An alternative to going to camp. Previewing VMWare's Fusion

Apple's re-invigorated assault on the home network market has been partly thanks to its migration to Intel processors. With that move complete comes the opportunity to run Microsoft Windows on hardware that’s very close to that of a so-called "Wintel" PC. Following the work of some enterprising hackers, Apple released a beta product that supports dual booted systems called Boot Camp.

There are a number of reasons one might want to run both environments: fans of Apple’s designs who run Windows for a living; those who like the lifestyle applications on a Mac but need to run certain Microsoft applications; or creative types who use Macs, but have previously been forced to have a PC sitting in the corner of the office to talk to certain clients. All might welcome the opportunity to take the best of both worlds and run them side by side.

One alternative to Boot Camp that’s been available for some time is the virtualisation product Parallels, which allows you to run Windows and Mac OSX simultaneously without shutting down and rebooting. There may be some compromises, such as USB 2 support, and it will be somewhat slower because the horsepower is shared between the two environments, but with dual core processors around 2 Gigahertz and 2 gigabytes of RAM there’s speed to spare.

Entering Parallels’ virtualization space, VMware is bringing its considerable experience in virtualization to the desktop market. VMware’s product is called Fusion. Like Parallels, it allows you to run guest operating systems on an Intel-based Mac running OSX, and I was pleased to be given the chance to try the technology for myself.

Fusion is currently in Beta, and is also running with the overhead of debug code, so it’s not possible to get a true measure of the performance of the released product, however it is interesting to contrast it with my home desktop PC. The test machine is a MacBook with a 2 Gigahertz Intel Core Duo processor (as opposed to the latest models that use the Core 2 Duo) with 2GB of 667 DDR2 SDRAM. Fusion allows you to create a number of different virtual machines that can be started up as you need them, setting the processor, hard disk and RAM resources available to each. The VMs are pretty straightforward to set up, all of the UI is designed in Apple’s Cocoa environment with the familiar brushed metal look and feel.

Using the Flip4Mac utility you can then start up your VM on one Mac desktop and use function+left or Right arrow to rotate between a Windows and Mac environment and amaze your friends. It’s not completely seamless, you can’t rotate a full screen windows session, as in that mode the keyboard needs to function completely as a Windows peripheral. Moving between Windows and Mac can get a bit confusing, and the “power off” button for the VM sits in the same place on the screen as the new Office button of Office 2007, so occasionally it's possible to shut down the VM when trying to access the Microsoft menu. The safest approach is to hit the “full screen” button on the Fusion taskbar to work in an entirely Windows environment. The system is smart enough to still let you access the OSX application bar or the top menu bar when you mouseover the very bottom and top of the screen.

Overall performance is good, except for graphics, with support at DirectX 8 and slow execution; this is shown up well using Spider Solitaire, where the dealing of the cards is especially laboured, however because the beta is full of debug code it’s impossible to know what the final release will be like.

As the product is in beta, there are also still a few wrinkles that leave Fusion short of being a consumer-ready product, so one has to take on faith the fact that these will be ironed out before final release. For example, when in full screen Windows mode, I couldn’t get Al+Tab to switch applications. I also had trouble finding the shared directory that allows files to be used in either environment, OSX’s spotlight search facility couldn’t find the file either, but I was able to drag and drop to the Mac's desktop. There were also some home networking quirks, If I connected to a shared computer on the network with the Mac, the Windows session didn’t see it.

I also had a go at installing Vista. This was very easy; simply configure a new VM, tell it you’re installing Vista and whether you’re installing from a CD or an ISO image and off you go. It’s important to point out here that Microsoft has elected to change its EULA to restrict virtualisation installs to Enterprise and Ultimate editions, pushing up the cost of a virtualisation approach. There were a couple of warnings on install, one about hardware acceleration for video when playing spider solitaire. Overall it seemed to work, although the graphics support still needs work—I couldn’t select a resolution that gave me a full screen view, and try as I might I couldn’t work out how to eject the install disk when the Vista VM was running.

Apart from a comparison to the already shipping Parallels product, which would be unfair (but you can read one one here) the alternative approach is Apple’s Boot Camp, which is still in beta but widely rumoured to be shipping in the upcoming Leopard release of OSX. Simply stated, Boot Camp allows you to run XP, and now Vista, at native speed on state of the art Intel hardware, and also to use the cheapest consumer versions of Vista.

Of course if you want to jump between applications you have to shut down one operating system and its open applications and start up the other, which is clearly not practical for someone who wants to mix environments, unless their work and home lives are so partitioned that they can guarantee that they’ll only be working in one or the other. An upcoming feature for the next release of Parallels is the use of a Boot Camp XP/Vista install for the virtual machine (subject to the license restrictions noted above), which obviously offers the potential of using either system: Boot Camp where unfettered performance and peripheral support is required, and virtualisation for moving back and forward.

So, overall it’s good to see that there’s some vigorous competition building in the Mac virtualisztion space. Support for Microsoft XP and Vista and the wider choice of applications will be a real boost for diehard Mac users and fashion victims, as well as helping Apple retain core customers in the creative industries and look for new ones in selected markets that were historically locked into the PC, but are prepared to look at alternatives.

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