VMware Fusion 4 full review

Until recently, VMware and Parallels had nearly identical features, and even had release schedules that practically synchronised each year.

But VMware seems to have slowed down its development of Fusion, letting Parallels take the limelight as the go-to virtualisation for the Macintosh. That doesn’t mean VMware Fusion is a spent force – far from it. Fusion 4 has some important distinctions from the Russian upstart that can make it more attractive to some users.

The core functionality of Fusion 4 remains unchanged, allowing you to run virtualised images of x86 and x64 operating systems within Mac OS X. As with Parallels, the focus is very much on Windows, although Linux and UNIX systems can also be installed.

But unlike Parallels, VMware does not provide any Linux OpenGL graphics acceleration. Which is a shame, as it means all the latest user interface effects – such as the Unity interface in Ubuntu – cannot be viewed and utilised. 

And unlike Parallels which allows you to divert buckets of memory to the graphics adaptor, up to 1GB in fact, Fusion gives you a fixed amount; for example 256MB for Windows 7.

VMware advertises Fusion 4 with more than 2.5x faster 3D graphics than Fusion 3. We ran a simple test of our usual FEAR test at Maximum detail settings. The hardware was the same MacBook Pro 2.4GHz – although this time the test was on a Windows 7 rather than XP VM. We still saw a faster result though, moving from 16 frames per second to 22fps.

There is some love for non-Windows operating systems in the form of ready-made Linux/UNIX VM images, downloadable from VMware. And because the company is a long-time specialist in professional and enterprise virtualisation, there’s a large selection of pre-configured VMs available.

VMware Fusion 4: New features

The first change for VMware Fusion 4 is found in the installation process. Unlike earlier versions of Fusion and competitor Parallels, which require an install process that scatters files across your system after gaining admin privileges, Fusion 4 just asks you to drag the app from its disk image to your drive; typically your Applications directory.

The Virtual Machine Library window is now laid out in a grid rather than vertical list, and servers as a more centralised launch centre for installed virtual machines.

When changing the settings for each VM, a panel that’s reminiscent of OS X’s own System Preferences glides into view in the centre of the VM’s display. This gives a great overview of all settings available, including one we’ve been waiting to see for some time: USB device global preferences.

By default, every time you plug in a new USB device, Fusion would ask if you wanted to connect it to the host or VM computer. This process gets tiresome when you have VMs running in the background or on different desktop spaces, and you must click through VMware’s splashscreen on every new thumbdrive you plug in. Now, under USB & Bluetooth/Advanced USB Options, you can elect to have any new USB device always connect to the Mac, or always to the VM. It saves much frustration.

Redesigned is the Menu Bar that appears in full-screen mode. This can appear on the screen left, right, top or bottom, a small black tab with handy shortcuts to Settings and other options. We set it to Automatically Hide and Show, out the way on the screen left edge.

Full-screen mode is supported in the new Lion fashion, from diagonal arrows in the top-right corner of a VM window. Strangely the VM will expand into the same desktop space it started in, rather than create a new Desktop as Lionised apps normally do. We actually find VMware’s scheme more convenient than Apple’s as you can still work in the adjacent monitor in a dual-display setup.

VMware Fusion 4: Lion on Lion

Perhaps the biggest new asset in VMware Fusion 4 is the ability to create and run virtualised versions of OS X itself. The main hindrance to this in the past has been Apple’s OS license agreement, which forbade the virtualisation of its client operating systems (OS X Server is not restricted in this way). Those terms changed with OS X Lion, paving the way for first Parallels and now Fusion to support the setup.

But just like Parallels 7, and as with VMware’s support of Linux, there is no graphics acceleration included. This leaves the virtualised Apple OS feeling somewhat slow and juddery, as so much of the Mac interface is normally accelerated by Quartz Extreme, which offloads screen rendering to the GPU. Additionally, QuickTime video and Flash video are off the menu.

Also sadly lacking are most of the gesture controls available to OS X through a trackpad. You can use two-finger scrolling though, which is an improvement on Parallels support.

A feature that has matured nicely is Snapshots. This combines the best of Apple’s Time Machine incremental backup system, with Microsoft’s System Restore insurance, that lets you return a Windows box back to an earlier state.

NEXT PAGE: Original Macworld review >>