VMWare Fusion full review

Back in June 2005, Apple announced that it would switch from a PowerPC based architecture to Intel chips. The first question everybody asked was: “will the new Macs run Windows?”

Apple’s Boot Camp was the first official response to users clamouring for multiple OS support. Allowing you to easily create a dual boot system, the free software guides you through the process of repartitioning your Mac and installing Windows XP or Vista alongside OS X. Dual booting is great up to a point, effectively turning one computer into two. Problem is, you can’t run them at the same time.

VMWare Fusion takes a different route. It allows you to run Windows from within OS X. Like rival product Parallels Desktop 3.0, Fusion emulates PC architecture in software, enabling you to load any compatible operating system as though it were another Mac application. Early beta versions of VMWare Fusion were compared unfavourably to competitors – but this final release impresses on many levels.

Window to the world
For most users, installing Windows will be their main objective in purchasing VMWare Fusion. The package makes it easy, with a wizard-based process. You just insert your Windows disc, select the operating system from a drop-down list that includes Windows 95, 98, XP and Vista, set a virtual hard disk size and enter your product key. Fusion’s New Virtual Machine Assistant does the rest. It’s a slower than installing Windows on a PC, but there’s less messing about and no further data entry from you. After half an hour, you have a fully functional virtual machine running Windows on a Mac.

While Fusion isn’t quite as nippy as Windows running direct from Boot Camp, the speed is still pretty impressive. In Fullscreen mode, you probably won’t notice the difference. Fusion’s ability to be configured for multiple core processors is a big help here – enabling you to dedicate one core to your virtual machine, leaving the other to look after Mac OS.

Fusion impresses most in ‘Unity’ mode though. This allows you to run applications from your Windows installation directly on your Mac desktop. Though they still have the look and feel of Windows apps, they appear in your dock and behave like programs running in Mac OS.

Of course, VMWare Fusion runs more than just Windows, and the company has created a directory of 550 alternative operating systems that are ready to install as virtual machines – some commercial, many open source. Click ‘Download’ in the Virtual Machine Library to access the Virtual Applicance Marketplace. You’ll find full operating systems, ready configured web servers and other dedicated distributions.

Whether you’re running Windows, Ubuntu or Novell Netware, one of the great advantages of virtual machines in Fusion is their portability. Everything, from applications and OS software to virtual disk space, is contained in one file. That makes it simple to back-up the contents of a machine to an external hard drive.

Within Fusion itself, moving files around is easy, with a simulated network share setup between your virtual machine and its host. You’ll have access to all your Mac’s files, as well as its network connections automatically, enabling you to connect to the web or swap documents between machines. More impressively, files can be dragged direct from guest to host. You can even cut and paste content from Mac apps to your programs running in a virtual machine.

Much has been made of the highly configurable hardware support in Parallels. While it’s true that Fusion lacks the ability to add a virtual floppy disk or resize a virtual machine’s drive once created, its controls are intuitive and fairly comprehensive. Fusion gives you access to USB 2.0 ports and bluetooth on your system, alongside all your other built-in hardware – automatically detecting these at installation.

Of course, some of you will be just speed reading to find out whether Fusion can be used to play Halo 3 or other frenetic Windows based 3D blasters. The answer’s complicated. While your Mac supports OpenGL out of the box, Fusion doesn’t. It does, however, have support for Microsoft DirectX, so 3D games – and graphics packages dependent on accelerated hardware – work on machines with dedicated graphics cards. Those machines relying on core graphics capability, like the Mac mini, will simply splutter and give up.

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