First Look: VMware Fusion 3

The latest salvo in the continuing battle of virtualization applications has been fired by VMware, with the release of VMware Fusion 3 Tuesday. Fusion 3 brings a number of interesting new features to what was already a feature-rich application. I've had a chance to use the final Fusion 3 code for the last week or so, and this First Look is based on my experiences with that code.

Fusion 3 works in both Mac OS X 10.5 and 10.6, but takes advantage of changes in Snow Leopard to improve graphics and disk performance. If you're running Snow Leopard with the 64-bit kernel enabled, Fusion 3 will be able to offer even better performance with lower overhead. If you're using Windows Vista, 7, or new (created in Fusion 3) XP virtual machines, you'll also see greatly reduced memory footprints

Fusion 3 supports a huge number of guest operating systems, including OS X Server (Leopard and Snow Leopard in both 32-bit and 64-bit modes), as well as the recently-released Windows 7.

One of the limitations of the earlier version of Fusion was that it wasn't capable of running virtual machines in multiple core mode--it could only do so by simulating multiple CPUs. Fusion 3 solves that problem, as the virtualization engine is now fully multi-core aware. You'll still be subject to Windows' sometimes-obscure licensing limitations, such as Windows Home Premium being restricted to one physical CPU. With the newest version of Fusion, you can, for instance, create a two-core virtual machine for Windows 7 Home Premium using one CPU.

A fresh new face

Perhaps the most visually-obvious change in Fusion 3 is the revised Virtual Machine Library screen. On the left you'll see a Home button, along with a list of any installed virtual machines. Click on Home, and you'll see four buttons that make it easy to work with an existing Boot Camp partition, create a new virtual machine, convert a Windows computer, or download a free virtual machine trial version of Windows (XP, Vista, or Server 2008 as of this writing).

In previous versions of Fusion, the image displayed for each virtual machine was a snapshot, updated at regular intervals. In Fusion 3, the image is actually a real-time recreation of what each virtual machine is doing. This makes it really easy to keep an eye on multiple virtual machines--the movies even scale up or down as you make the window larger or smaller.

Put your Windows PC and your Mac on the same network, or connect them together via FireWire or Ethernet, click the convert button, and a very Mac-like migration assistant walks you through the conversion.

At the end of the process, your physical PC has been converted into a virtual machine on your Mac, including all applications, settings, and documents.

Improved graphics

Another big change in Fusion 3 is better DirectX support, which allows for Windows' Aero 3D effects in both Windows Vista and Windows 7.

Fusion is the first virtualization application to support these features, and they worked well during my initial testing on a 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo iMac with 4GB of RAM. Also new is OpenGL acceleration for Windows machines (OpenGL 1.4 in Windows 7; OpenGL 2.1 in Windows XP). These graphics improvements also mean that you'll be able to play more games--and play them better--than you could in previous versions of Fusion.

As a quick example of the 3D gaming support, I created a short demo movie showing a flight in Flight Simulator X, which is a program I was unable to run in previous virtualization applications.

This movie was recorded on a 2.66GHz 2008-vintage 20" iMac by ScreenFlow, which was capturing the entire 1680x1050 screen while I was flying the simulator. Despite the overhead of the screen recorder, the frame rate was more than usable, even on the notably not-high-end iMac. (The above movie was shrunk and compressed for display here; if you prefer, you can check out the full-size capture [1:17, 54MB], which shows much more detail at higher quality than does the above version.)

Graphics performance in 2D mode has improved, too, in all three viewing modes (single window, full screen, and windowless Unity). Along with better 2D and 3D graphics comes better multiple-display support; not only are more monitors supported in more modes, but performance on really large displays should be notably better than it was before.

Integration assistance

(Image Caption: Fusion's new Application Menu; click for larger version) One interesting new feature is the (optional) Applications Menu, an OS X menu bar extra. Clicking this icon reveals a drop-down menu, styled like a "glass" Windows window that I thought I'd hate but actually find somewhat appealing.

Within this menu, you can do basically everything you'd do within the Windows Start menu: Access My Computer, Documents, or Control Panels; Suspend, Restart or Shut Down; view and change certain virtual machine settings; and launch any Windows application.

You can easily add and remove favorite apps from the applications menu, too, making it really easy to launch your most-used Windows programs. In my brief time with it so far, I've found the Applications Menu really simplifies working with Windows documents and applications.

Fusion 3 also simplifies things by making its windowless Unity mode much more Mac like. You can, for instance, use Dock Exposé in 10.6 on a Windows application to see and switch between its open windows. You can also use Command-` to switch between open windows within the same Windows application in Unity mode.

The Command-Tab switcher can be used to quit (press Q) or hide (press H) Windows programs while cycling, just as it can for OS X programs. Unity overall is much more responsive, and I noticed that typing in Windows windows while in Unity mode doesn't have the same lag issues it had in previous versions of Fusion.

Little touches

Throughout Fusion 3, there are numerous other changes designed to improve the user experience. Long-time Fusion users will welcome the new in-app update process; no more switching out to your browser to download, expand, then install an update.

When running in full-screen mode, a small Mac menu bar can appear on any edge of the screen, making it simple to get to the core commands needed to control your virtual machine. Fusion's menus have also been rearranged to make features easier to find.

Other small touches include a Cancel button while resuming a virtual machine, in case you chose the wrong machine; you can copy and paste both formatted text and images between Windows and Linux virtual machines and the Mac OS; and a bundled VNC server lets you manage virtual machines remotely.

Final first look impressions

Overall, I've been impressed with VMware Fusion 3's performance during my time with it. Creating new virtual machines was simple, performance was good even on a mid-range iMac, and the ability to use Aero effects and run 3D games in the virtual machine was impressive. The new Virtual Machine Library screen eases the management of multiple virtual machines, and the built-in update tool will make it easy to keep up to date with future releases.

I'll have much more to say about VMware Fusion in an upcoming review, where I'll take a look at Fusion's performance in both Leopard and Snow Leopard, and see how it compares with not only its predecessor, but also with its two main competitors in the virtualization market--VirtualBox and Parallels.

[Rob Griffiths is a senior editor for Macworld.]

This story, "First Look: VMware Fusion 3" was originally published by Macworld.

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