VMWare Fusion 3 vs Parallels 5 – Windows GAMING on the Mac

New versions of these popular virtual machines (also known as emulators) have recently come about. In our old comparison we took a look at 4 games, and we do the same again here. Last time, VMWare Fusion was the winner. This time… it’s Parallels. You’ll see why as you read ahead.

VMWare Fusion 3 and Parallels 5 were tested, using a Windows 7 Professional 32-bit virtual machine. Windows 7 was chosen because both Fusion and Parallels now support it, and with XP being continually phased out (and Vista being bloated), it’s the operating system that most people are likely to choose.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at the 4 games chosen this time around. I’ve packed the screenshots at the front with a tiny explanation, and if you scroll down a bit further (about 1/2 way through the article, you’ll see the actual writeup.

Mass Effect (click to see full size):

mass-effect-parallels-5-img1
mass-effect-fusion-3

Both actually had the error message you see on the right. After playing with the Windows Compatibility mode stuff, I managed to get to the error message on the left.

Halo CE (click to see full size)

halo-2-parallels
halo-fusion-3

The left side (Parallels) was nice and fast – the 59 FPS you see was the lowest it got, and that was just for the screenshot. Not so on the right side (Fusion) – it looks like snow in the right image. It’s just missing textures. At a whopping 2 fps.

Knights of the Old Republic 2 (click to see full size):

kotor-2-parallels-5
kotor2-fusion-3

Both were very playable, but Parallels offered a perfectly smooth experience. Fusion played quite well, but crashed in the “Advanced Video” option menu.

Cities XL (click to see full size)

cities-xl-parallels-5

Just Parallels is shown, because Fusion only lasted about 5 seconds – not enough time for a screenshot.


Now for a little detail… We’ll start with a disappointment, and then cheer everyone up a little with a few successes.

Mass Effect
Parallels – no rating
Fusion – no rating

In the last comparison, neither Parallels nor Fusion supported PS3.0, and therefore, Mass Effect didn’t stand any hope. With both of the latest versions now supporting DX9.0c and PS3.0, the hope was that Mass Effect would, at the very least, run.

In Parallels 5, there was no such luck. The game would crash before starting up.

VMWare Fusion 3 shared the same fate. Crash on start.

Pretty disappointing. At first I thought it might have been the Steam backup i was restoring from – however I tried creating an XP virtual machine in each VM, and was met with a GPF – something to do with GMatrix2D. A little research showed that many people have had this error even on PC’s – specifically relating to video card drivers. It’s likely that nobody short of ATI or nVidia will ever get this game to run. Update: That’s not quite true – after doing a little searching around I decided to try installing the WineD3D package in both Fusion/Parallels VM’s (the Wine D3D package incidentally also comes with the free VirtualBox VM and has some support for DX9, as well as some experimental support for DX10). In Fusion the game still crashed at startup, but in Parallels the game started up and I was able to create a character, although it crashed the VM as soon as the game’s opening sequence started. The menu reacted slowly, and presumably had it worked the game wouldn’t have been exactly fast. It’s possible that VirtualBox would fare better than Fusion/Parallels, but it choked during the XP install so I didn’t get to try it.

Cities XL
Parallels – 4 stars (the game already has speed issues, emulation makes them even more apparent)
Fusion – 0 stars (it almost ran)

Recently, a SimCity4-like game was released called Cities XL. The game requirements aren’t overly specific, although it states that it’s “Enhanced for DirectX 9.0c”, and lists a GeForce 6600GT or ATI X1600 as minimum video card requirements.

In Parallels, the game ran, and worked quite well. In a city with about a population of 800,000, navigating, building, etc went along without a hitch. It was however noticeably slower than through the PC, particularly on the loading screens (which doesn’t really matter), as well as when zooming (which does matter). Moving around the map from the overhead view had a slight choppiness to it as well.

Much of this can probably be attributed to the game itself – Cities XL has been attacked by many for not being multi-threaded / multi-core. Many PC players have issues with it behaving slowly even on a multi-core machine. Running the game through an emulator certainly doesn’t help an already difficult situation.

Fusion was much slower than Parallels getting in. Once in your city, you have about 5 seconds of extreme slowness before it either bluescreens, or the video becomes checkerboarded.

Halo CE (custom edition)
Parallels – 5 stars (so good you’d never know it’s emulated)
Fusion – 1 star (technically it runs….)

Halo’s a fairly old title, and it only requires DirectX 9.0, so it would probably run on the older versions of Fusion/Parallels. In any case, it ran extremely well on the new version of Parallels at 1440×900 resolution, with absolutely no issues. By default it’s set to run at a fixed rate of 30FPS but once it became clear that it wasn’t having any issues, it was time to see how high we could go. Fusion was a whole other story.

Parallels framerate were generally between 200-300 FPS. Even in windowed mode it didn’t drop very much. Every so often with the right scenery and shooting it would drop below slightly 100 FPS – in fact the lowest it ever got to was about 60 FPS during the screenshot.

VMWare unfortunately didn’t fare well at all. It averaged 1 FPS, maxing out at 7 FPS. Very frequently the textures turned white as well (see the screenshot at the beginning of this article) both in Windowed and Full Screen modes. If all the video options were turned down, the white texture issue didn’t occur, but it remained at the low FPS mark.

KOTOR 2 (knights of the old republic)
Parallels – 5 stars (you’d never know it’s running under an emulator)
Fusion – 4 stars (solid, very playable, but a couple minor issues)

Despite being almost 5 years old, KOTOR 2 requires DirectX 9.0c, and thus, may not have run on the older versions of Fusion/Parallels. The resolution chosen was 1024×768. It does go higher, but doesn’t support any wide-screen resolutions, and if I ran anything higher in windowed mode, I ended up with scroll-bars.

The game play is perfectly smooth on Parallels, and while KOTOR2 doesn’t have a frame-rate meter built in, you’d never know it was running under a virtual machine. I can say it certainly didn’t have any problems – it was screaming fast & smooth. Video options for “anti-aliasing”, “frame buffer effects” and “soft shadows” were greyed out however (other options could be turned on).

On VMWare Fusion, the game is smooth, but not perfect. It’s similar to when in some games VSync being off causes a bit of a jaggy look during movement (although I tested with VSync both on and off). The game was very playable, although it did crash anytime I tried to go into the advanced video options. The screenshot was taken at 800×600, but it remained smooth (but again, not perfect) at 1024×768.

So the verdict? Parallels is the clear winner this time around. It’s just much faster in the games that were tried, and the games that worked were flawless graphically. Perhaps with a few version revisions we’ll see both VM’s pick it up a bit, but for now the choice is pretty clear.

A few things/tidbits worth mentioning:

-Parallels Coherence generally causes major issues with games (don’t use)
-VMWare doesn’t handle switching between full screen and windowed mode very well. Parallels tends to do alright if you start fullscreen and then change to windowed, but not the other way around
-VMWare won’t mount BIN/CUE disk images

There is a fundamental difference in the way they handle resolutions.
-In Windowed mode, VMWare excels because there’s a setting that can locks the cursor to the screen (one of the things the “optimize mouse” setting does) – it helps in games where having the mouse at the edge rotates the view.
-In Windowed mode, Parallels falls behind in some games because the mouse will move off the screen (better Mac integration, but not great with games).
-In FullScreen mode, VMWare excels because if the game resolution isn’t the same as the screen resolution, it will scale the game to fit the screen
-In FullScreen mode, Parallels falls behind because if the game resolution isn’t the same as the screen resolution, the game will be shown in a “box” in the middle of the screen.

Final thing to mention: Don’t believe all the reviews you read – from what I’ve read, Parallels stuffed their Amazon review page at launch – it’s disappointing when a company stoops to those levels. No, they didn’t stuff this one :p

And there you have it! It’s worth noting that similar to the previous comparison, this was done on a “hackintosh” – this time, an i7 920 machine with 12GB of RAM and an ATI 4850 video card, running under Snow Leopard. For comparison purposes, it would be very similar to a current high-end iMac or Mac Pro.

Each VM was given 2 processors, and 4 GB of RAM under Windows 7 Professional 32-bit.