OSX makes me happy. A professional desktop with Unix under the hood. Too bad Linux never made it to that level and is still stuck on X11. Unfortunately, our current IT world requires you to be able to run Windows applications. Be it your Tax program, or your favorite Amateur Radio logbook.

You can use Wine, and many applications run under Wine. But what does that mean, run under Wine? Does everything work? That requires you to test every functionality of an application. I thought that when the main stuff works, the rest also works. Wrong. My favorite logbook program works 99% under Wine, only the LOTW export does not. The Wine guys will tell you that Wine is great, because this program works 99%. However, any amateur radio operator will tell you that a logbook program without the ability to export to LOTW is useless. So this 1% failing functionality is a show-stopper.

Maybe your Tax program makes calculation errors when running under Wine. That might even have legal consequences. So Wine is great, but on the other hand useless.

The only alternative is to run virtualization software. Theoretically this is still not the real thing, but current state of IT considers this a non issue. So there’s Oracle’s free Virtual Box, VMware’s Fusion and Parallels Desktop. Running Windows 8.1 is my main requirement and that really makes a difference. My second requirement is proper handling of an USB device called RigExpert Standard. Finally my third requirement is to run Windows applications side by side with OSX apps, since I love OSX so much :-)  Well, I ended up buying Parallels Desktop, and luckily managed to use their 25% Sale action so I paid 60 Euros. With these three requirements, Virtual Box and VMware Fusion both fail, but why?

Windows 8.1 is the OS with all that full screen stuff. Only Parallels (version 10) is able to handle that gracefully when running in “side-by-side” mode (Parallels calls that Coherence mode). If you want to run Win 7, this is not an issue, but as said, my requirement is Win 8.1. Both VMware and Virtual Box show the Win 8.1 full screen stuff in a window instead of full screen.

Then there’s the virtual machine startup, shutdown and sleep, something Mac users don’t want to be bothered with. After all, on OSX, your work starts with opening the lid and stops with closing it. Waiting for the OS to finish booting is sooo 20th century. Interestingly only Parallels Desktop has implemented this way of working. More interestingly, I still have to find a review that mentions this specific but (for me) very important aspect. Parallels Desktop wakes Win 8.1 when I fire up the first Win (GUI) application and suspends Win 8.1 shortly after the last Win application is closed. One reviewer on the net found that Parallels boot and shutdown times were much shorter then the competition. Unfortunately he didn’t wrote why this is important…

VMware Fusion is great when you run a business environment on Apple hardware. Like Win7 on a Domain with Office suite. If that’s what you require, Fusion is for you. But you have to run it as a completely separate environment, like a PC within a Mac. That perfectly matches most businesses requirements. Running Fusion in side-by-side mode will not make you happy. Try to open with right-click the Win 8.1 “start menu” (bottom left corner) in side-by-side mode and you’ll see what I mean.

There’s a problem with Virtual Box and that’s the way USB devices are handled during sleep, wake cycles. On a real PC, the USB device remains “connected” during sleep, wake cycles, and as a result, Virtual Com Ports for example keep their numbering (COM3, COM4 etc.) fixed. Virtual Box have implemented this in such a way that the USB device is sort of plugged in shortly after the virtual machine starts. This looks like the same thing but there is a subtile difference: Windows detects a pullout, plugin and assigns new COM port numbers to my Virtual Com Ports, so COM3/COM4 now become COM5/COM6. So my second requirement rules out Virtual Box completely. This might not be a problem for you, but to me it also indicates a weakness in their implementation of handling USB devices. Being a free product, it’s a must try for everybody. If your only requirement is running that Windows based Tax program, go with Virtual Box.

Amazingly, Parallels Desktop even synchronizes my keyboard layout between OSX and Windows, something both VMware and Virtual Box don’t do. Again, this might not be an issue for you, but to me, it shows Parallels main strength: Windows integration on OSX. Parallels pulls this one off by installing a number of “Parallels” keyboards in Windows. When I switch keyboard on OSX (the flag symbol top right), Windows switches keyboard as well. If you ever used an US International external keyboard with a German MacBook, you will appreciate this..

All three products are great products for any Mac user. Knowing their limitations enables you to make the right choice. Let’s face it, test driving software (for free) is much fun, so try them !

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