OS X Virtual Showdown: Parallels 5 vs VirtualBox 3

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Virtualization is becoming a bigger factor in everyone’s computer experience, and one place it seems to be gaining popularity is a Windows client running on a Mac. This arrangement allows a Mac OS X user to have access to the huge Windows library of titles. So, it does make sense for a Mac user to at least consider virtualization as a practical tool.

As with most computing paradigms today, there exists a paid and a free option for virtualization. In this test we pit one of the most popular paid solutions, Parallel 5, with the free leader, VirtualBox 3. We compare the tools using an XP Client, and our test programs include Office programs (Excel and OneNote) and a CAD program (our favorite modeler, Rhino3D). We will also do a series of tests on core mechanics that is common across computing platforms.


Installation was very straightforward on both applications. Both install from a standard installation package after being downloaded, nothing out of the unusual. We installed a tsp version of XP to both machines, and loaded the programs to be tested.

Test Mechanics

The tests were run on a Mac running Snow Leopard with only 2GB of memory. This was chosen in order to get a typical real-world user machine, so hopefully your results will be something similar. Also, in order to compare the varying programs on what we felt would be a typical user experience, we toasted the programs with both virtualization systems running in seamless mode. This means that the Windows application ran in its own window on the screen beside its mac counterpart.

Test 1 – Office Programs

First up was Microsoft Excel. We ran through a basic use of using the spreadsheet program, including formulas, sorting, and charting. Both programs delivered a very pleasant experience, with fast screen updates and a quite usable interface. The winner here – a tie.

Next up was a what we feel is a great reason to look into Virtualization with XP, Microsoft OneNote. We tend to use OneNote a lot, but the feature that really makes it work is its syncing abilities across different machines. Typically the notebooks are kept on a network server, and the different desktops and laptops connect to them. At any given time we have several copies of any notebooks, all in sync. It is a sweet solution for a lot of data.

Sad to say, OneNote is not available for the Mac platform at this time. So, this would be a perfect test to throw at our packages. And, I have to say, both packages performed admirably. Both instances of OneNote had no problem staying synced with the network copy, and everything we tried, including recording audio notes, functioned great on both Parallels and Virtualbox. Again, it was a tie.

Test 2 – CAD

For our test we used Rhino3d, a great modeling package on the Windows platform. While it is in beta for OS X, there is not a commercial version available at this time. So, it makes a good candidate for a virtualization solution. We tried the same Rhino file on both platforms, and we had no problems running with either using the CAD program or rendering a scene. In fact, performance on both platforms was so smooth and responsive you could quickly forget that you were even on a virtual machine. The result – a tie. Are we starting to see a pattern?

Test 3 – Computer Mechanics

For this test we tried some simple but common computer mechanics areas, and at last we found some areas where one shined more than the other.

First up for computer mechanics, look and feel. While this is probably not a big deal to the bulk of the users out there, it does tend to measure how well it fits with the rest of your computing environment. In this test, while Virtualbox did a noble job of managing the windows in seamless mode, the “Mac Look” option found in Parallels gave a more seamless experience to the end user. Winner by a nose – Parallels.

Next we tried a simple cut and paste between the Mac host and the guest OS. This is where we had a clear winner. Despite claims otherwise, we could not get the Virtualbox client to copy from the guest back to the Host. With my typical use of OneNote including code snippets, losing the ability to copy from it into a work means losing access to a lot of resources that I would rather not do. Parallels 5, on the other hand, pasted bidirectionally without a hitch, including text AND graphics. The winner, Parallels.

Finally, we looked at importing machines from other vendors, and even from a physical machine itself. In this case, once again Parallels was indeed the clear winner. Its utility usage made Parallels a serious tool for anyone that was committed to virtualization and could have the need for supporting a variety of sources. The winner – Parallels.


Our tests came down to a very simple conclusion, and one that makes perfect sense. If you have the need for a virtual instance of XP on a Mac without the need for cut and paste or importing other virtual machines, then we would wholeheartedly suggest that you look at the free Virtualbox. Our experience with it proved to us that it has matured into a very stable platform that performed on par with many paid solutions available on the market.

Beyond that need, the adage :you get what you pay for” comes to mind. Outside of the cut and paste issue, which may be fixed in the next release of Virtualbox, the question really does come down to finishing quality nod extended ability. Our best suggestion – try Virtualbox first if you are new to the process. Then, if it does not work out, grab Parallels 5 and import the image, saving the need to redo the work. You will be up and running before you know it – virtually, of course.

  21 comments for “OS X Virtual Showdown: Parallels 5 vs VirtualBox 3

  1. March 13, 2010 at 10:30 pm

    Re copy/paste: I use VirtualBox almost all day long and I rarely have a problem with copy and paste. The only is I have is after running the virtual box with a long period (>1 week) copy paste tends to fail. To fix it, all I need to do is shutdown Windows and restart VirtualBox. (You do need to install the VirturalBox additions to the client OS, but I’m assuming you did this.) But in the settings for each virtual machine, there is a setting under advanced for “bidirectional” clipboard. I believe this is on by default.

    I’ve had similar problems with Parallels, such that I’d need to restart my client OS much more often. I am doing programming, so I am constantly copying between my editor in Windows and a browser or shell in OSX. Parallels was causing me tonnes of problems, so I switched to VirtualBox.

  2. VVA
    March 13, 2010 at 10:44 pm

    Cut and paste for text functions just fine in Virtualbox. (But it doesnt work for files…)

  3. surprised
    March 13, 2010 at 11:31 pm

    How the hell is this a review? Of course the windows apps are going to look the same — you should be testing response times, performance, ease of use of the interface. What an uninformative ad seeking waste of time 🙁

  4. Zifnab
    March 13, 2010 at 11:33 pm

    I use virtualbox on a linux host (XP client) and it copies & pasts just fine between host and client, even in 2.x

  5. John Kidd
    March 13, 2010 at 11:50 pm

    If you didn’t compare vmware with these two, then you are probably just wasting our time. Update the review to include this product and it would be useful. To compare only one of two main virtualization products with a free virtualization product is a joke.

  6. mikael
    March 14, 2010 at 12:25 am

    I just installed VirtualBox and find it to work just as good as Parallels. Just as with Parallels you have some extra software to install on the guest OS. In the case of VirtualBox it’s called Guest Additions and can easily be accessed from the main menu. Once you install it, copy/paste, better mouse support and other stuff will then work just fine.

  7. Tyler
    March 14, 2010 at 12:56 am

    I enjoyed reading this article. I previously used both VMWare and Parallels 5 but have recently switched to VirtualBox. It does the job really well and seems to run XP in a VM much better than either VMWare or Parallels.

    The reviewer obviously did not do his research before writing this article. He failed to mention that importing a VM from either Parallels or VMWare to VirtualBox is very easy. In fact, if you have a VMWare virtual machine, VirtualBox is able to open the VMWare hard disk without any conversion or extra work. If you have a Parallel hard disk and want to use it in VirtualBox, the easiest thing to do is use a tool made by VMWare to convert the Parallels hard disk to a VMWare hard disk which you can open natively in Virtual Box.

    Also, I was able to copy text from the guest operating system (Windows XP) back to the host (Mac OS X) but it didn’t work for a picture.

    The reviewer also forgot to mention one detail that I think is pretty significant. VirtualBox is cross platform which can be a nice plus because with a big enough flash drive, you can carry an entire OS with you.

  8. robert
    March 14, 2010 at 12:59 am

    Errm… why didn’t you test a DX9 game?

    Virtual Box would probably fail miserably there, while I’ve gotten Supreme Commander 2 running and looking great. There are screenshots of people running Crysis in Parallels online, even.

  9. Rob
    March 14, 2010 at 1:32 am

    Just curious, did you install the guest additions portion of virtualbox? Wondering if you had that installed when you had trouble copy and pasting from the virtual machine to the host.

  10. Peter M.
    March 14, 2010 at 1:44 am

    That cut and paste thingy works for me. I’m using V 3.1.4 of Virtual Box. Looks like you’re using an older version.

  11. robert
    March 14, 2010 at 6:43 am

    I use VirtualBox on OS X every day to run XP, Windows 7, and various Linux clients. I can say with certainty that plain text cut/paste works great both ways.

  12. JJ
    March 14, 2010 at 8:09 am

    Sorry, what?

    Why no comparison of VMWare Fusion?

  13. Kyle Armbruster
    March 14, 2010 at 11:56 am

    …What was this review meant to do? What about ease of installation, speed, printing, network activity, gaming…

    And WTF… No VMware Fusion? Who uses Parallels? I mean, someone must, but every single Mac person I know uses Fusion.

  14. jgregc
    March 14, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    I don’t understand why anyone is talking about VMWare when the title clearly states what is being compared.

    I have a problem with copy and paste with Virtualbox in one direction only – from the client to the Mac. It works with Notepad occasionally, but with copying from OneNote it simply won’t do it unless I past it into Notepad first, and then it’s hit or miss. I’m thinking that Office is writing extended information to the clipboard? Also, it may be an issue with just the Mac Client? I am running the latest version, with guest additions, of course.

  15. Paul
    March 15, 2010 at 2:16 am

    Why the two-way?? Hard to believe you can write an article like this without mentioning VMWare …

  16. Jim
    May 14, 2010 at 7:21 am

    Read the Title Folks….. If ya wanna buy a Ferrari, look at the dealer outside before ya go in and start complaining.
    The author gave what was promised in the Title.
    What a bunch of Whiners…..sheeshhh.
    Get the silver spoon outa ya mouth and grow up.

  17. September 14, 2010 at 5:24 pm


    Can you provide the specs on the machine that you tested on? Is it a gth gen macbook pro? imac? etc? I’m asking because I was wondering if you found any differences in memory usage or cpu usage between the virtualbox and parallels



  18. Neomusashi
    September 24, 2010 at 7:42 am

    For those of you who need to run games on their VM, ever considered buying a pc? I don’ t get it why so many people are always trying to run a VM on a mac just for games. If that is the only reason to buy parallels … .

    • sitrep
      January 25, 2011 at 8:42 pm

      Well, dual booting is also an option as well.

  19. Jeff
    January 6, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    Nice, I’m installing Virtual Box as we speak. I’ll let you know how it works out for me.

  20. January 6, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    Very cool I’ll install Virtual Box now.

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