01-The Big Question
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01-The Big Question

The Big Question

So which virtualization product do you go with? Which solution is faster? Should you run Windows XP or 7? 32-bit or 64-bit? One virtual processor or more? In short, there are different answers for different people: it all depends on your needs. More and more, virtualization can do whichever is best for you.

To tackle this problem, MacTech has once again undertaken a huge benchmarking project. We often wait for a patch or two after major upgrades to give time for major new versions to shake out. This is similar to the virtualization benchmarking projects that MacTech undertook in past. In both cases, as with other MacTech benchmarks, we tested performance of the types of things that everyday users typically do. In this case, it was not just testing the raw performance of the Windows OS, but also commonly used Windows applications. Like last time, based on reader feedback, we paid a lot of attention to 3D graphics and gaming.

The goal was to see how VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop performed, covering both Windows XP and Windows 7. Furthermore, we wanted to see some of the differences with different Mac models, multiple processors and check for issues with 64-bit versions of Windows.

To be clear, this article is not a product review; it's a benchmarking analysis. The article's purpose is to assess performance (including issues we found if something didn't work right), and not product features, user interface, etc...You should use your assessment of features, user interface, and support in conjunction with the below benchmarking results to make your product choice.

Before you ask why other solutions and products were not included, let's answer that. This benchmark project is already huge with several thousand collected data points crossing two guest OSes (Windows XP and 7), four models of computers, virtual hard disks and Boot Camp volumes, and over 50 tests each run 3-5 times for most of the environments. There were several thousand tests to be completed, many with a stopwatch. That's all before a single word of this article is written!  To add even one product would increase this huge test matrix by 50%. As a result, we focused on the two leading commercial virtualization products that come with support. These two products also have free trial versions that you can compare against other solutions so you can try them for yourself and compare them alongside any other solution you want at any time including before you buy.

One thing to note, however, is that open source and other free products may not be for everyone, especially non-technical users. For many, these offerings can be difficult to understand and install, and they are do not have technical or product support behind them. Obviously, users can reach out in forums and the community, but if you don't understand something, you won't be able to pick up the phone and call support the way you can with a commercial product. If that works for you, great. If not, as is the case for most users, then a commercial product is likely your solution.

In fact, the testing took long enough that during the course of preparing these tests, both Parallels and VMware released additional minor updates.

The Test Bench

When we were choosing computer models, we set out to choose the current models of Macs giving a good representation of what most people may have. Certainly, the faster models of these computers will perform even better.

We chose four Mac models to compare alongside each other: the "White" MacBook, MacBook Pro, iMac, and Mac Pro.

  • 2GB MacBook, Intel Core 2 Duo processor ("White MacBook")
    Specifically: MacBook 2.4GHz 2GB/250GB White Unibody (May 2010)
  • 4GB iMac, Intel i3 processor
    Specifically: iMac 27in 3.20GHz i3 4GB/1TB/5670
  • 4GB MacBook Pro, Intel i5 processor ("Unibody MacBook Pro")
    Specifically: MacBook Pro 15.4in 2.53GHz i5 4GB/500GB
  • 6GB Mac Pro, Quad-Core Intel Xeon processors
    Specifically: Pro 8-Core 2.4GHz 6GB/1TB/5770

Memory for virtual machines can be configured with a wide array of settings. As a general rule, VMware Fusion's default memory for each configuration (of physical RAM and "guest" OS) was the same or lower than Parallels Desktop (although sometimes it was higher). As a result, we let VMware's default guide the way, and set Parallels Desktop to the same as whatever VMware Fusion defaulted to. In most cases, this was 512MB for Windows XP, and 1GB for Windows 7 (768MB on the MacBook).

Similarly, for disk allocation, we defaulted to the sizes set up by VMware Fusion (40GB) and allowed for expanding disks. We took special care to make sure that the disk location of the virtual hard drive was in a similar physical location, as that can make a significant difference in and of itself in disk performance.

The tests compared VMware Fusion 3.1.1, with Parallels Desktop for Mac 6.0.11828.615184, running Mac OS X 10.6.5 with all updates. All required Windows updates were installed for each version of XP and Windows 7.

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