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VMWare Fusion 2.0.1 vs Parallels 4.0.3810 – Windows GAMING on the Mac.

November 6, 2009 update: I’ve taken a look at Fusion 3 vs Parallels 5.

November 5, 2009 update:
Parallels 5 is now out too, which also supports DirectX 9.0c and Shader Model 3 (PS3.0). I’ll have to test it later.

October 30, 2009 update:
VMWare Fusion 3 has come out, which now supports DirectX 9.0c and Shader Model 3 (PS3.0). If you read this article earlier, you may have noticed that Mass Effect 2 didn’t run on either VMWare 2 or Parallels 4, because they only supported PS2.0. Now that Fusion has PS3.0 support, it *may* now run Mass Effect 2, although I haven’t tried it yet.

In any case, if you’re looking to purchase Fusion, make sure you get version 3 (and not the older 2.0.1), as it’s likely to play even more games.

Finally, feel free to continue reading this review – I apologize for it being insanely long (it was originally split up between 4 pages). Note however that it is now outdated. It’s still valid if you’re using Fusion 2.0.1, but if you’re using the new Fusion 3, keep in mind that your mileage may very.

I’ll try to test both of the latest versions at some point in the future.

VMWare Fusion VS Parallels
Which one is better for Windows gaming on the Mac…?

Q: I like Apple Computers, especially Mac OS X. Problem is, I also like gaming, and all the games are for Windows. I know I can dual-boot with Bootcamp, but I’d really like to be able to play from within OS X. Question is, are the emulators (or more accurately, Virtual Machines) good enough that I can play my Windows games while in OS X?

A: We’re about to find out….

For those who aren’t as computer-savvy and have no idea what these “Virtual Machines” are, the easiest way to think of it is this… Ever watch Star Trek? The holodeck is like a virtual machine. Say you’re on the Enterprise, and you have a program that will only run on the Deep Space 9 computer. The Enterprise’s computer is just as fast as DS9’s, but they’re not compatible. You could go into the Enterprise’s holodeck, create a Deep Space 9, and your program would work there, because the Enterprise’s holodeck is simulating DS9. Now the program wouldn’t run as fast or as perfectly as it would on the actual DS9, because the Enterprise computer has to simulate it (while running the rest of the ship). But it just might be good enough.

It’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s similar to how these virtual machines work. But instead of the Enterprise it’s Mac OS X. And instead of DS9 it’s Windows. And the Virtual Machine is the Holodeck.

Right now, both VMWare and Parallels support DirectX 9 which the majority of Windows games require / support. So technically, they should both be able to run many of these games. The question is… how well?

The plan is to determine the following:

  1. Can modern games be played through VMWare and/or Parallels?
  2. Which one is better for gaming?

The following will happen – first in VMWare and then again in Parallels:

  1. Test both Windows XP (32-bit) and in a later update, Windows 7 (64-bit)
  2. Install World of Warcraft (popular game)
  3. Install Mass Effect (new game – video card intensive)
  4. Install Sins of a Solar Empire (new game – processor intensive)
  5. Install Darkstar One (old game)
  6. Check playability in each game
  7. Check for issues in each game
  8. Check for issues with the VM’s
  9. Look for integration (for example can you put the Windows game on your Mac’s Dock for easy access?)
  10. Overall comparison chart and conclusion.

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SYSTEM INFORMATION

Processor: Intel Quad-Core Q9400
RAM: 8GB
Video Card: GeForce 9800 GT
Mac OS X: 10.5.6

As you may have guessed, this is a “hackintosh” (a regular non-Apple computer with OS X installed through the osx86 project). For comparison purposes (I know most of you are using real macs) it should be roughly equivilent to a:
-Mac Pro (2.8Ghz+) with 8 GB RAM and the 8800GT video card option
-a iMac 24-inch (3.06Ghz) is only offered with 4GB RAM and the 8800GS video card so will be a little slower

Again, those should be roughly similar and I’m just listing them to give a ballpark area for comparison purposes. Your mileage may vary!

Virtual Machine Settings:

Virtual Hard Drives: 40GB
Virtual RAM: 4GB
Virtual Processors: 2

WoW was installed through the original disks (all the way up to the latest Frozen Throne expansion). Sins of a Solar empire was installed through Impulse. Mass Effect and Darkstar One were both installed through Steam. All games were known to work perfectly on this machine in a prior Windows install.

Next up in page 2 …
Game Testing in VMWare Fusion 2.0.1

VMWare Fusion + Windows XP (32-bit)
How does VMWare Fusion cope with Windows XP and 4 common games…?
INSTALL and notes: VMWare Fusion 2.0.1 – Windows XP (32-bit)

Install of Windows was incredibly smooth and easy. On a side note, I wouldn’t recommend “suspending” the virtual machine when closing… You’re better just to shut down windows, since it takes way longer for the VM to resume than it does to shut down and restart.

VMWare has an optional feature called “Unity”. It essentially removes the windows desktop and allows you to use application windows against the Mac OS desktop, making it seem even more like a Mac app. It can be enabled/disabled on-the-fly and all your program windows will either pop to the Mac Desktop & Dock looking very much like a Mac Application (enabled), or pop back into the Windows desktop (disabled).

UNITY NOTE: Unity had a lot of issues which I mention. However keep in mind that it’s an OPTION – it’s not by any means required and if you simply don’t use it, you won’t run into the issues. I don’t want to be seen as being too hard on an option that’s really just “fluff”.

GAME TESTING:

It’s worth noting that for most of the games, I’ve called for going to the VMWare Preferences section (VMWare/Preferences in the top menu bar), and selecting “Always optimize mouse for games”.

located in VMWare Fusion - Preferences in the top menu bar
located in VMWare Fusion – Preferences in the top menu bar. Make sure you select this for optimum play.

This solves a lot of “spinning screen” issues in games. The only negative side-effect is that you can’t move the mouse cursor OUT of Windows (to interact with the Mac itself) until you press a key combination to release the mouse (AppleKey+Control). Fortunately you don’t have to remember the key combination – VMWare tells you in the status bar at the bottom of it’s window (whenever Windows is in windowed mode).

The only alternative if for some reason you *don’t* want to enable that option is to turn off Hardware Mouse in games which is another way to fix the spinning problem – however it makes the game feel much less playable.

In short, simply enable “Always optimize mouse for games”. It’s the easiest option, and it works!

World of Warcraft:
RATING: (4/5)
-Framerates quite good/playable. I admittedly haven’t tested in a raid or a very busy area though (only tried in Orgrimmar).
-ALWAYS OPTIMIIZE MOUSE FOR GAMES must be enabled in VMWare (see the note above). Otherwise spinning will result. Alternately you could just disable the hardware mouse in the WoW options, but performance suffers badly with hardware mouse disabled.
-Recommend turning on Triple-Buffering in the WoW video options as seen below (requires Vertical Sync which is enabled by default). Otherwise you’ll see some graphical anomalies on a regular basis.

Turn on Triple Buffering - Otherwise you'll encounter some graphical glitches (character portraits incorrect, textures flickering, etc)
Turn on Triple Buffering – Otherwise you’ll encounter some graphical glitches (character portraits incorrect, textures flickering, etc)

-Obviously it would make more sense to simply use the Mac version of WoW. You can use the Windows version in VMWare but at a cost in flexibility and performance.
-Unity notes: When enabled, there’s no dock icon for WoW (so nothing to pin) – the minimized app simply shows up near the Trash. Unity also results in an ingame view “spin” effect regardless of mouse settings, which happens when holding down the left or right mouse buttons and moving the mouse, making it very difficult to play in Unity. Game seemed to get choppy as well. Recommend DISABLE UNITY for this game.


Mass Effect:
RATING: (0/5)
mass_effect_vmware_error_message
-Spits out an error message immediately after the splash screen comes up while loading the game.
“Failed to compile global shader FDOFAndBloomGatherFallbackPixelShader”. Apparently Mass Effect requires PS3.0 (Pixel Shader 3). VMWare Fusion only supports PS2.0 . A little researching turned up that there are a few games in this position – they *could* offer PS2.0 compatibility if they wanted, but since titles like Mass Effect were ported from the XBox which *has* PS3.0, it wasn’t exactly a priority for them. Unfortunate. In any case, this game won’t run through VMWare.

Sins of a Solar Empire:
RATING: (4.5/5)
-Framerates and speed are excellent in fullscreen mode
-Windowed mode is playable.
-Update: In an online multiplayer game, I got an error message from VMWare about “OpenGL” of all things (assuming it’s the mac-side of the directx translation). I’ll keep trying from time to time and see how things go.
-In the VMWare Preferences section (VMWare/Preferences in the top menu bar), make sure you select “Always optimize mouse for games”. Otherwise you’ll have a spinning issue when 3D panning with the right mouse button.

-Odd effects. Sometimes the menu screens are surrounded in white. Other times, planet textures seem a little bland and are basically missing (although they can still be interacted with perfectly).

This is a desert planet. Looks more like a transparant planet - they all do.
This is a desert planet. Looks more like a transparant planet – they all do.

-Update #2: Ran a test on a reinstall with 1 virtual cpu and 3GB of RAM – started and subjected myself to a 1.5 hour game with 9 computers. The native resolution of my monitor (1680×1050) got a bit laggy, so I reduced the game to 1024×768. Game was extremely improved, and there were zero graphical anomalies at that resolution except for planets not showing when zoomed out to max level.
-You probably won’t even realize you’re playing on a Mac 95% of the time. Not perfect, but close.
-As long as you’ve set the mouse option in the VMWare preferences, the game plays without much issue. Yes, planet textures are missing, but to be honest I didn’t even notice until my most recent test. Everything else looks great. Just a little more polish and this game would be sporting a 5/5.
-Unity: If you pin the SoaSE icon to the dock and try to run Sins from there, the game will immediately crash. There are also graphical issues with the game with Unity and frame rates plummet to the point it’s barely playable. The right-mouse-click-3D-panning-spin issue arises in Unity as well (even with “Always optimize mouse for games” selected). Recommend DISABLE UNITY for this game.

Darkstar One:
RATING: (3/5)
-Framerates and speed are excellent in fullscreen mode
-Windowed mode seems very good and playable
-Issue with MOVIES – you’ll only be able to *hear* the storyline cutscenes
-You should probably select “Always optimize mouse for games” in VMWare’s preferences for this game, although it’s not an absolute must here. The only issue you encounter if it’s not selected is that when you’re using your afterburners or reverse thrust and the mouse goes off the screen, when the mouse comes back on the screen the cursor jumps to the center – annoying if you’re turning the ship to chase down an enemy. Selecting the “Always optimize mouse for games” option corrects this.
-Really, the game would have got a 4.5 or 5/5 if the movies worked. Since they’re integral to the storyline it gets a 3.  If you’ve already played the campaign and don’t care about the cutscenes, assume this is a 4.5 or 5, because everything else is excellent.
Darkstar one is known for having it’s own share of issues (1680×1050 causes it to crash even in regular windows, there are Vista issues, etc). However it worked excellent in my testing, aside from not being able to watch the movie cutscenes. If you’ve already played it and don’t care about them though, you’ll probably be quite content.
-Unity: Pinning the Darkstar One icon to the dock works! You can pin it, and from then on, run it from there, even if Unity’s been disabled afterwards (it of course won’t be running *in* Unity if you’ve disabled it). Performance sadly suffers heavily in Unity, so the only reason you’ll ever run it there is to get the icon on the dock to pin it. After that, you’ll probably be turning Unity right back off.

Next up in Page 3…
Game Testing in Parallels 4.0.3810

Parallels + Windows XP (32-bit)
Parallel’s turn to try and cope with Windows XP and 4 common games…

INSTALL and notes: Parallels 4.0.3810 – Windows XP (32-bit)

Install of XP through Parallels was just as easy as VMWare’s.

The Mac OS’s performance was affected significantly (choppiness at times where there was none before. There is however an option to give more priority to Parallels or to the Mac OS, and Parallels was chosen so it’s quite possible it just put more oomph into Windows.

Parallels has a similar option to VMWare’s “Unity” – it’s called “Coherence”. It effectively removes/hides the desktop. Overall the integration seems to be better – for example, by default any program running from within Windows gets it’s own icon on the Mac’s Dock. Combined with Coherence, one might not have any indication that they’re actually running a Windows program, since it would be behaving pretty much exactly like a Mac one (with the notable exception that Parallels would be a running program and the icon on the dock would have a couple red parallel lines through it).

One nice thing to note about Parallels is that when changing between modes (fullscreen/windowed/coherence/etc), it does the “cube” effect and gives the appearance of switching to an entirely different desktop – really just bling, but worth a mention.

COHERENCE NOTE: Like Unity, Coherence had some issues. Again, don’t think I’m being too hard on Coherence – It’s only an option, and nobody *has* to use it. I mention it because it’s there, and to be honest it probably works fine with most programs… just not so well with games it would seem.


GAME TESTING:

Parallels unfortunately does not have the same “always optimize mouse for games” option as VMWare. This means there are spinning effects in some games.

I’ve tried choosing Devices / USB / USB Gaming Mouse to “give” Windows control of the mouse. Unfortunately the Windows cursor would not show up. I’ve also tried giving it mouse control from the Parallels Preferences, but it had the same effect. You can still *move* the mouse from within Windows, but you don’t get a cursor, so you never really know exactly where on the screen it is until you highlight or click something that’s highlightable or clickable.

This means that there’s an issue with games in Parallels that VMWare did not have, as you will see in each game test.

I haven’t given up though – from what I gather, Parallels Tools is designed to create the seemless integration between the Mac OS and Windows with the mouse through the “Mouse Synchronization Tool”. I’m going to try disabling it, effectively “locking” the cursor into Windows until a key combination is pressed (giving it a similar function to the VMWare option) – if successful in disabling it (and if it has an impact, I’ll update the post.

Update: It appears in Vista, changing the mouse driver from within Windows from the Parallels Mouse Synchronization Device to a Microsoft PS/2 Mouse through Device Manager indeed locks the mouse to Windows and also cures the mouse spin problem. Unfortunately, a side effect is a blinking curser that also corrupts the image, rendering the game even less playable. So it’s not really a solution.

World of Warcraft:
RATING: (3/5)
-Framerates playable.
-Minor workarounds needed for full playability at the sacrifice of smoothness.
-Minor graphical issues (blinking at the circle around feet – possibly shadow related)
-Just use the Mac version of WoW. You can use the Windows version in Parallels but at a noticable cost in flexibility and performance even on a high-end machine.
-Hardware cursor must be turned off in WoW’s video options – otherwise a “spin” effect will occur in all modes. Disabling hardware cursor fixes those issues, but comes with a penalty… the cursor moves more slowly and gives a more “choppy” feel to gameplay. FPS in WoW varied but capped at 60fps even with vsync off. Full-screen mode (both VM and in-game) felt smoothest although other windowed modes were certainly fine.
-Coherence notes: When enabled, spin effect happened regardless of the hardware mouse setting. Game seemed to get choppy as well. Recommend DISABLE COHERENCE for this game.

Mass Effect:
RATING: (0/5)
mass_effect_vmware_error_message
-Spits out the exact same error message immediately after the splash screen comes up while loading the game (I reused the screenshot – even the hex addresses were the same).
“Failed to compile global shader FDOFAndBloomGatherFallbackPixelShader”. As I mentioned before, Mass Effect requires PS3.0 (Pixel Shader 3). Parallels only supports PS2.0 . I was peeking through the Parallels forum as I waited for the game to install and noticed someone had asked about PS3.0, and the reply from Parallels was that “It is not available yet for testing”. I’m taking this to mean they are working on it, so hopefully at some point we’ll see some support.

Sins of a Solar Empire:
RATING: (4/5)
-Framerates and speed are excellent in fullscreen mode
-Windowed mode AND coherence mode are both very playable.
-Same issue with 3D panning with the right mouse button. Minor if you don’t use that feature of the game often to adjust view or if you’re very precise when you do.
-You probably won’t even realize you’re playing on a Mac 95% of the time. Again, not perfect, but close.
There’s an issue with mouse sensitivity being extremely high when right-click-panning to change the 3-D view, regardless of full/windowed mode. This isn’t a major issue for me, since I generally leave it at the default view the entire game. However, someone who changes the 3-D view often would probably hate how sensitive it is. It’s still workable, but you have to move the mouse very slowly and precisely. Game is *very* playable otherwise and I would be hard pressed to tell the difference in gameplay between “real” Windows and Parallels Windows. Note that I didn’t get into a long (multi-hour game) so there may be potential issues there.
-Coherence: If you pin the SoaSE icon to the dock and try to run Sins from there, the game works! A step up here from VMWare. You can use Coherence if you so desire – I had no issues with it.

Darkstar One:
RATING: (0/5)
-The opening “Ascaron” credit/ad works (VMWare’s only had sound)
-Game crashes shortly after opening credit/ad
-Since the Ascaraon credit/ad is something of a “movie” which worked here (but not in VMWare), I’m assuming the movie cutscenes would have worked here also. If that were the case, there would have been the potential for a 5/5 here… the crash of course drops it to a zero.
Darkstar one is known for having it’s own share of issues (1680×1050 causes it to crash even in regular windows, there are Vista issues, etc). At first, I thought maybe it was an issue with a file being corrupted during the install or something – after all, the opening ascaron showed up here where there was only sound in vmware, so I was half expecting a full experience. A reinstall would take hours, so I simply copied/converted VMWare’s virtual hard drive file over to Parallels with the “Parallels Image Tool”. Sure enough, the program crashed at the same point with the same message – obviously it wasn’t a file corruption issue afterall.

Next up in Page 4…
The Verdict! VMWare or Parallels?

VMWare Fusion VS Parallels

——-THE VERDICT——-

DirectX support:

Well… I’ll start by saying I had slightly higher expectations at this point in the game. DirectX support *is* there. Unfortunately it’s still got it’s bugs in both programs, although most are minor. Maybe a few more months and both companies will have the remaining issues ironed out.

Mouse Issue:

In regards to the mouse issue, it would be nice to see both companies work on their included driver.

Yes, VMWare does have an option in preferences that cures the issue. Losing the ability to seemlessly move the mouse out of Windows into the MacOS is a small downside (and a quick key comination lets you pull it out anyway), but it’s still far from ideal.

Parallels unfortunately does not seem to have any option to cure the issue. I’d imagine modifying their driver slightly to allow a setting like VMWare’s would probably be a relatively easy fix. Really, it’s just got to act like the default Windows mouse driver without blinking madly and corrupting everything. Either way, they need work.

Unity and Coherence:

Both are great ideas, and probably work fine for regular apps. Parallel’s version is admittedly better from everything I can tell. However, both are broken for games – between the performance penalties and the mouse issue being here regardless of setting, they’re not going to be useful to gamers anytime soon.

AND THE WINNER IS….

VMWare Fusion

VMWare FUSION!

Originally, I had deemed it a tie. This was before I did a little investigation and found the “always optimize mouse for games” option in VMWare which cured the sensitivity/spinning problems in the 2 games that had them. I haven’t been able to find an equivilent option in Parallels, which means it gets pushed behind. In any case, here are a few quick tidbits to help you choose your own winner (and see why I made my choice):

Workaround for mouse-spin / sensitivity issue: VMWare wins. The “always optimize mouse for games” option cured problems in WoW and Sins of a Solar Empire. It also removed a minor issue in Darkstar One. Parallels has nothing I’ve seen to compete.

Number of Games that work: VMWare wins. VMWare:3/4 – Parallels:2/4 – neither worked 100% perfectly (and even VMWare needed tweaks to get close to full playability), but to be fair neither program claims to support Pixel Shader 3, so the final game (Mass Effect) really didn’t have a hope.

Workable view-modes for gaming: Parallels wins. I’d call it a tie if it were just full-screen mode, but performance in windowed modes felt more forgiving/playable in Parallels. Parallels also has a beautiful transition effect when changing Virtual Machine modes.

-Mac integration: Parallels wins. Between the smoother mac-like transition effects and the better functioning dock integration, Parallels gets the upper hand here. Coherence works better than Unity more often than not.

-Performance effect on the system: VMWare wins. Both deal badly with file copy operations within Windows. However, where VMWare mainly loads slowly and freezes, Parallels does the same and adds choppy sound to the mix.

-Techinically ahead hardware/software support-wise: Parallels wins. It wasn’t tested/encountered here, so it may not be fair to compare it, but it’s worth a mention. Parallels supports OpenGL. VMWare does not. Parallels also supported up to 4 virtual processors on my machine where VMWare only supported 2. Neither of these limitations are likely to make a difference in games (particularly the ones supported), but it’s worth a mention.

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VMWare Fusion can be bought at VMWare’s site for about $80 (or $100 for the upgrade version which gives you 12 months of free upgrades). They also have a 30-day free trial available.

Parallels can be bought at Parallels site for about $80. The $10 “extended download” option from what I gather does *NOT* give free updates and is effectively a ripoff by the payment processing store.

Since they’re both the same price, I’d tend to recommend VMWare for gaming, unless you also play/use OpenGL games/programs in which case, Parallels is the only one that offers OpenGL support (something I did not check out in the tests I did). If you don’t plan to use them for gaming… find another review somewhere :p Gaming’s all I really focused on here.

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I’ve been playing with Windows Vista and Windows 7 to see if there’s much in the way of differences, but so far I’d have to recommend staying with XP.

Stay tuned! I’ll provide updates when available. If anyone has played these games on machines with lower specs, or comes up with different results, please leave a comment – I’d love to hear about them.

  • rob

    What the (expletives removed), all this text and no actual testing?

    • A theme update broke the pages, so only the first page was showing. It’s been changed to show the entire review on a single page. I apologize for any inconvenience.