The latest version of VMware Fusion, virtualization software that allows Mac users to run Windows and other operating systems from within OS X, has just been released. If you are already a Fusion user, is the new version worth the upgrade? If you’ve never used virtualization software, is now the time to start?
We hope we can help you answer those questions with our in-depth review and performance benchmarking of VMware Fusion 5.
There’s a lot to cover in our Fusion 5 review and, as a result, this article is a bit longer than our normal fare. For those interested only in specific portions, such as our benchmarking results, we’ve added a table of contents. Simply click a link below to be brought directly to the desired section.
- The History
- Fusion 5’s New Features
- Installation & Migration of Virtual Machines
Reviewer’s Note: VMware offers both standard Fusion and Fusion Professional, which has additional features for business and enterprise customers. This review focuses on the consumer-targeted standard version of the software.
After Apple announced in 2005 its plans to transition its Mac computer line to Intel processors, the idea that perhaps users of future Macs would be able to virtualize Windows, and other x86-based operating systems, took hold. PowerPC-based Mac users had previously been able to run Windows via software such as Virtual PC but, due to the different underlying processor architectures, Windows on the Mac was emulated, a far slower and less capable implementation than today’s virtualization.
Mac users with a need to run Windows waited in anticipation for the first Intel-powered Macs to arrive, which they did in January 2006. By April of that same year, Apple released Boot Camp, a method by which Intel-based Mac owners could divide their hard drive into separate OS X and Windows partitions and then choose which operating system to launch when they booted the computer.
Boot Camp offered a native experience, meaning that Windows would theoretically run just as well on a Mac as it would on a PC with similar internal hardware components. This was a good solution for gaming or other applications that demanded peak system performance, but it was inconvenient; users who needed to access only one or two Windows applications were forced to leave OS X, reboot their Mac, and boot into Windows. There was, as yet, no solution for running the two rival operating systems side-by-side.
Just a few months later in June 2006, however, Parallels, Inc., a software virtualization company, launched Parallels Desktop for Mac (Parallels). Parallels gave Mac consumers the first commercial option for running Windows from within OS X. Users could now switch seamlessly between operating systems and enjoy “the best of both worlds.”
About a year after the launch of Parallels, virtualization giant VMware entered the consumer virtualization market on the Mac and launched VMware Fusion (Fusion), a direct competitor to Parallels. Where Parallels brought the novelty of Windows virtualization to the Mac, Fusion brought experience and stability.
VMware makes dozen of products for creating, managing, and distributing virtual machines in multiple environments, from single home users to multi-thousand employee enterprises. Fusion fit nicely into this ecosystem and allowed users of existing VMware products to move virtual machines and configurations back and forth between systems.
Since those early days over five years ago, both Parallels and VMware have updated their Mac software products on a roughly annual basis, engaging in a “tit for tat” competition: one company will announce a new feature or faster performance, and the other company will shortly thereafter meet or exceed the first company’s effort.
This back and forth has been both good and bad for consumers; it has spurred innovation and development dramatically, to the point where some tasks run just as fast from within a virtual machine as they do natively, but it also means that customers are asked to pay for an upgrade year after year if they want to keep up.
With the topics previously discussed in mind, VMware has just released Fusion 5, and Parallels will soon be releasing Parallels Desktop 8.
NOTE: Due to the fact that we don’t have Parallels 8 in hand yet, today we’ll be reviewing and benchmarking Fusion 5, but only as it compares to Fusion 4, a native Boot Camp installation, and OS X. Once Parallels 8 is released next month, we’ll be able to perform head-to-head comparisons.
Fusion 5, released August 23, brings a significant number of new features to the application, including:
Windows 8 Compatibility
Prerelease builds of Microsoft’s latest, and arguably most controversial, operating system worked in Fusion 4, but some features were missing. Windows 8’s hot-corner and full screen application navigation was frustrating on Fusion 4 as the software did not handle mouse gesture controls properly. There were also many graphical glitches when using Fusion’s “Unity” mode, which blends Windows and OS X and lets you view and manipulate Windows applications as if they were native OS X apps.
Fusion 5, coupled with the RTM build of Windows 8, works nearly flawlessly. Full screen applications display properly, and the new gestures that control the user interface work as Microsoft intended them to on dedicated PCs.
For users of the new MacBook Pro with Retina Display, Windows on Fusion 4 is an ugly experience. Like many non-Retina applications, everything is pixel-doubled to scale up to the MacBook’s 2880-by-1800 resolution. The result is a “fuzzy” look that is certainly manageable but hard to ignore.
Fusion 5 not only improves the UI elements of the Fusion front-end, but also the way Windows looks. Users have the choice to run Windows at up to a 3360-by-2100 equivalent resolution (which is due to the way that Apple uses GPU scaling on its high-resolution display), but they can also run the OS at a more reasonable and easier-to-see resolution, such as 1920-by-1200 or 1680-by-1050. Even at these lower resolutions, Windows looks much better on Fusion 5.
USB 3.0 Support
Apple has finally joined the USB 3.0 bandwagon and added the high-speed interface to its new line of MacBook Pros and Airs. Fusion 5 takes full advantage of USB 3.0’s speed and the increase in file transfer performance when using compatible hardware can be dramatic, as you can see in our benchmark results later on.
Mountain Lion VM Support
With the launch of OS X 10.7 Lion last summer, Apple for the first time allowed the client version of its operating system to be run as a virtual machine. While there were various unsupported workarounds to run previous versions of OS X as virtual machine, only the server editions of OS X prior to Lion could officially be virtualized.
Now that Mountain Lion has launched, Mac users can run multiple virtual versions of both Lion and Mountain Lion from their Mac. Software testers, application developers, and even standard consumers who want a portable OS that they can take with them from Mac to Mac will all enjoy this feature.
Faster Boot and Suspend Times
Booting a Windows virtual machine can often take a fair bit longer than booting a dedicated Windows PC. VMware has sought to address this in Fusion 5, and we found that the time to boot, suspend, or resume a Windows virtual machine was significantly faster compared to the same virtual machine in Fusion 4.
On a MacBook Pro with a solid state drive, our Windows 7 x64 virtual machine running in Fusion 5 cold booted in 17 seconds, compared to 29 seconds in Fusion 4. Suspending the virtual machine took about 5 seconds in Fusion 5, compared to 13 seconds in Fusion 4. Finally, resuming a suspended virtual machine took 10 seconds in Fusion 5, and 18 seconds in Fusion 4.
Note that the speed of the drive in your Mac has a significant impact on the ability of Fusion to access the virtual machine. Our fast SATA III solid state drive produces times that are good for comparison with other Macs equipped with SSDs, but owners of Macs with traditional hard drives should expect notably longer times across the board.
Better Power Management for Portable Macs
Fusion 5 has been tuned to be significantly more power efficient, meaning that MacBook users running virtual machines while on battery power will get a longer running time with Fusion 5 over Fusion 4.
VMware advertises a battery life improvement of over 100 minutes. We only achieved an additional 53 minutes of battery life in a Windows 7 virtual machine, but adding nearly an hour of running time is still something that mobile users will appreciate.
Better Virtual Machine Organization
Fusion 5 features a new Library view that lets users quickly assess the state of multiple virtual machines and organize them into folders. Most Fusion users will have just one or two virtual machines and will not find much use in the way that the new Library is organized. For those users with dozens of virtual machines, however, it is a significant improvement.
We should note that we refer to Windows 7 almost exclusively in this article, as that is the operating system that the majority of Fusion purchasers will run in the short and medium-term future. However, Fusion 5, like its predecessors, can run dozens of different operating systems, including server and client versions of Windows all the way back to Windows 3.1, multiple varieties of Linux, Unix, and even MS-DOS.
Installing new virtual machines is as simple as it gets in Fusion 5. Using either an operating system installation disc or image, Fusion walks the user through the setup of the virtual machine, allowing configuration of hard drive space, the number of processors, the amount of RAM, and the level of 3D graphics performance.
Once those selections are made, the virtual machine boots and begins the installation of the operating system itself. This process can vary based on the OS but, in our case, a Windows 7 x64 virtual machine was set up and installed in about 15 minutes (Again, the speed of our Mac’s SSD played an important role in this process. Users with traditional hard drives should expect longer installation times).
Users with existing virtual machines can also import them into Fusion 5, regardless of whether they were created with older versions of Fusion or with competing products like Parallels or Virtual PC. Users with a preexisting Boot Camp partition can also access it as if it were a virtual machine, giving users the convenience of accessing their Windows data from within OS X while still maintaining the option to boot natively into Windows when necessary.
As we mentioned earlier, Fusion 5 is noticeably faster at booting, suspending, and resuming virtual machines. It also offers far better Windows 8 performance and compatibility than its predecessor.
In a Windows 7 environment, however, we didn’t notice significant performance improvements. As our benchmarks later on will show, there is a slight overall improvement in graphics, memory, and processing capabilities, but they would be hardly noticeable to someone using Fusion to occasionally access a Windows-only productivity application or do anything else in Windows that doesn’t tax processing or graphical limits.
One area where a huge performance increase is evident is USB 3.0 file transfers. As our benchmarks demonstrate, Fusion 5’s support for USB 3.0 devices is crucial to anyone who needs to access data from external drives. Note that this feature is only useful on new Macs with USB 3.0 capabilities. You’ll also need a USB 3.0 compatabile external device in order to see the benefit of faster file transfers.
Battery life, as discussed above, is certainly improved with no loss in performance. That may be reason enough for some users to upgrade. Overall, however, Fusion 5 performs well and has become a suitable platform for quickly accessing Windows-based applications, data, and even certain games. There is still a performance difference between Windows in a virtual machine versus a native installation of Windows, but that difference has narrowed dramatically since the first version of Fusion over five years ago and, for some users and some applications, may hardly be noticeable.
It’s time to examine Fusion 5’s performance with our suite of benchmark applications. Parallels 8 is just around the corner and we will have a full examination of its new features and benchmarks when it launches. For now, however, we’ll focus our efforts on an examination of the performance differences between Fusion 4, Fusion 5, a native Boot Camp installation, and, in the instances where a benchmark was available for all platforms, OS X.
Our testbed is a 2012 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display running at 2.7 GHz with 16 GB of RAM on a 256 GB SSD. Our benchmarks will test the 64-bit version Windows 7 Professional in a virtual machine on both Fusion 4 and 5, a separate installation of Windows 7 Professional in Boot Camp, and OS X 10.8.1 Mountain Lion.
Windows 7 Professional Running in a Virtual Machine via VMware Fusion 5
Our virtual machines were configured to access four processors out of the MacBook Pro’s eight logical processors and 4GB of RAM. The virtual disks were sized at 32GB configured as single, pre-allocated blocks.
Each benchmark was run at least twice on each platform. If second result was within five percent of the first, we averaged them. If there was a greater than five percent discrepancy, multiple tests were run until the abnormal result could be identified and discarded. The remaining accurate results were then averaged and reported.
NOTE: Our MacBook Pro has 8 logical processors, but our virtual machines were only set to four processors to prevent a conflict over system resources between OS X and the virtual machine. To mitigate the effect of four additional processors in our native Boot Camp and OS X tests, we configured the benchmarks to only use four processors, where possible.
All tests were performed with all non-essential applications and services disabled to maximize performance.
Cinebench is a multi-platform benchmarking utility that is based on Maxon’s Cinema 4D rendering software. It tests OpenGL graphics performance and multi- and single-CPU rendering capabilities.
Longer Bars are Better
Longer Bars are Better
Longer Bars are Better
As you can see from the charts, the way that Fusion 4 and 5 handle the rendering capabilities of the Mac’s CPU is roughly the same. Both versions of Fusion fall short of performance in Boot Camp and native OS X in multi- and single-processor tests.
There is, however, a noticeable improvement in OpenGL performance, with Fusion 5 scoring approximately 20 percent higher than its predecessor.
Another multi-platform benchmark, Geekbench tests only computational and memory performance, not graphics. We ran the 64-bit version of the benchmark, as we had 64-bit operating systems in all scenarios.
Longer Bars are Better
We can clearly see that Fusion 5 does not bring discernible improvements to a virtual machine’s processing power, at least from the perspective of a Geekbench test. Fusion 5’s score is nearly identical to that of its predecessor, and both trail native OS X Geekbench performance by about 12 percent.
Passmark’s PerformanceTest benchmark examines many areas of overall system performance, including tests on CPU power, 2D graphics, 3D graphics, disk speed, and memory. We ran all tests except for the CD/DVD test, as our test MacBook Pro doesn’t have an optical drive.
Longer Bars are Better
Here we see decent performance improvement in most areas, although once again there is a noticeable gap between Fusion 5 and native Boot Camp, especially in memory performance, where both versions of Fusion score very low.
Futuremark’s PCMark benchmark, like PerformanceTest, attempts to assess a system’s overall performance by looking at areas such as productivity application response times, webpage loading, graphic manipulation, storage speed, and 3D rendering.
Longer Bars are Better
Fusion 5 outscores Fusion 4 in all categories, but not by a wide margin. The Productivity portion of the benchmark, which tests word processing and spreadsheet applications along with responsiveness in loading and accessing web pages, and is something that a large number of Fusion customers would use Windows for, shows no significant performance difference between Fusion 4 and 5.
3DMark06 is Futuremark’s DirectX 9 gaming benchmark. While the nVidia GPU in the MacBook Pro is capable of utilizing up to DirectX 11, 3D performance in virtual machines is still limited to DirectX 9 support so we used 3DMark06 for a head-to-head comparison.
We ran all 19 tests from the Professional Edition of the benchmark at the default settings of 1280-by-1024 resolution and no anti-aliasing. A system’s performance is broken down into an overall 3DMark score, a ShaderModel 2.0 score, a ShaderModel 3.0 with high dynamic range rendering score, and a CPU score that tests the processor’s ability to handle gaming components like advanced AI determinations and complex physics.
Longer Bars are Better
3D performance has been an important goal for companies that make virtualization software, and huge improvements have been made over the years, to the point where older or less-demanding games can now be credibly played from within a virtual machine.
Fusion 5 brings some additional performance for gaming, but still falls far short of native graphical capabilities. While we may one day see GPU performance from a virtual machine that is on par with native performance, we have a long way to go and serious gamers should plan to keep their Boot Camp partition around for a while.
CrystalDiskMark measures the ability of software and hardware to read and write to a disk, as well as the speed of the disk itself. It tests sequential and non-sequential reads and writes and reports its results in megabytes per second.
For our test we used the 2012 MacBook Pro with Retina Display, which is part of the first generation of Macs with USB 3.0 support, and a Lexar JumpDrive Triton USB 3.0 flash drive. We ran the benchmark from within Fusion 4 and Fusion 5, and the results are below.
Longer Bars are Better
As you can see, Fusion 5’s USB 3.0 support allows us to reach full USB 3.0 speeds. For small files like office documents the improvements may not be noticeable. However, for anyone who needs to move large files, or a large number of files, Fusion 5 can save a significant amount of time.
Fusion 5 is a nice step forward in the virtualization arena. Users of Fusion 3 or lower who wish to stick with VMware’s platform should feel comfortable upgrading.
For VMware Fusion 4 users, the decision is a bit more complicated. Aside from improved battery life and boot times, there is no significant performance improvement between Fusion 4 and 5 when running Windows 7. Users who plan to stick with Windows 7 for at least the next year may therefore not find value in the US$50 upgrade.
However, users planning to use Windows 8 should absolutely consider the upgrade, as Windows 8 performance under Fusion 5 is significantly better than that under Fusion 4. Owners of Retina-enabled Macs, or users who frequently access virtual machines while on battery power will also find the upgrade worthwhile.
In the end, Fusion 5 is a definite step forward. How large of a step, however, depends on your needs and choice of virtualized operating systems.