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VMware Workstation 5.5 review

By Jem Matzan

Back in November, VMware released version 5.5 of their Workstation virtual machine product. Overall it's not a big improvement over version 5.0, but might be just the right "next step up" for those still on Workstation 4.x.

VMware overview

If you're already familiar with VMware Workstation and want to see what's new in version 5.5, skip down to the next section.

VMware Workstation is a versatile virtual machine program that allows several operating systems to run inside of either a Windows or GNU/Linux host. This allows you to run a full, valid copy of Windows, Solaris, *BSD, or other GNU/Linux distributions inside of a standard GNU/Linux installation (or all of those OSes inside of Windows). This is especially useful for software testers who need to work with multiple platforms or different versions of the same OS, but don't want to repeatedly restart their computer or have multiple machines on their desk. It's also useful for help desk personnel who need to provide support on different operating systems. Lastly, to a lesser extent VMware could be useful for people who want to switch to GNU/Linux but can't do without Windows software that hasn't been ported to GNU/Linux and can't be run through API emulators like CrossOver Office.

New in version 5.5

Here are the most significant new features and enhancements made since version 5.0:

  • 64-bit guest OS support
  • Virtual SMP for two processors
  • Import capabilities for Microsoft Virtual Machine and Symantec LiveState Recovery images
  • The VMware Player application
  • Wider host and guest OS support for 32-bit and 64-bit OSes

Before you get too excited about 64-bit guest OS support, you should be aware of the catch: only certain processors are supported. My Sun Java Workstation w2100z (dual Opteron 252), for instance, was not supported. If you want to find out if your system is supported, VMware provides a free analysis tool (Windows version here) that you can download and run.

The virtual SMP capabilities support dual-core, dual-CPU, and single- or multiple-CPU systems that have Hyper-Threading Technology enabled. The latter, however, was not designed as a replacement for dual-core or dual-CPU systems, and will probably have very poor performance if you try to assign a virtual CPU to a virtual machine.

The VMware Player is a separate application that can be downloaded for free from the VMware Web site. It runs virtual machines created by VMware, which is handy for people who need to show a virtual machine to several other people who do not have VMware Workstation licenses.

Putting it to the test

Click here for a screen shot of VMware 5.5.

For me, the biggest improvement in VMware Workstation 5.5 is the wireless networking support in GNU/Linux. With version 5.0, I was unable to bridge a wireless network connection to a virtual machine, which pretty much robbed the guest OSes of networking capabilities. Bridged wireless networking now works flawlessly in GNU/Linux.

VMware claims that there is better device autodetection, but ever since the first version of VMware I tested -- 4.0 -- I have not had any trouble with internally installed hardware being detected and used in a virtual machine. What I have had trouble with was USB devices that are plugged in while the virtual machine was in use. Version 5.0 had trouble interacting with the Linux USB drivers and wouldn't connect to any USB devices; this has been fixed somewhat in Workstation 5.5. While a popup window still appeared and told me that there were problems with the Linux USB modules, I could click through it and have access to the USB device in the guest OS.

Unfortunately, devices that are not supported in the host operating system will also not be supported in the guest.

Conclusions and developer recommendations

Version 5.5 of VMware's most well-known product is an improvement over 5.0 in terms of operating system support and networking capabilities, but it may not be a must-have upgrade for existing customers. If you're happy with VMware Workstation as it is now, version 5.5 won't give you much more than 64-bit guest OS support -- but if that's your goal, make sure you check your system for compatibility first. Upgrading can't hurt, though -- it's free for existing VMware Workstation 5.0 customers.

What I'd like to see in the next version:

  • Better video modes. No matter what I tried, I couldn't get a reasonably decent monitor refresh rate in a Windows XP guest OS. VMware Tools allows better video modes than the default, but it's still not good enough to keep my eyes from hurting.
  • Improved performance. I'm not sure there's much that can be done about this, short of using a microkernel-based OS as the host. Even on fast machines, you can't get good enough performance out of your guest OSes to test programs that render 3D objects or high-definition sound.
  • A "home" version. Even though it's come down in price over the past two years, VMware Workstation is still out of most people's price range for home use. Businesses save money with VMware by reducing hardware costs, but I know a lot of regular home desktop users that would love to use VMware on a non-commercial basis. How about an edition of VMware for non-commercial use at a substantially lower price?
  • Better GNU/Linux integration. It can be a real bear to get "unsupported" GNU/Linux distros to work with VMware Workstation, both as guests and hosts. GNU/Linux support has improved markedly over the past few releases, but it's still not as easy to work with as Windows is.
Purpose Virtual machine
Manufacturer VMware Inc.
Architectures x86, AMD64/EM64T (some processors will not work with 64-bit guest OSes)
License Proprietary, restrictive
Market Support centers, multi-platform software developers
Price (retail) US $200 for the retail box edition, $190 for the download edition. Upgrades from VMware 4.X are $130 for the retail box, and $100 for the download edition. VMware Workstation 5.0 users are entitled to a free upgrade.
Previous version VMware Workstation 5.0
Product Web site Click here