Parallels Desktop 8 vs VMWare Fusion 5: The usability & comparison report

Parallels Desktop 8 and VMware Fusion 5With the recent release of both Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac and VMware Fusion 5, it’s time again for a refresh to my previous article comparing the previous versions, Parallels Desktop 7 for Mac and VMware Fusion 4.

This time, both focused a lot in supporting both OS X Mountain Lion and the upcoming Windows 8. What I’ll try to cover in this article is to explore both Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac as well as VMware Fusion 5 and hopefully provide you with the insight to decide between the two virtualization options for the Mac. And if you are existing users or either VMware Fusion 4 or Parallels Desktop 7 for Mac, I would also aim to help you decide if you should just upgrade to the latest version or perhaps make the switch over from either one.

This article won’t however attempt to be a comprehensive product review, but instead focused on some of the main features and functionalities that impressed me the most, while comparing both offerings the best I can. I’ll also be primarily comparing the two using a Windows 8 Release Preview virtual machine. Alright, so let’s just get on with it!

Installing Parallels Desktop 8 and VMware Fusion 5

Installing both VMware Fusion 5 and Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac is a breeze, even if you already had an existing version on your Mac, the installer will just remove the previous copy and install the new copy over with all the existing configured virtual machines intact. It really is pretty seamless on both parts.

1. User Interface

If you are going to use the software a lot, it should very well be pleasant to look at too. A sight for sore eyes I’d say. Let’s take a look and see if VMware Fusion 5 or Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac would fare better here, even before we look at the capabilities of the two.

VMware Fusion 5: Virtual Machine Library

First up, you would see that VMware Fusion 5 continues to retains how VMware Fusion 4 presents all the virtual machines that your have configured for it. There is however a slight difference when you use the list view where the preview section on the right pane now also shows status of the VM’s storage, ala Mac OS X Lion and iTunes. While I do not like the general aesthetics (or the lack of it) of the Virtual Machine Library view, I do like that you can view to storage space usage directly from the preview pane and have a quick access to reclaim unused storage space of the virtual disk.

Parallels Desktop 8 Virtual Machine List

Parallels Desktop 8: Virtual Machine List

Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac on the other hand continues to use a simple but effective list of your virtual machines with a live thumbnail view of the virtual machine. And with the latest release, you can now see in real-time the CPU and RAM resource use for each of the virtual machine that are running. You can get that by clicking in the information icon marked with an ‘i’ on the bottom right of the list.

VMware Fusion 5: VM ConfigurationVMware Fusion 5: VM ConfigurationVMware Fusion 5: VM Configuration
VMware Fusion 5: VM Configuration
 

VMware Fusion 5 continues with the new configuration panel introduced in the previous version, which is very good. I like how it’s attempts to be consistent with the OS X’s System Preference menu. Most of the details of the settings are pretty self-explanatory too, which is good. However, I would have preferred for the settings for the processors and memory be more graphical. But it’s not really a downside since you would usually only need to edit them once.

VMware Fusion 5: Application Menu

VMware Fusion 5: Settings bar and Application Menu

The other thing that I like with VMware Fusion 5 is the quick access to the settings on the top bar. It also disables out the settings that cannot be changed when the virtual machine is running. Simple but clever indeed! While the Application Menu does what its suppose to do, I feel that it’s a little inconsistent with Windows 8 which no longer has a Start menu. But for Windows 7 or below, its fine.

Parallels Desktop 8: VM ConfigurationParallels Desktop 8: VM ConfigurationParallels Desktop 8: VM Configuration
Parallels Desktop 8: Virtual Machine Configuration panel
 

Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac however is a little disappointing when it comes to the configuration panel. Except for the general panel which is pretty intuitive, the UI for the advanced options are pretty ‘old’. For example, see if you can figure out how to add a new virtual hard disk to the VM. The “+” button is not exactly very intuitive unless you are already familiar with such a ‘technical’ UI.

Parallels Desktop 8: Settings bar

Parallels Desktop 8: Settings bar

Thankfully, it did a lot better with the settings bar, providing quick access to settings and configurations that you may want to change such as network settings, DVD mounting, etc, similar to VMware Fusion 5.

Parallels Desktop 8: Start Icon in Coherence mode

Parallels Desktop 8: Start Icon in Coherence mode

One that that’s also changed for Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac is how it has changed the way the ‘Start Menu’ is presented with a Windows 8 virtual machine. Since Windows 8 no longer has a ‘Start Menu’ per se, a start icon on the menu bar is used instead to allow you to have a quick access to the Windows Start Screen. The cool thing is that this is only available in Coherence mode, which make perfect sense since you won’t need this additional icon cluttering your menu bar in the other modes.

So in respect to the User Interface, I’d say both has its pluses and minuses. Although I still prefer Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac over VMware Fusion 5 primarily because of the VM list UI which you’d see quite a fair bit of, I’d give both equal points here.

2. Navigation

In respect to navigating around Windows 8, I’ll jump ahead and say that Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac wins hands down. VMware didn’t even have a chance at all.

Parallels Desktop 8: Switching views

Parallels Desktop 8: Switching views

Firstly, it has a Sticky Mouse feature. It’s hard to show it via photos but its a feature which makes the mouse cursor stops at the edge of the screen if the mouse is moving slowly around the edge of the window. This makes it a lot easier to access the Windows 8 ‘Hot corners’. Otherwise, you’d probably only run Windows 8 in full screen or Coherence mode. This is unfortunately true for VMware Fusion 5 which does not have a similar feature.

With Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac, you can now quickly switch views to Coherence mode as well with the Coherence mode button just to the left of the Fullscreen mode button.

And Coherence mode on Parallels is just awesome. It works really well, especially with the Start Icon on your menu bar. A fullscreen Windows 8 application will present itself as if it’s a full screen app on Mountain Lion and a windowed app just how it should be.

Parallels Desktop 8: Coherence Mode

Parallels Desktop 8: Coherence Mode

See how coherent (pun not intended) everything is. It truly does make it feel seamless in experience and blurs out the boundaries between OS X Mountain Lion and Windows 8.

Parallels Desktop 8: Applications and Launchpad

Parallels Desktop 8: Applications and Launchpad

It also allows you to Add your Windows applications to the Launchpad if you regularly use it to launch your applications. Personally, I prefer to launch applications by using Spotlight or a utility application like Alfred.

Parallels Desktop 8: Spotlight integration

Parallels Desktop 8: Spotlight integration

And thus, the fact that Spotlight (and Alfred too) is able to find and launch applications within the Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac‘s Windows 8 VM is just awesome.

Unfortunately, Windows 8 support on VMware Fusion 5, despite it being one of the key highlights of the latest version, isn’t as good as you’d hope it to be, especially in its Unity mode.

VMware Fusion 5: Unity Mode

VMware Fusion 5: Unity Mode fail

If you look at the screenshot above, you’d see how VMware Fusion 5 is not able to handle full screen applications as it should have. As you can see, the Messaging app which I launched from the Start Screen stays where the Start Screen was (Desktop 1). Worse still, it totally messes up the windowed application that is PCMark 7 which was previously running. And going into Mission Control don’t help too. You’d see the full screen Messaging app being rendered over the PCMark 7 window. I’m sure VMware would fix this eventually, but till then, you’d just have to use the full screen or single-window mode.

Notification Center support

Notification Center support

The other thing that Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac trumps over VMware Fusion 5 is the integration with Notification Center. On Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac, it hooks on to Windows 8’s own notification APIs and converts it into a OS X Mountain Lion notification message! So notification from say the Messaging app that’s running in the background would pop up into the Notification Center, just like any Mac apps would. On VMware Fusion 5, you’d only see notifications from VMware Fusion 5 itself as the application, not any applications from the virtual machines it’s running.

So, in terms of getting around Windows 8, I hope you see why I think Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac just beats the crap out of VMware Fusion 5.

3. Performance

If you are looking for a comprehensive synthetic benchmark between Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac and VMware Fusion 5, check out the Mac Observer which posted an article here that put both to the test. Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac came out tops in most of the benchmarks.

This is somewhat inline with my observation as well. While I generally do not believe in comparing real-use performance using synthetic benchmarks like PCMark 7, I wanted to have the comparisons anyway. I also thought that I should provide at least one using a pretty dated MacBook Pro such as mine which is a mid-2010 13″ MacBook Pro.

My MBP's specifications

My MBP’s specifications

The only difference is that I’ve swapped out the HDD and Superdrive with an Intel 320 series 300GB SSD and a Samsung 830 series 256GB SSD. The Parallels Desktop 8’s VMs are located on the Intel SSD and the VMware Fusion 5’s VMs are located on the Samsung SSD. Both SSDs are running (limited) at the same SATA 2 speeds so the different locations would not affect the scores.

My result? Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac scored 1973 PCMark Score and VMware Fusion 5 scored only 1571 PCMark Score.

To be honest, I was surprised at the score. I expected Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac to be faster but I also expected VMware Fusion 5 to be trailing not that far behind. I suspect VMware Fusion still has a huge room for improvement in terms of its support for Windows 8 and can further optimise its drivers. And to have a go with a 3D-based game, I tried installing playing a game called ARMED! which was available on the Windows 8 Store. Both ran it extremely well without any slowdown. Pretty impressive considering that this is running on an aged NVidia 320M chipset! This is a definite improvement over Parallels Desktop 7 and VMware Fusion 4.

Windows 8 game: ARMED!

Windows 8 game: ARMED!

Now, putting synthetic benchmarks aside, both Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac and VMware Fusion 5 actually ran Windows 8 pretty well on an old MacBook Pro like mine. I’m aware that this is a pretty subjective statement. But from the usability point of view, 10 PCMark score advantage don’t mean squat in real world use. All I can say is that it runs fine. I can run apps with minimal slowdown on both Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac and VMware Fusion 5.

On the subject of boot-up, suspending and resuming time virtual machines. I feel Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac is faster than VMware Fusion 5, even with both running off SSDs. On boot time, VMware Fusion 5 trails pretty close to Parallels Desktop 8, but on suspending and resuming, Parallels Desktop 8 is almost instantaneous!

So in terms of performance, Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac takes the crown again. But having said that, VMware Fusion 5 is actually pretty fast too!

4. Guest OS support

This is probably where VMware Fusion 5 has a clear advantage over Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac. VMware has traditionally always had better support and compatibility with a whole slew of guest OS support.


As you can see, the list of supported Linux distributions is pretty comprehensive. And support for eComStation?! Wow! I bet most of us here don’t even know what that is!

Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac on the other hand has always been primarily focused on supporting the Windows platform. Sure it does a little Linux (Ubuntu) and obviously OS X too. But there’s always an emphasis on Windows. And it shows. That’s why Parallels always comes up better against any other virtualization solutions for Windows support on the Mac.


The list of Linux distribution is shorter but it still includes most of the popular ones in use today.

So if you are looking for better guest OS support for your work, then VMware Fusion 5 would work better for you. Otherwise, if you are primarily looking for a solution to host your Windows platform on your Mac, then I’d recommend Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac.

5. Other awesome features

Here are some other great features that’s worth highlighting from VMware Fusion 5 and Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac.

First off, VMware has come a long way in the virtualization industry and with that comes a very extensive ecosystem of virtualization partners. One of the great outcome of this ecosystem is a very extensive catalogue of pre-built VM solutions available off their VMware Solution Exchange. This is extremely useful if you are looking to run an application appliance of sorts, such as a WordPress server for instance. No installation required, just download the VM and run it immediately!

VMware Solution Exchange

VMware Solution Exchange

The other thing that’s also great with VMware Fusion 5 is its comprehensive ability to import 3rd party virtual machines. VMware Fusion 5 supports importing virtual machines from Parallels Desktop, Microsoft Virtual PC as well as Open Virtualization Formats .ovf and .ova files.

VMware Fusion 5: Importing VMs

VMware Fusion 5: Importing VMs

Next, let’s take a look at the other notable features that Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac has to offer.

I like how you can easily create a new virtual machine from the Parallels Wizard. Creating the Windows 8 virtual machine was as easy as clicking on the “Download Windows 8″ option and clicking through the few dialog boxes after. Then it will automatically download the Windows 8 Release Preview ISO and proceed to set up the virtual machine. There’s also the Convenience Store which will allow you to easily purchase a license for Windows OS to run on your virtual machine if you do not already have a license to do so.

Parallels Desktop 8 Wizard

Parallels Desktop 8 Wizard

Parallels Desktop 8: Powersave Mode

Parallels Desktop 8: Powersave Mode

I’ve also discovered that Parallels has a nifty Powersave Mode which automatically activates every time you plugged out from the A/C supply.

Very useful indeed, especially if you are running this on your MacBook all the time. And as it says, Parallels Desktop will automatically disable some nonessential animations in order to help extend the battery life of your MacBook Pro.

Parallels Desktop 8: Open in Interner Explorer

Parallels Desktop 8: Open in Interner Explorer

Another interesting feature that’s unique to Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac is the addition of an “Open current page in Internet Explorer” button on Safari.

This simple button is immensely useful if you have to deal with a lot of web applications that supports ONLY Internet Explorer, such as your corporate HR system or medical insurance claims system perhaps.

Other notable features of Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac includes the ability for you to keyboard language synchronisation between your Windows VM and the host OS X, a presentation wizard that automatically puts the Powerpoint presentation into a full-screen view and disables both OS X and Windows screen savers, and support for Mountain Lion’s Dictation as a native input in Windows VMs as well!

Parallels Mobile

Parallels Mobile

Lastly, Parallels also has a mobile application, Parallels Mobile, that basically allows you access all your Parallels Desktop 8 power virtual machines from your iPad or iPhone. The app is currently available in the App Store for a special price of US$4.99.
Parallels Mobile - Parallels, Inc.

One interesting note that was pointed out to me during the briefing of Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac that I attended was that with the new iPad which has a Retina display, it would be the best display to ‘run’ Windows 8 on! Imagine that. :)

So, all in all, Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac has an extensive set of useful features to offer.

Conclusions

If you are deciding between Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac and VMware Fusion 5, I’d easily recommend going with Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac, especially if you plan primarily run Windows OS on it. Otherwise, if Linux is the primary platform you are looking to support, then VMware Fusion 5 is perhaps the better choice.

If you are an existing Parallels Desktop 7 for Mac user, is it worth the upgrade? My take is that if you are looking to run Windows 8, then I highly recommend upgrading to the latest version. Otherwise, I’d probably recommend a different upgrade options such as an SSD upgrade instead for a better boost in the VM performance.

If you are an existing VMware Fusion 4 user, it’s still worth upgrading to VMware Fusion 5 if you like VMware’s offering. However, if you want to run Windows 8, then I’d suggest looking to hop over to Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac instead. There is a $30 off Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac when you switch from VMware Fusion.

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