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First thoughts – VMware Fusion 3 vs Parallels Desktop v5

Posted by Preston on 2009-11-27

As an employee of an EMC partner, I periodically get access to nifty demos as VMs. Unfortunately these are usually heavily geared towards running within a VMware hosted environment, and rarely if ever port across to Parallels.

While this wasn’t previously an issue having an ESX server in my lab, I’ve slowly become less tolerant of noisy computers and so it’s been less desirable to have on – part of the reason why I went out and bought a Mac Pro. (Honestly, PC server manufacturers just don’t even try to make their systems quiet. How Dull.)

With the recent upgrade to Parallels v5 being a mixed bag (much better performance, Coherence broken for 3+ weeks whenever multiple monitors are attached), on Thursday I decided I’d had enough and felt it was time to start at least trying VMware Fusion. As I only have one VM on my Mac Book Pro, as opposed to 34 on my Mac Pro, I felt that testing Fusion out on my Mac Book Pro to start with would be a good idea.

[Edit 2009-12-08 – Parallels tech support came through, the solution is to decrease the amount of VRAM available to a virtual machine. Having more than 64MB of VRAM assigned in v5 currently prevents Parallels from entering Coherence mode.]

So, what are my thoughts of it so far after a day of running with it?

Advantages over Parallels Desktop:

  • VMware’s Unity feature in v3 isn’t broken (as opposed to Coherence with dual monitors currently being dead).
  • VMware’s Unity feature actually merges Coherence and Crystal without needing to just drop all barriers between the VM and the host.
  • VMware Fusion will happily install ESX as a guest machine.
  • (For the above reason, I suspect, though I’ve not yet had time to test, that I’ll be able to install all the other cool demos I’ve got sitting on a spare drive)
  • VMware’s Unity feature extends across multiple monitors in a way that doesn’t suck. Coherence, when it extends across multiple monitors, extends the Windows Task Bar across multiple monitors in the same position. This means that it can run across the middle of the secondary monitor, depending on how your monitors are layed out. (Maybe Coherence in v5 works better … oops, no, wait, it doesn’t work at all for multiple monitors so I can’t even begin to think that.)

Areas where Parallels kicks Fusion’s Butt:

  • Even under Parallels Desktop v4, Coherence mode was significantly faster than Unity. I’m talking seamless window movement in Coherence, with noticeable ghosting in Unity. It’s distracting and I can live with it, but it’s pretty shoddy.
  • For standard Linux and Windows guests, I’ve imported at least 30 different machines from VMware ESX and VMware Server hosted environments into Parallels Desktop. Not once did I have a problem with “standard” machines. I tried to use VMware’s import utility this morning on both a Windows 2003 guest and a Linux guest and both were completely unusable. The Windows 2003 guest went through a non-stop boot cycle where after 5 seconds or so of booting it would reset. The Linux guest wouldn’t even get past the LILO prompt. Bad VMware, very Bad.
  • When creating pre-allocated disks, Parallels is at least twice as fast as Fusion. Creating a pre-allocated 60GB disk this morning took almost an hour. That’s someone’s idea of a bad joke. Testing creating a few other drives all exhibited similarly terrible performance.
  • Interface (subjective): Parallels Desktop v5 is beautiful – it’s crisp and clean. VMware Fusion’s interface looks like it’s been cobbled together with sticks and duct tape.

Areas where Desktop Virtualisation continues to suck, no matter what product you use:

  • Why do I have to buy a server class virtualisation product to simulate turning the monitor off and putting the keyboard away? That’s not minimising the window, it’s called closing the window, and I should be able to do that regardless of what virtualisation software I’m running.
  • Why does the default for new drives remain splitting them in 2GB chunks? Honestly, I have no sympathy for anyone still running an OS old enough that it can’t (as the virtual machine host) support files bigger than 2GB. At least give me a preference to turn the damn behaviour off.

I’ll be continuing to trial Fusion for the next few weeks before I decide whether I want to transition my Mac Pro from Parallels Desktop to Fusion. The big factor will be whether I think the advantages of running more interesting operating systems (e.g., ESX) within the virtualisation system is worth the potential hassle of having to recreate all my VMs, given how terribly VMware’s Fusion import routine works…

[Edit 2009-12-08 – Parallels tech support came through, the solution is to decrease the amount of VRAM available to a virtual machine. Having more than 64MB of VRAM assigned in v5 currently prevents Parallels from entering Coherence mode.]


11 Responses to “First thoughts – VMware Fusion 3 vs Parallels Desktop v5”

  1. Kiyu Gabriel said

    I know you aren’t in tech support here, but would you mind sharing with me how you got networking functional for Solaris 10 in Parallels Desktop?

    Thank you!

    • Preston said

      As I recall, it was by first downloading the absolute most recent version of Solaris 10/AMD (earlier releases were just not suitably compatible), then working through a process defined on a Parallels forum of first installing the network drivers supplied on the Tools image, but then changing directory to the 64-bit directory of the network drivers and copying them on top of the newly installed drivers.

  2. Kiyu Gabriel said

    Thank you very much!!

  3. Wolf said

    Now *that* was an interesting article. Thank you.
    Whatever I have read recently about Fusion 3 vs. Parallels 5 was either heavily biased towards any one of the solutions (as most reviewers already are familiar with one) or technically not thorough enough. As somebody who is using Parallels 4 on his mac but working with VMware on Windows at the office I’ve always thought I might make a mistake, not sticking with one company.

    What I didn’t like with Fusion 1 (yes, One, haven’t had a look at 2, nor 3) was the way the network adapters were integrated in OS X via tun/tap. Has that changed? Or is this still the way the network adapters are implemented? Are you running 10.5 or 106?

    • Preston said

      I can’t say for sure whether the way the network adapters are implemented in Fusion have changed – v3 is the first I’ve dealt with. I wasn’t previously familiar with the TunTap project – referring to their homepage though there’s no /dev/tun* or /dev/tap* devices on my Mac Book Pro, which according to the homepage would indicate the presence of those interfaces, I presume?

      I will be keeping Fusion 3 around, but only for the purposes of running specific EMC virtual systems (and ESX) that aren’t supported in Parallels.

      (FYI, you may want to read my follow-up article about longer term thoughts on Fusion 3 – …and why I’ll stick with Parallels)

  4. RKD said


    Thanks for your article.

    I have used both Parallels and VMware Fusion since both products were pre-release beta (approximately around mid 2006 when the Intel Mac first took hold). In general, VMware has emphasized stability with the core virtualization engine and tends to move at a glacial pace. Parallels tends to rush their product to the market without proper testing. Parallels has heavily emphasized integration with the Mac OS X specifically, VMware has reluctantly followed suite. Both products have bugs, but the core of VMware Fusion has been more dependable for me over the last 3+ years. I prefer to use both products running side-by-side on both my Mac Pro and MacBook Pro. The 2 engines will run side by side quite nicely if you have a fast SSD storage device that holds the virtual machines. I prefer Parallels for my “desktop VMs” that run MS Office and other Windows desktop applications. For the “desktop VMs”, I prefer to heavily integrate with the Mac OS X host in seamless (Coherence or Unity) mode. I usually run VMware Fusion in “window” mode in one of my 16 Mac OS spaces for the purpose of development VMs, ESX, project-oriented VMs, and VMs that I wish to move between PCs and Macs. VMware Fusion runs the virtualized Mac OS X Server much faster than Parallels (but the sound doesn’t function like it does in Parallels). Also, VMware Fusion does a much better job of handling the quirks of old operating systems like NT, 2000, 98 which are from time to time necessary for some of my upgrade work.

    Having both Parallels and VMware Fusion around benefits everyone. Both products have improved nicely. I doubt Virtual Box will ever emphasize integration with the Mac OS as much as both Parallels, then VMware have done. It has its quirks but Virtual Box for the Mac makes for a nice free virtualization tool. Virtual Box is supposed to support Parallels, VMDKs, Virtual Box drives, and Virtual Server/Hyper-V (.vhd) virtual drives, but it doesn’t work in all cases. Virtual Box doesn’t have a straight forward import process unlike the other two products on the platform. I wouldn’t be surprised if Virtual Box is faster than both Parallels and VMware Fusion once they have optimized the newly available SMP technology. For some users Virtual Box will be all they need. I haven’t found a permanent place in my lineup for Virtual Box (amongst VMware Server, ESX, ESXi, Fusion, Xen Server 5.5, XenApp, Parallels Desktop, and Windows 2008 R2 Hyper-V which I all use for different niches), but I could see using it if I wanted a free virtualization solution for a client that was nice and fast and thin.

    It would be nice if you could adjust the 2GB behavior, however the 2GB splitting is still the option I will choose for moving VMs from machine to machine until 1TB USB 3.0 thumbdrives that are faster than current SSDs are commonplace. All my file systems can handle 2TB files, but copying a 30GB to 100GB single virtual disk isn’t always convenient (if you haven’t run into this yet, you will eventually).

  5. RKD said

    BTW, Both Parallels and VMware Fusion will run very quickly in 64-bit kernel mode. I always boot my Mac Pro into 64bit kernel mode. My Jan 2008 MacBook Pro is 64bit but it does not support 64bit kernel mode.

  6. Wolf said

    Can I somehow unsubscribe this thread? I’m not much into RKD’s bragging?

    • Preston said

      Hi Wolf,

      I think you’ll need to check out subscription management –

      RKD – 3 comments in rapid succession on the same topic is a bit excessive for other subscribers of the thread – we don’t need a complete history of both products :-)

      • Wolf said

        Ah yes. Thanks. In hindsight, I should have phrased my request differently. I have nothing against RKD and he has all rights to say whatever he wants. But his statements seem to stress the importance of his setup more than they enlighten me. Sorry about that.

  7. RKD said

    As far as speed, each has their moments. Parallels is snappier for seamless (Coherence) mode fans and has 256GB of video memory. It is faster that VMware Fusion in a lot of areas, but neither product can rightfully carry the title as ‘fastest’ in all scenarios. VMware Fusion is faster with the Mac OS X server, it can be faster depending upon what you are doing inside the VM. For everyday use, Parallels 5 will be faster for most users, Parallels 4 when it was first released was horribly slow and a resource hog, but they have fixed those issues now and Parallels tends to need less resources and is faster in the majority of cases than VMware Fusion is now. VMware will close that gap in many areas, but VMware places less emphasis on fancy features and is less dedicated to making the Windows VM on the Mac to be a complete replacement of bare metal Windows installations. Parallels Extreme desktop for the PC allows direct communication with the video card, so I hope Parallels brings that technology to the Mac also. Don’t expect VMware to surpass Parallels in the implementation of integration features (such as seamless mode). Parallels Desktop 5 is less dependable than VMware Fusion and will sometimes freeze. The nice thing is all you have to do is stop Parallels and restart it and it will pick up right where you left off since the virtual machine is still running in the background

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