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Benefits and challenges of upgrading to VMware Fusion 4

VMware Fusion 4 offers a new interface and the ability to virtualize the OS itself. But not everyone loves the new look, and there are issues running certain VMs.

When VMware rolled out VMware Fusion 4 in September, I was right there waiting to hit the Purchase button as it went live. If you’re considering a VMware Fusion upgrade, this new version offers great additional features, even though it has some kinks to work through.

A few months ago, I debated switching from VMware Fusion to Parallels’ Mac product, which was then available in version 6. But my devotion to Fusion remained unchanged, and I doubt I’ll consider switching to Parallels’ version 7 given what I’ve seen in VMware Fusion 4.

The VMware Fusion upgrade process
To start off, I have two Macs -- one fairly recent iMac and the other an older non-unibody MacBook Pro. I recently updated my iMac to OSX 10.7 “Lion,” and the virtual machines (VMs) were having all kinds of issues running on Fusion 3.x. (VMware acknowledged the issue between Fusion 3.x and Lion, and recommended that Fusion users not upgrade to the new OS.)

So, I upgraded the iMac to VMware Fusion 4, and it went almost seamlessly. I hit only one roadblock in my VMware Fusion upgrade: it showed my VMs when it started up, but Fusion claimed the files were missing. I knew that I had them stored in a directory off the root of the drive, so I pointed the VM configuration to the file location and Fusion was able to locate them.

After my VMware Fusion upgrade, there were a few changes I noticed right away to the look and feel of the interface, specifically the Virtual Machine Library. VMware Fusion 4 has been redesigned to look more like OSX Lion. It appears cleaner, but tends to mask more of the advanced dials and knobs that geeks like me like to tweak. While I see the benefit of a more basic interface for novice Mac users, a VMware Fusion upgrade to version 4 may leave veteran users wanting the old 10.5 “Leopard” OS interface back.

New features in VMware Fusion 4
One of the flagship features of Fusion 4 touted by VMware  is the ability to virtualize the OSX operating system itself. Since I still don’t feel the need to upgrade my MackBook Pro to Lion, I tried running Lion as a VM on it.

To run the OS as a VM, you must follow a specific set of instructions provided by VMware, and you must have the Lion OS installer. Since Lion is no longer sold as a physical media or disk image download, you can readily find instructions online for extracting the installer and saving it to your drive. Following VMware’s instructions, I was able to start Lion as a VM in less than an hour. It ran very well, with only the occasional jagged screen movement and slow reaction to mouse gestures.

Two other interesting new features in VMware Fusion 4 are the integration with OSX Lion’s Mission Control and Launchpad  features. While I have no real use for those display and app management features in my daily use, the integration worked well on my family iMac.

VMware Fusion 4 bumps and bruises
After the VMware Fusion upgrade on the iMac, I did experience an issue when trying to make a Windows 7 VM machine full screen and then minimize it. This action caused my arrow keys and mouse movements to stop within the VM, and I had to revert to old keyboard shortcuts to shut the VM down and restart it. It appears that other VMware Fusion 4 users are having this issue with Windows 7 VMs.

I also had a problem getting two VMs to recognize a USB stick once it was inserted. I never had this issue in VMware Fusion version 3.x. If you encounter this problem following your VMware Fusion upgrade, try plugging the stick back in several times until it is recognized.

Last, I miss an old feature that I used often in version 3.x: the small virtual disk mount utility called VMDKMounter. I would use this feature to mount virtual disk files, navigate through the file system and copy files to and from VMs without powering them on. VMware Fusion 4 no longer includes this feature, and while it is not a deal-breaker for me, it sure is one less notch in Fusion’s belt in my mind. Parallels for Mac supports this feature, so VMware should step up and bring it back.

VMware has released two bug fixes since the initial VMware Fusion 4 launch (now at version 4.0.2, with 4.0.3 almost out). Despite some quirks, VMware Fusion 4 is pretty solid and offers an many new features along with an easy upgrade process.

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