VMware, creator of the popular Fusion virtualization application for the Mac, recently introduced Fusion 5. New and improved features include faster performance, Retina support, better power management, and the ability to run Windows 8 and OS X Mountain Lion in virtual machines.
Fusion is now available in two separate versions: Fusion 5 and Fusion 5 Pro. But unlike some software companies that use multiple versions of an app to nickel and dime customers on features, VMware simply added features to the Pro version that IT departments can use to deploy apps and secure virtual environments for their employees.
We're going to concentrate our review on the standard version of Fusion 5, but if you're an IT professional who needs to support multiple Mac clients in a business environment, you may want to pop over to the VMware web site to get the scoop on Fusion 5 Pro.
Fusion 5 - New Features
VMware Fusion 5 is compatible with Snow Leopard and later versions of OS X, but it has been optimized to take the greatest advantage of OS X Mountain Lion. This includes integration with Mountain Lion's Launchpad, so you can launch Windows apps directly from Launchpad; integration with Mission Control, so you can swipe back and forth between your Mac and Windows Desktops; and support for the latest Mac hardware features, including Retina displays and USB 3.
Altogether, Fusion 5 sports over 70 new features. That's too many for us to look at here, so we're going to highlight a few that we think will be of the most interest to most of you.
Fusion 5 offers significantly faster boot-up, shutdown, and suspension of virtual machines. It's not uncommon to spend time waiting around while your favorite Windows OS starts up as a virtual machine. Fusion 5 has made significant inroads into that waiting time; we'd go so far as to call it snappy. A cold boot of Windows 7 took less than 20 seconds on our 2010 Mac Pro. That's easily 10 seconds less than in previous versions of Fusion. Suspending, awaking, and shutting down all show similar improvements.
General performance, as measured using GeekBench 2.3.4, also showed improvements in processor and memory performance. While not as significant as the startup times, the improvements seen here will affect everything you do while using a virtual machine.
Mountain Lion Support
Not only can Fusion 5 take advantage of Mountain Lion's features, such as Launchpad and Mission Control, it can also run Mountain Lion as a virtual machine. If you ever wanted to try something on your Mac, but were leery about the potential results, a self-contained virtual machine can be a real asset.
Retina Display Support
At the time of this review, the only available Retina Mac is the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. But we're sure more models will be hitting the shelves soon. With Fusion 5's support for Retina displays, you'll find that Windows and other OSes will look much better. Without Retina support, the virtual machine would use Apple's pixel doubling system, which while better than nothing, usually produces slightly blurred images, especially text.
Fusion supports Retina display resolutions up to 3360x 2100, but it can also use scaling to run the virtual machines at lower, more useful resolutions.
If your Mac has built-in USB 3, Fusion 5 can take advantage of the increased speeds that it offers, provided the OS being virtualized has native support for USB 3. Currently, this is limited to Windows 8 and specific versions of Linux.
Portable Mac users will see wonderful improvement in battery life with Fusion 5. VMware says you can expect up to 45% longer battery life compared to Fusion 4. But you don't have to use a battery-powered Mac to benefit from the improved power management. Even desktop Macs will perform better with Fusion 5, because it uses modules and services that are fully shut down when they're not actively being used by the virtual machine, leaving more performance power for your Mac to use.
Windows 8 Support
Windows 8 will be released in the fall of 2012, but in the meantime, the pre-release versions of Windows 8 work fine with Fusion 5. This includes support for gestures, hot corners, and other new features packed into Windows 8. Windows 8 was one of the priorities for the VMware team, and while it's too early to benchmark an OS that isn't quite finished, it appears that Fusion will be able to run Windows 8 with aplomb.
Fusion 5 - Installation
VMware Fusion 5 is available in both a retail box and as an electronic download. The boxed version contains a DVD and a USB flash drive, so you can install Fusion 5 on any supported Mac. We admit we're a bit impressed that VMware included a DVD in the box, and not just a USB flash drive.
No matter which method you used to acquire Fusion 5, installation is very simple. Double-click the VMware Fusion installer to start the process, follow the onscreen instructions, and you'll be ready to start using Fusion 5 in just a few minutes. One thing to note: Fusion 5 replaces any earlier version of Fusion you may have installed. It won't remove or harm any existing virtual machines, but it will completely replace the Fusion application.
If you think you may want to continue to use an earlier version of Fusion, be sure to back up the app and any virtual machines before installing Fusion 5.
Using Fusion 5
Fusion 5's user interface has been updated a bit from its previous incarnation and generally, we like the improvements. The Virtual Machine Library window, the basic location for creating, editing, and starting up virtual machines, supports list and icon views of available VMs.
The list view also displays the status of the currently selected VM, including drive space used, snapshots, and how much space can be reclaimed. This is a convenient way to keep an eye on your VMs, and ensure that they don't get too large.
The settings for each VM are controlled with an interface reminiscent of the Mac's preference panels, a nice touch that makes setting up or changing a VM's configuration an easy task. You can use the Settings panel to control all of the details of your VM, including the amount of memory assigned, the number of processor cores to use, network settings, encryption, and how your VM interacts with your Mac.
Fusion and Your Mac
Fusion provides a lot of options for how your VM usage integrates with your Mac. You can control sharing between the VM and your Mac, including selecting folders that can be accessed by both environments. You can also control how the VM looks and feels. You can have the VM operate in full-screen mode, making the guest OS appear just as it would on a dedicated PC. You can operate the VM in a window, which makes it easy to move back and forth between the Mac Desktop and the VM. Or, you can operate the VM in the Unity environment, which lets applications run independent of the VM, and appear as if they were running directly on your Mac. Unity is a handy method for running apps like the Windows versions of Word, Excel, and other common Window apps, and have them appear to be just another Mac app. It's merely an illusion, because you still need the VM to be running, but it's a good illusion, one that can keep you focused on the task at hand and not the environment you're working in.
Creating and Importing Virtual Machines
Fusion includes a Virtual Machine Assistant that can walk you through the process of creating a virtual machine. Fusion directly supports over 200 OSes, so it's safe to assume that most OSes will work with Fusion 5.
Besides creating new VMs, Fusion lets you import existing virtual machines, including those created with Parallels, another popular virtualization app. You can also use an existing Boot Camp partition as a virtual machine.
Fusion can also aid you in making the PC to Mac transition. Obviously, it lets you run Windows apps, but you can also migrate all of your apps, settings, and data from a Windows PC to a virtual PC running on your Mac.
Fusion 5 - Wrap Up
Fusion 5 is without a doubt a nice upgrade for existing Fusion users, especially if you're running OS X Mountain Lion, using a Retina Mac, or planning to use Windows 8 as a VM. And at $49.99, the price is hard to beat. At that price, and with its outstanding graphics performance, Fusion 5 is very tempting even if you already use other virtualization apps, such as Parallels or VirtualBox, which is free.
We also like the fact that you can still choose a boxed version or a download version. There's also a full-featured 30-day demo available, which means you can have the best of both worlds by downloading the demo in order to start working with Fusion 5 right away, and buying the boxed copy to have the DVD and USB flash drive for safekeeping. Once the boxed copy arrives, use its license key to unlock the already installed demo version.
Fusion 5 has a few bumps, such as limited support for USB 3 and limited control over graphics options. For example, you can enable support for 3D accelerated graphics, but you can't assign memory directly to the graphics system. But the hits run circles around the few misses.
If you need a virtualization app for your Mac, VMware Fusion 5 not only deserves a look, but at least 30 days' worth of your time to try it out.