Triple Threat: Parallels vs. VMware Fusion vs. Boot Camp

The secret has been out for a while: Vista runs better in many instances on Apple’s Mac hardware than on other PCs. But figuring out the best way to run Vista on a Mac is an entirely different story.

The market now boasts at least three strong ways to go: Apple’s own Boot Camp on the Leopard OS, VMware Fusion or Parallels. The Test Center looked at all three to figure it out.

Quick Clicks: Vista Virtualized

These solutions achieve the same end: getting multiple OSes to run on a single platform; but by different means. VMware and Parallels are of course virtualization solutions while Boot Camp allows for dual-booting.

All three programs were loaded on a spanking new Mac mini, outfitted with Leopard 10.5.2, a 1.83 GHs Intel Core 2 Duo processor and 1 GB RAM.

Parallels Desktop

Parallels Desktop 3.0 for Mac was cake to install. Setting up a Vista virtual machine from loading the CD to the last reboot after the install of Parallels Tools took 37 minutes. Parallels offers control options that are pretty granular: boot sequence, memory allocation and network adapter emulation options are among the configurable features for the virtual machine.

Dragging and dropping between the host OS and guest caused no problems. Too bad that was not the case with USB support. USB support was enabled to “connect to guest OS.” The USB keyboard and mouse worked fine in the VM, but a USB thumb drive went undetected in the VM, and was only detected in the host OS. The network adapter, sound and display drivers were detected and caused no issues.

The Vista VM locked up a few times, with the following message: “An unexpected error code -600.” This crashing ceased after restarting the VM two times.
With Parallels Desktop, a VM can run in Coherence mode. This allows the guest OS to integrate into the Mac OS X environment. For example, when running a Vista VM in Coherence, a separate Window for Vista does not appear on the Mac desktop. Instead, the Vista Start menu becomes anchored as an item on the Dock. This is great way to seamlessly work quickly between Mac and Windows applications.

Want to delete a no longer needed VM? It’s simple in Parallels. Deleting VMs can be done right from the Parallels menu which will evoke the utilitarian-named: Delete Virtual Machine Assistant.

VMware Fusion

VMware Fusion 1.1.2 offers comparable features and functionality as Parallels Desktop. Guest OS is easy to setup, and while creating a Vista VM there were no problems with driver compatibility or network adapters. Before creating a VM, the program gives the option of creating it as read only or write-only, a useful additional feature.

Unity is VMware Fusion’s answer to Coherence. In Unity mode, Windows applications are integrated within OS X.

Performance-wise, VMware Fusion fared a bit better than Parallels. There were system no crashes and less latency working within VMware’s VM.

Reviewers used Primate Labs’ Geekbench tool to do performance testing. Geekbench is not an ideal tool for benchmarking virtualization; it gives a more accurate reflection on natively-run OSes. However, it provided a ballpark barometer for performance. The Vista VM in VMware Fusion scored a slightly higher result: 1504 over Parallels’ 1468.

As the case with Parallels, the Vista OS in Fusion did not recognize a USB device. Also -- one other minor issue -- there did not seem to be a way to delete the VM through the graphical interface. The VM was deleted by having to delete the actual file in the directory structure.

Boot Camp

Boot Camp Assistant makes partitioning easy with a graphical interface to allocate hard drive space for Mac OS X and the additional OS.

To reiterate: Boot Camp allows for multiple booting. Installing Vista with Boot Camp requires an NTFS partition and the actual OS is run. If full Windows functionality like support for USB devices is needed, Boot Camp, may be the better option. The downfalls -- no interaction between OS X and Windows environment and the system has to be restarted to switch between OSes.

Although Apple recommends installing drivers off the Leopard CD, all pertinent drivers were installed without having to do so.

Performance-wise, it seemed that Vista liked running on the Mac mini. Geekbench results averaged an impressive 2040. These are results that are almost equivalent to prior testing of Vista on PCs with double the memory and comparable processors.

Although there were some variances among the three products, testing shows that each solution will get the job done: namely, will allow multiple OSes to reside on one box. For the occasional dalliance into a Windows application, Parallels and VMware Fusion will do, with the performance edge going to VMware. For the full Windows experience in Mac with surprisingly good performance, Boot Camp is the way to go.