VMware Fusion 6 review

Running Windows on a Mac is made easy by Apple, with Boot Camp built-in. But for more control, and an experience less fraught by the perils and flakiness of booting Windows the native way, there’s always virtualisation. Following very shortly after Parallels’ update to Parallels Desktop 9 for Mac last year came VMware Fusion 6, another gateway to the world of other x86 operating systems from virtualisation-industry heavyweight VMware, Inc.

The core feature set of Fusion is close to that of Parallels, with similar additions in the latest 2013 version 6 to bring it up to date. But while VMware’s product has slipped behind Parallels in some respects there’s still plenty here to make it the go-to choice for virtualising x86 operating systems in OS X.

And in Unity mode (for Windows only), where you lose the Microsoft Windows interface and keep just its windows, program windows also sit easily with native Mac windows when you need to shuffle them with Mission Control. When moving between full-screen desktops, a useful name overlay appears at the top of the screen to show the name of the virtual machine in use.

In the previous revision of Fusion 5, VMware forked the product slightly, adding a Professional-branded version that included a few features of use in larger business installations. And so we have with Fusion 6 the ability to create locked-down virtual machines with restriced access to USB drives and devices, as well as self-expiring VMs that can be deployed with a known shelf life.

Parallels Desktop 9 for Mac review

The Pro version’s other principle feature is in adjustment of network connectivity, so you can lock down a shared or bridge connection from VM to network, or even set a custom ‘Private to my Mac’ network. There’s also the offer to make a Linked Clone of any VM, letting you keep different virtual hardware specs for the same virtual machine, for instance.

VMware Fusion 6: Interface walkaround

The Virtual Machine Library can be set to list or icon view

VMware’s Settings pane for each VM is a model of ease, clearly laid out and based closely on Apple’s own System Preferences interface in OS X. Three rows of icons cleanly show the way to make essential adjustments, such as Sharing, Processors & Memory, Display and Network Adapter.

Retina MacBook displays are supported in both the app and in some virtual machines. In Windows 7, for example, the display scaling is set by VMware tools to 150 percent, although we found 200 percent setting from the Windows Control Panel gave a more comfortable look on a 15-inch MacBook with 2880 x 1800-pixel panel. Linux and OS X guests have the option to use full Retina resolution, although with OS X there’s no chance to select lesser resolutions within the VM, so you must always work with a greatly shrunken interface.

Like Parallels, VMware’s support of OS X guests is limited. Most infuriating is the continued absence of acceleration of on-screen graphics to render the interface correctly. Certain Mavericks apps such as Maps simply don’t work at all. The Mac interface, virtualised on a Mac, has jittery motion and generall looks tatty.

Certain websites cannot even be loaded in Safari, such as Adobe’s Flash plugin download page, which results in background processes quitting on a loop. If you should be able to install the Flash plugin, there is some limited operation available but don’t expect to see moving video from YouTube, for example.

Windows on a Mac

As with Linux, we found USB 3.0 devices were not supported correctly, although unlike Parallels 9 you can now use Copy & Paste from OS X guest to host, while Drag and Drop of files between host and guest and back is also possible. Multi-touch trackpad support is absent beyond two-finger gestures though, so unlike Parallels’ handling in Windows, you cannot use pinch-to-zoom gestures.

For any VM of any platform, Fusion 6 will not recognise natively FireWire or Thunderbolt devices, an area where competitor Parallels has pulled ahead with its latest support. But where Parallels is still restricted to eight virtual CPU cores and 16 GB memory, Fusion 6 has stepped up to VMware’s Hardware Version 10 specification, which allows 16 CPUs and 64 GB memory to be pressed into service. It will also allow up to 8 TB disks and 10 network adaptors.

Again OS X guests are the poor relation here – we found that a Mac VM would only report two processors and 2 GB memory, even after setting more resources in the VM’s settings.

VMware Fusion 6 does better with Linux guests, or at least with Ubuntu up to and including the latest Saucy Salamander version of last October 2013. Here we saw full accelerated graphics support to give a smooth interface.

Fusion 6 allows comprehensive adjustment of each VM’s parameters with an interface based on Apple’s System Preferences in OS X

VMware Fusion 6: Performance

We ran Windows benchmark utilities to compare speed with the previous version of Fusion 5, and also against the latest Parallels Desktop 9. Testing was conducted on an Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, Retina, Late 2012) using Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit SP1 configured with two virtual processor cores and 2 GB memory. There is still no adjustment for the amount of video memory available to a VM, and graphics support is limited to DirectX 9.0EX in Windows (OpenGL 1.2 for Linux). 

Raw memory and processor speed were practically the same for both Fusion versions according to Geekbench 3 for Windows, which averaged 2914 and 2906 points for single-core mode in Fusion 5 and 6 respectively. Multi-core testing mode with two virtual cores enabled averaged 5266 and 5268 points here. Older Parallels 8 scored higher here at 2974/5350 points; Parallels 9 was unable to run the Geekbench 3 benchmark.

Overall system speed was seen to pick up between versions 5 and 6 in the PCMark 7 benchmark, a little below 4 percent faster at 4116 points against 3963. Top speed was won again by Parallels 9 though, with 4412 points.

In our Windows game test with Stalker: Call of Pripyat, Fusion 6 averaged 61 fps (1024 x 768, Medium), a small step up from Fusion 5’s 57 fps – and well ahead of Parallels 9 and its 38 fps result; but importantly the latter was using the more advanced DirectX 10 API which resulted in improved rendering. VMware has yet to code for Microsoft’s more recent graphics API, although most Windows games still run well enough with DirectX 9.

OUR VERDICT

VMware Fusion 6 may not have some of the useful extras now found in Parallels 9 such as Thunderbolt and FireWire support but it remains a powerful and relatively easy to use choice for virtualising Windows and other x86 operating systems. Its support of OS X guests remains poor but not as disappointing as Parallels and it at least adds better integration with the host machine. We also found that VMware is the more trustworthy developer, with none of the default opt-in user tracking seen in Parallels nor its attempts to raid your private address book or open remote-access backdoors. Overall speed of Fusion 6 is fractionally behind Parallels 9 but plenty quick enough for most uses of a virtual machine.

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