It's an undeniable fact that more Apple products are finding their way into the workplace. The wildly successful iPhone and iPad have been steadily making inroads into the enterprise. According to aJanuary 2012 Forrester Research survey of more than 10,000 information workers, more than 21 percent of them are using Apple products in the workplace. Apple's global share of the PC market has also been increasing over the past few years, reaching a high of 5.2 percent of worldwide computer sales, according to an analyst cited by GigaOM (gigaom.com/apple/mac-making-a-move-in-the-enterprise-grew-44-percent-in-q3).

The net result of Apple's inroads into the workplace is that more IT professionals will be tasked with helping support Macintosh users, so having a way to run virtualized Windows applications on a Mac can come in handy. For that reason, I decided to take a look at Parallels Desktop 7 for Mac and VMware Fusion 4.1, the latest versions of the two leading hardware virtualization products available for Macs.

My test machine for this comparative review was a 15" MacBook Pro running OS X 10.7.2, with 4GB of RAM, a 2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, a 300GB hard drive, and a discrete NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics chipset. Astute readers might recognize this MacBook as the same test machine I used to compare VMware Fusion 2.0 and Parallel Desktop 4.0 in the comparative review "VMware Fusion vs. Parallels Desktop." I specifically wanted to use the same machine to see how well both products have improved after nearly three years of ongoing refinement and improvements. I'm happy to say that both products have improved significantly since then, but which one has the edge? Let's find out.

Parallels Desktop 7 for Mac

Parallels Desktop was first released in 2006 and has been steadily updated since then. The latest release, Parallels Desktop 7, is benefiting from those years of updates and revisions. Installation is slick and polished, and a new Parallels Wizard feature (as well as the included tutorials) makes installation a snap -- you can even purchase and download a copy of Windows 7 directly from within the setup program, which obviates the necessity of chasing down Windows installation disks. One noteworthy feature of Parallels Desktop 7 is that you can install the Windows 8 Developer Preview directly from within the application, a feature that VMware Fusion lacks. As Figure 1 shows, the Windows 8 Developer Preview option is in the lower right corner.

Figure 1: Parallels Desktop 7 VM creation screen
Figure 1: Parallels Desktop 7 VM creation screen 

One of the most impressive new features is the integration of multi-touch gestures (introduced in OS X 10.7 Lion) into Windows 7. This feature works across other Windows applications as well. For example, it worked seamlessly with a trial edition of Microsoft Office 2010 that I installed. Other noteworthy features include the ability to use the Mac launch pad for Windows applications and share Mac OS X devices.

Parallels claims that it improved 3D performance in this latest release -- a claim I was eager to test using the Windows version of the game Quake 4. Parallels Desktop 7 supports up to 1GB of video memory per virtual machine (VM) and enhanced audio support (up to 192kHz). It also supports the Windows 7 Aero interface. Overall, Parallels Desktop 7 has significantly improved in this area, and its performance approaches that of native Mac applications. However, office workers with fairly intense 3D hardware requirements (or Mac gamers looking to play Windows games on the side) will still be better off with a native PC with a fast discrete graphics card.

Besides testing 3D performance, I tested the Windows 8 Developer Preview using the built-in option. It installed and loaded without any problems. I have to admit it felt strange using multi-touch gestures to navigate through the Windows 8 Metro-style interface, but the multi-touch gestures generally work, given the hardware limitation of my admittedly long-in-the-tooth test machine. Overall, VM performance was faster than I remember with previous versions, so Parallels has clearly done its homework here.

Both Parallels Desktop 7 and VMware Fusion 4.1 support USB devices, but only Parallels Desktop 7 offers an Enterprise Edition (for more than 100 annual licenses). This edition adds improved policy support for deployments and enhanced licensing options.

Parallels Desktop 7 for Mac
PROS: Fantastic 3D performance; improved stability over previous versions; speedy I/O and disk throughput; offers enterprise version with more IT-focused support features
CONS: Interface isn't quite as polished as VMware Fusion's interface
RATING: 4.5 out of 5
PRICE: $79.99
RECOMMENDATION: With superlative 3D performance, an available enterprise edition with enhanced functionality, and an integrated Windows 8 Developer Preview VM installation option, Parallels Desktop has emerged as the leading Mac virtualization product.
CONTACT: Parallels • 888-811-2489 or 425-282-6400 • www.parallels.com

VMware Fusion 4.1

I initially began my testing with VMware Fusion 4.0, but VMware Fusion 4.1 was released in the middle of my review process. Version 4.1 is a definite improvement over version 4.0, as the latter had some bugs and speed issues. Version 4.1 fixes those problems and brings other improvements, including changes to the native Lion full-screen mode.

Installing VMware Fusion 4.1 was quick and painless, and the video tutorials on the welcome screen make creating the first VMs a straightforward process. Both VMware Fusion 4.1 and Parallels Desktop 7 have improved their installation processes over the years, but VMware's approach seems more streamlined and effective, especially with video training just a mouse-click away.

VMware Fusion 4.1 introduces a host of new features, including improved security options. For example, you can encrypt and password-protect VMs. Like Parallels Desktop 7, VMware Fusion 4.1 offers improved support for multi-touch gestures in OS X Lion. VMware Fusion 4.1 now utilizes the standard Lion full-screen button used in non-VM Windows, a change that makes switching to a full screen while running VMs much more intuitive. Based on my testing, both programs offer about the same level of multi-touch support, so neither program emerges as a winner in that department.

VMware Fusion 4.1 supports the Windows 7 Aero interface. VMware has revamped the way in which VMware Fusion 4.1 handles Windows applications, so managing program windows and VMs has a much more Mac-like feel. I prefer the way that VMware approaches handling programs and VM UI windows over the approach used by Parallels. This is largely a matter of personal preference, though.

VMware Fusion 4.1 boasts improved graphics performance, but Parallels Desktop 7 still has a slight edge over VMware Fusion 4.1, especially in the area of 3D graphics and games. VMware has made great strides in this area over the past few years -- and the gap between the two competitors has narrowed significantly -- but Parallels still wins the performance crown.

I ran Ubuntu Linux 11.10 on VMware Fusion 4.1 (see Figure 2) and Parallels Desktop 7. Both products ran Ubuntu without any problems. Performance was slow in spots, but I attribute that to aging test hardware rather than any inherent performance deficiency in either product.

Figure 2: VMware Fusion 4.1 running Ubuntu Linux 11.10
Figure 2: VMware Fusion 4.1 running Ubuntu Linux 11.10 

VMware Fusion 4.1
PROS: Polished full-screen interface options; easy integration with existing VMware virtualization products; vastly improved 3D performance over earlier version of the product
CONS: Still trails Parallels Desktop in overall speed and performance, especially in running 3D applications
RATING: 4 out of 5
PRICE: $49.99
RECOMMENDATION: VMware Fusion comes very close to matching the 3D performance of Parallels, and even exceeds it in some areas. IT shops with lots of VMware licenses might find it more convenient to stick with one vendor, and some people might prefer VMware's interface approach over the approach used by Parallels.
CONTACT: VMware • 877-486-9273 • www.vmware.com

Two Great Products

After a few weeks of testing, it became clear that consumers are the real winners here. In my original comparison of these products a few years ago, I remarked how competition had improved both products considerably. It was true three years ago, and it's still true today. I picked Parallels Desktop as the winner in my last comparison, and my decision remains the same today. You can't go wrong with either product, but Parallels Desktop once again wins by a nose.