ubuntu’s menu bar is still visible right below the host OS X menu bar. Not only that, you can also see Ubuntu’s bottom bar as well. Also, you would need to log into Ubuntu using it’s classic mode without any visual effects. (See the Parallels Knowledge Base here)
While it works well and in my humble opinion still maintains a better integration to Lion and also having better visual performances (dragging the Linux application window on VMware Fusion 4‘s Unity mode is pretty choppy), having the guest Linux OS’ menu bar on the Mac desktop is just weird and inconsistent with the Coherence experience on Windows. I’d think that they could have done something similar as how it would work on Windows!
3. VMWare: Better and more consistent settings menu
This is yet another area that I like how VMWare has put in a little more effort that Parallels did. Sure, setting up the VM instance usually only happens a few times in it’s lifetime. But it sure don’t hurt to have a Settings menu that looks easy to understand and is also consistent with the OS X’s System Preferences menu.
It even works almost like the OS X’s System Preferences menu including the categorization of the setting types and also how the menu animates into and out of a setting as well as the ‘Show All‘ button at the top left corner of the menu. Exactly like OS X.
Compare this to the configuration menu of Parallels just on the right and you’d see how different they are. This is definitely one area where Parallels Desktop 7 can further improve on its usability.
Sure, you and I may argue that this is hardly used. But it never hurts to have a configuration menu that is easy and intuitive to use.
Also, it takes a little effort to find the configurations and settings that you want to change or tweak in Parallels. This is because you would need to browse into the (only) 3 categories of settings and look for it.
Let’s take the example of the virtual machine encryption settings in both VMware Fusion 4 and Parallels Desktop 7 to illustrate my point. In VMware Fusion 4 (left screenshot), the settings menu has a dedicated icon to display its Encryption settings and clicking it shows a simple menu to turn it on or off.
And for Parallels Desktop, you would need to hunt for the settings in Options -> Security -> Encryption.
4. VMWare Snapshots and Parallels Smartguard
The snapshot feature on both VMware Fusion 4 and Parallels Desktop 7 works pretty much just the same and as expected. However, on the visual front, I think VMware Fusion 4‘s implementation of Snapshots is pretty cool. Just take a look at the screenshot below and you’ll see what I mean.
Again, VMWare used the familiarity of the Mac’s look and feel, in this case, Time Machine’s, and incorporated the visual concepts into the snapshot feature. Parallels Desktop 7 on the other hand just displays the snapshots in a sequential fashion, works as expected, but nothing more and nothing less.
So that’s for VMware Fusion 4‘s strong points where I felt that it was just better than Parallels Desktop 7 for Mac.
However, the following are still where Parallels fared better as compared to VMware Fusion 4. Most of it had been described here in my other article on 3+1 Reasons why Parallels 7 wins VS VMWare Fusion!
1. Parallels 7: Much better integration with OS X Lion
Sure, VMWare was designed with OS X Lion in mind too and it does play nicely with Mission Control. But hey, why then is the Full Screen view not based on OS X Lion’s Full Screen view mode? As you can see from the screen shot below, you can see that the VMWare Fusion’s full screen mode is just takes over an existing desktop and not as its own screen in Mission Control.
What this means in real life usage is that potentially, you could have an application window hidden behind the running virtual machine in full screen mode.
Parallels here does not have the same issue because it acts like how OS X Lion would have all its full screen capable apps to be. Truly taking up a full screen and nothing else resides in the screen.
2. Parallels 7: When it comes to Windows VMs, Parallels is still much faster
VMWare Fusion 4 is definitely faster than its predecessor. In fact, the performance of a Windows VM running on VMWare Fusion 4 seems almost as fast as running on Parallels Desktop 7.
However, when it comes to boot up time and suspend/resume timings, Parallels Desktop 7 is simply just way faster. It’s crazy to think that Parallels Desktop 7 was able to boot up my Windows 7 virtual image in a little more than 1 minute. Even more impressive is how fast it was able to resume a Windows 7 VM, in a matter of seconds that is!
Coherence mode also works much faster compared to Unity mode which still feels a little sluggish.
3. Parallels 7: Has an awesome mobile solution
The Parallels Mobile application has come a long way to be its current awesome version that it is today.
It basically allows you to view all your available virtual machines in Parallels Desktop 7 right from your iPad or iPhone. Not only that, you can also run then off your iPad or iPhone and suddenly, you have Windows 7 running on your device! Well, sort of.
But not only that, I’ve also just discovered with the latest version of Parallels Mobile, you can now also control your host OS, that is your Mac itself! So you don’t need to purchase yet another remote desktop solution for your iPad to take charge of your Mac.
For VMware Fusion 4, you basically would rely on the VNC remote desktop terminal that can be enabled for your virtual machine. However, you would then need to purchase your own VNC viewer app for your mobile device.
In summary, the choice is really yours to make
Yup. With VMWare Fusion 4, things are quite on par again. And that’s a good thing. That means Parallels Desktop is getting some solid competition and therefore is forced to innovate further! And that’s always a good thing for consumers like you and me!
So, if all you would be running is a Windows virtual machine so that you can run those Windows applications and games, then Parallels Desktop 7, IMHO, is the better choice.
But, if you are in the need of running more that just Windows virtual machines, dealing with a lot of non-Windows environments, like Linux and Solaris, perhaps VMware Fusion 4 might be a better choice.
Either one you choose, both would provide you with a stable and reliable VM experience. As for me, I have both Parallels 7 Desktop and VMWare Fusion 4. Why? Parallels Desktop 7 runs my Windows 7 VM due to its better performance and compatibility with OS X Lion, and VMware Fusion 4 runs all my work related VMs for development and product testings due to the portability of VMWare’s images and its superior OS compatibility.
Please Google +1 my article if you think it was useful. Thanks!