VMware Fusion 4 Is Simply Superb

Improved performance, interface enhancements and new OS support make this a worthwhile upgrade.

The latest release of VMware Fusion breaks enough ground that one has to wonder what's left for future releases. Fusion 4 is a solid virtualization environment that adds support for the latest client and server operating systems, including Apple's OS X Lion, and release 6 of CentOS and Red Hat Enterprise Linux. I'm even using it to run instances of the Windows 8 Developer Preview, with no problems to speak of.

Perhaps the most obvious enhancement in Fusion 4 is the way it takes advantage of the new user interface features of OS X Lion. Windows applications can be run from the Launchpad, a simple wipe gesture on the trackpad when in Mission Control can switch between Windows and Mac, and virtual machines can run the basic client version of Lion as well as Lion Server.

From a security perspective, Fusion 4 is a great improvement over earlier releases. Virtual machines can reside on encrypted disk instances that run independently of the installed OS, and Macs with Intel processors from the Sandy Bridge family offer hardware-accelerated whole-disk encryption for better performance. Virtual machines can also be password-secured. They need not be shut down to change encryption status from off to on or back.

A number of little improvements are included as well in Fusion 4; the cumulative effect provides a superlative user experience for both Mac and Windows virtual machines. Sound is now supported for virtual machines running OS X Lion; the Remote Disc feature-which allows Macs without optical drives to use one shared from another computer on the network-is now available; and downloads from the Web can be shared between Mac and Windows virtual machines without manual copying. The video and audio quality of virtual systems have been enhanced to the point where video conferencing through a VM is not only possible, it's almost enjoyable.

Overall, 3D graphics performance has improved for Windows virtual machines. Although I didn't benchmark the graphics performance under Fusion, I have noticed smoother execution in Fusion 4 virtual machines than previously.

Bluetooth support in virtualized instances of Windows now allows users to sync smartphones through the virtual system while continuing to use Bluetooth input devices such as keyboards and trackpads on the host.

Customers purchasing a physical package will get a DVD and a USB key. It's a sensible move on the part of VMware, given the lack of optical drives in Apple's Mac Book Air and the latest redesign of the Mac mini.

For fresh deployments of Fusion, the install is drag-and-drop. My upgrades to existing installations of Windows Server and XP ran smoothly, although I neglected to fully shut down a couple of running virtual systems. After the upgrade, I simply shut them down properly and then booted them, allowing them to be updated for Fusion 4's features.

I can't completely buy into the company's claims of a "zero footprint" for the application's non-executing state, but they actually hold up well in most respects. After my upgrade, I generally saw the Start Menu and Helper processes taking around 35 or 40MB of real memory and 75 to 80MB of virtual memory. On recent Macs, the basic configuration of 4GB of physical memory puts Fusion's non-executing memory use close enough to zero that I think it almost counts. That said, changing the behavior of the Fusion icon in the OS X menu bar to display "only when Fusion is running" allowed me to eliminate this relatively minor memory use and reach a true zero-footprint state.

Although I don't remember ever complaining that earlier versions of Fusion didn't feel enough like a Mac application, Fusion 4 does offer a more Mac-like look and feel. This is especially true in three areas: the virtual machine library, which takes on aspects of the Finder; the snapshot viewer, which is somewhat reminiscent of the Time Machine backup system; and Fusion's Preferences panel, which picks up the interface of the System Preferences in Mac OS X.

Disk management is one of those things that I don't get around to doing until it's almost too late, but Fusion 4 makes it simple to resize virtual disks and to reclaim space. This will obviously be more of a boon when one has numerous system images in the library, but I'm happy to get back every gigabyte I can.

Fusion 4 requires a 64-bit-capable Intel processor-which excludes the first generations of Intel Macs-a Core 2 Duo or later CPU, along with 2GB of physical memory and, preferably, 4GB, according to VMware. I tested Fusion 4.0.1-the first public release of Fusion 4-on Macs running both Snow Leopard and Lion. Understandably, the company recommends the latter. Windows Aero support requires graphics processors equal to or better than the ATI 2600 or the Nvidia 8600M.

But, ultimately, what sold me on Fusion 4 isn't the user-interface enhancements, the encryption features or the look and feel. Instead, it has noticeably reduced the time it takes to suspend and restart virtual machines, which used to be a "now I'll check my email" moment. This is now a matter of a few seconds, which keeps me moving and productive.

In short, although Fusion could presumably be better, I'm left wondering how exactly that might be accomplished.