Virtual-machine software lets you run Windows on a Mac

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By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 3, 2010

One of the more competitive desktop software categories today was nearing extinction a decade ago, even though there's now much less need for it than there was back then. It's funny how the software business works sometimes.

The programs in question let you run Windows on a Mac -- not as a separate system to select when you start up the computer, an option provided by Apple's free Boot Camp software, but within the regular Mac OS X desktop. In 2000, the only such "virtual machine" software was Connectix's capable but painfully slow Virtual PC; today, you can choose from two commercial alternatives and a third, open-source program, all of which run Microsoft's operating system about as fast as many non-antique PCs.

All three of these programs -- Parallels Desktop, VMware Fusion and VirtualBox -- recently received major updates, all three can open virtual installations of Windows created by one another, and the two non-free contenders offer free trial downloads and discounts to buyers switching from the other. Their developers obviously want your business. But as was the case a year ago, all their efforts haven't yielded a clear winner among them.

With all of these tools, a few restrictions and disclaimers apply. First, you need a Mac with an Intel processor and at least 2 gigabytes of memory (you can try using them with less, but you won't enjoy it). Second, don't expect to get the same speed that Boot Camp provides, especially when it comes to games. Third, you need your own copy of Windows; if you use one that came with a computer, you will violate the terms of Microsoft's license and are likely to get nagged about it by Microsoft's "validation" software. Fourth, a virtual copy of Windows can still get real Windows viruses -- but at least they can't infect your Mac's software.

Parallels Desktop for Mac 5, $79.99 (, represents the latest version of the first virtual-machine program to take advantage of Apple's switch to Intel processors. It needed less memory and ran a little faster than Fusion and (especially) VirtualBox, fully supported the "Aero" graphics effects in Windows 7, and even managed to limp through the punishing Resident Evil 5 graphics benchmark routine.

But this feature-dense program can be trickier and fussier than its competitors. Importing a Windows installation from another PC (an appealing option to somebody switching from a PC to a Mac, since it brings over all of your documents, settings and programs, too) required some acquaintance with networking jargon, and I couldn't get an import from a Boot Camp partition to work at all. Too many maintenance tasks require running separate Parallels applications -- this program even launches a separate program to download updates to itself.

My biggest gripe with Parallels remains its default "Coherence" interface, in which Windows programs and even the Start menu appear side by side with Mac programs in the Dock, Mac programs appear in the Windows start menu, and your Documents, Music, Pictures and other standard Mac user folders are mapped to the corresponding directories in Windows. To me, that's nothing but incoherent.

VMware Fusion 3, $79.99 (, was simpler to set up and run than Parallels, importing copies of Windows 7 from Boot Camp and an Acer netbook without problems. Its "Easy Install" of Windows 7 (in which it automatically sets up a user account and installs its required add-on software inside Windows) took less time than Parallels' comparable "Express Windows" option. And it sensibly defaults to running Windows inside a separate window.

But while Fusion displayed Win 7's Aero effects as well as Parallels, it bogged down in the game benchmark test. It also needed more memory and seemed slower overall, matching the results of tests with older versions.

The open-source VirtualBox 3.1 (, a project backed by Sun Microsystems, is free for personal or evaluation use, but you give up a few things to get that low price.

Although this release was a good deal easier to set up with a new copy of Windows than last year's version, it can't bring over an existing installation of Windows. It couldn't handle Windows 7's Aero interface. It still doesn't let you drag and drop files from the Mac desktop to the Windows environment and back -- and the "shared folders" option you're supposed to use instead was as confusing as ever.

Finally, VirtualBox ran a lot slower than either of its commercial rivals, both under unwise default settings that left too little system and graphics memory for Windows 7 and after fixing those. It couldn't even start that game benchmark test.

In other words, VirtualBox could be the right option to run an old copy of Windows XP, thanks to that releases's simpler graphics and lower appetite for memory. On a new, fast Mac, Fusion offers the simplest option, while Parallels looks like a better fit on slower Macs and for people who make a habit of changing a program's default settings.

But for most Mac users, I'll bet their virtual-machine choice is "none of the above," thanks to two broader trends in the market.

One is the Mac's rising share of the computing business, which gives software developers more reasons to develop Mac versions of their software. The other, more important factor is the shift of many applications to Web-based systems -- which means the only virtual-machine program you may need is a modern Web browser.

Living with technology, or trying to?

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