VMWare Fusion 3 impressions

· by Steve · Read in about 7 min · (1300 Words)

vmware_fusion3As soon as Macs started running on Intel, they became infinitely more attractive just because suddenly you had the option of using Windows on them too if you needed to. Because let’s face it, as lovely to use as OS X is, and as much as its popularity has grown, the majority of the world still runs Windows. Boot Camp is a great little tool provided by Apple which makes setting up a dual-boot into Windows generally a breeze, barring a few small niggles such as the slightly ropey support for the extended functions of the track pad (two-finger right-clicking and scrolling is very flaky).

I have Vista installed as a secondary boot on my 2007 MacBook Pro, something I’ve come to regret as it’s regularly far more hassle than XP would have been. In practice, I’ve found that I hardly use it, with weeks passing without me bothering to boot up Vista (which makes it worse, because when I do boot it up its intrusive and wholly unstoppable update process starts kicking in in the background, making me grind my teeth at the CPU / RAM loss). Nevertheless, it’s useful at times.

I’ve dallied with virtualisation occasionally, from Parallels to VMWare to VirtualBox, but have been generally disappointed - my day-to-day work and most of my recreation involves 3D acceleration in one form or another, and virtualisation has historically been pretty bad at supporting it, making it an impractical option. VMWare Fusion 3, however, claims support for Shader Model 3, which is good enough for the vast majority of the work that I do (Dx10+ is still a tiny, tiny niche that is still rarely in demand), so I thought I’d give it a shot.

One of the nice things about Fusion 3 is that it lets you boot your existing Boot Camp partitions in a VM, which meant I could test it quickly. Parallels supported this too but I found it didn’t work that well in practice when I tried it. Fusion 3’s support is excellent - just a few minutes of adaptation and the requisite install of VMWare Tools on the Windows partition and it was up and running. The main problem I initially encountered is that the default 1GB memory allocation is, of course, absolutely no use for running the sweating hunk of lard that is Vista. This is the OS that is capable of getting up to 1.2GB on my machine after first boot with only Explorer open, if you’re unlucky enough that it feels it needs to run update processes in the background. I only (only??) have 2GB on my laptop so I had limits, but a quick tweak of the VM to 1.6GB (and also letting it use multiple CPUs) made it run OK and still let me jump back to OS X, albeit a bit slower than usual (but show me a post-millennium Windows OS that can stay usable on 400MB!).

For general non-specialist use, Fusion 3 is as awesome as other virtualisation tools. Either in a window, full screen, or in ‘Unity’ mode, where Windows apps look like first-party OS X windows in your task list (a bizarre feeling to have Explorer and Visual Studio show up in Exposé), it works great. They even fix the track pad issues, it works much better than in Boot Camp natively. I’d definitely want to upgrade the RAM on my machine if I did this regularly, but it’s certainly solid. But, for me, it’s all about the 3D, so let’s get to that.

I ran through a few GPU tests, after having to wait an hour or so for Vista to go through its background update processes so that it stopped sucking CPU and RAM, distorting my performance sampling (grr), and sure enough all the OGRE demos ran ok. They did, however, run pretty slowly; simple fixed-function demos that usually run at 2000fps on this machine ran at about 300fps, and moderately complex SM2 demos usually pegged at 250fps here ran at about 40fps. Highly complex SM3 demos (e.g. OgreSpeedTree) were unfortunately almost unusable. So, you can expect a pretty steep performance penalty of at least a factor of 6 times running virtualised 3D in my experience. Clearly, at this performance degradation, this would be no good for me as a sole Windows option on this machine. But, it still is valuable, since it’s using the Boot Camp partition, I can use this to quickly test things for compile & run-time behaviour, albeit at unrealistic performance levels, and reboot ‘properly’ into Windows for the times where I want to performance test or demo something.

That is, I would be able to if it wasn’t for Windows Activation. As we all know, this is Microsoft’s anti-piracy strategy and involves requiring you to re-activate your copy of Windows within 3 days if a ‘significant’ hardware change is detected. Since a VM basically emulates all of the core system processes, inevitably Windows sees that as a ‘significant’ change and requires you to reactivate. You can do this online, but only 5 times, after which you have to phone someone every time you want to do it. If I used my Boot Camp partition in both modes, as is useful to me, I’d have to reactivate way too often.

There are some threads and articles about this issue on the VMWare site; they claim that provided you follow this article, then the Windows activation monster will be sated and leave you alone when switching between Boot Camp and Fusion 3. No such luck for me, I’ve rebooted many times between Boot Camp and VMWare and have had the VMWare Tools installed since the first boot, and all I continuously get is an activated product when I use Boot Camp, and a ‘2 days to activation expiry’ message in VMWare. I’m not the only one: people are reporting this issue in the forums, including with Windows 7.

If they can’t get the activation issue fixed, so that I can choose to use Boot Camp and VMWare interchangeably, this effectively kills the product stone dead for me, as with every other virtualisation product before it. Which is a shame, because apart from this,  it works great. It’s Windows fault of course, rather than VMWare’s, but regardless the effect is the same. This is a perfect example of bad, customer-unfriendly DRM - it’s especially galling to have MS accuse me of stealing when in fact I’ve paid through the nose for many, many copies of Windows before, and am set to do so again with their expensive Windows 7 (Pro+) pricing - where they still seem to stick to this ridiculous principle. Another option would be to free up a spare Windows license from my collection and have separate Boot Camp and VMWare partitions, but I’d really prefer not to burn the time & disk space on maintaining two installs.

Fix the activation issue and I’ll be buying a copy of this plus a 4GB RAM upgrade immediately. Until then, it’s another nice product that’s scuppered by one small, but nevertheless major issue.

Edit: Ok, I’ve resolved this issue. Actually the original KB article on the VMWare site was correct, I just didn’t follow it correctly. In my defence, the key to success is in the small print at the bottom of the article rather than the ordered steps: you have to make sure that you’ve booted once into Boot Camp with the VMWare Tools installed, then afterwards to start the VM under OS X and reactivate Windows. Having done this, both my hosted VM and Boot Camp configuration show up as ‘activated’, which is precisely what I need.

So, now to buy a copy of this puppy and get 2 new sticks of RAM to shove in the laptop. 😀