Virtualization: The Return of Windows

Sorry that it’s been so long since I last posted. Given the current buzz in the Mac community, you’d expect that I’d be posting about the new Leopard operating system. Unfortunately, I haven’t made up my mind to drop coin on an OS upgrade. All the reviews I’ve seen are pretty positive, but it’s still going to take some bigger reason for me to change my Tiger’s stripes to Leopard spots. Since I’m not topical enough to post about Leopard, you’d guess that I’d be posting about the iPod Touch, eh? (No. not that, either.) It has now been over a year since I swore off all things Microsoft, so it’s probably enough distance for me to finally try out virtualization software for the Mac. I decided to take a little adventure and tried both Parallels Desktop and VMWare Fusion — the two most popular virtualization applications for Mac OS X.


If you don’t know what “virtualization” software is, it allows users to run a “guest” operating system such as Windows from within their Mac OS. Simply put, it’s running Windows in a Mac window. If you think about it, it’s a great idea because it gives switchers like us the best of both worlds. Whatever software it pained me to leave behind from the Windows world can now be run on my cool little iMac. Frankly, there wasn’t that much that I felt sad to leave behind (another reason why this virtualization adventure is so late in coming). Nevertheless, you’ve got the software, why not dust it off and put it to use?

You may wonder what happens when you start this guest operating system (aka virtual machine). Well, the installation part is a breeze (which is something more Mac-like than Windows-like, if you ask me). Both Parallels and Fusion have an easy installation mode. You just enter your Windows key number and the application takes care of the rest (it’s actually even easier than installing Windows on a PC). The virtualization application takes care of setting up all your hardware and network connections, as well as sharing your Mac folders with the virtual Windows OS. That means that when you’re in virtual Windows, you can still get access to all your Mac documents as if they were on a networked drive or something (of course, there may still be compatibility issues, depending on the program you try to open them with in Windows).

Once the initial OS installation was done, installing additional applications within the virtual Windows was just like what it was like on a PC. Once I installed MS Office, it ran great (at least on Parallels it did). This brings me to my very short head to head comparison of the two applications. For me (and I stress that last word because I’ve read reviews that differ completely from my experience) there was no contest because Parallels worked smoothly and Fusion was beyond-slow. I gave up installing any software on Fusion because it took me minutes just to open a single folder. I don’t know what went wrong and I probably could have figured it out if I’d invested more time with it, but Parallels had no such problem so why bother? I immediately uninstalled Fusion.

However, there’s not much more to say about how Parallels works other than that it works pretty much just as you might imagine: Windows living within a Mac window. The additional aspect that is really cool is a mode called Coherence (in Parallels, “Unity” in Fusion) that gets rid of the Windows background and other icons and narrows down the frame just around the application window: so except for all the Windows-style frame, bars and buttons, a Windows application in Coherence mode looks like it’s a Mac application (see my little screen grab showing MS Word and Minesweeper as windows next to my iTunes window) — pretty cool, eh?

I also found that the Windows stuff looked even better than I remember (mainly because my iMac has a much nicer monitor than my PC did). Unfortunately, I am going to have to reinstall any fonts that I want to use in Parallels (even though they are cross-system TrueType fonts) — unless I discover a way for Parallels to link to the Mac font folder without needing duplication of the fonts within Windows. Also, my understanding is that the virtual machine is vulnerable to viruses and other malware since it is the Windows system and connected to the Internet (Sigh! Good ol’ virus-ridden Windows … I have absolutely not missed that aspect.)

So, if you’re pining away for some of the software from your Windows days, consider trying Parallels (or Fusion) to keep those applications alive on your Mac. That way you can have your cake and eat it too.

  1. #1 by graceless24 on April 1, 2008 - 1:37 am

    I have a question for you about Parallels… my company is HEAVILY dependent on PC and I am heavily dependent on Macs. Even though there are some programs I need to use on a daily basis for work that are PC only, my boss got me a MacBook Pro when I came onboard… along with Parallels.

    Our IT guy is an old-school “I hate Mac because I don’t know how to use it” guy who swears up and down that parallels isn’t really meant to run programs and that my using programs on it on a daily basis will make it crash. (Which is actually what happened this morning…)

    So do you, or any readers, have any experience running parallels and programs often?

  2. #2 by alving4 on April 1, 2008 - 1:47 am

    Well, I can’t say that I’m an expert by any stretch. I don’t use Parallels every day, and yet it has still crashed for me on occasion. However, I have used MS Office, as well as a number of audio and video conversion applications in my virtual Windows. Whenever I have trouble with Parallels, I tend to write it off as a Windows problem, since I’m not much of a believer in Microsoft. The reality probably lies somewhere in the middle, and probably both Parallels and Windows have a role to play in the problems that arise.

    I wish I could be more helpful, but I am pretty much a virtualization hobbyist. I still believe in and recommend Parallels, but I think its strength is more for the flexibility it provides for the Mac user rather than its ability to be a permanent replacement for a Windows machine.

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