I recently reviewed VirtualBox in a previous article and gave it a good review, despite some shortcomings. Since that time I decided to try (and subsequently buy) Parallels Desktop 5 for Mac. Part of the reason for my decision to do so was simply down to the fact that VirtualBox is now maintained by Oracle and I’m no fan of Oracle. They write great database apps but they have no business at all buying MySQL (except to inhibit it’s growth) and I see no reason why they should have bought Sun (and therefore VirtualBox). But that’s a different story.
The good news, from Parallels perspective is that Oracle buying Sun made me look at Parallels more closely!
So – what is Parallels Desktop for Mac?
Just like VirtualBox and VMWare, if you want to run MS Windows applications you either need to dual boot your Mac using Bootcamp, or you need some sort of ‘virtualisation’ product. Virtualisation enables your Mac computer to run another operating system (either MS Windows, Linux, DOS, OS/2 or even another flavour of OSX if you like) at the same time your normal OSX is running. It does this by kind of putting the other operating system (known as a guest operating system) inside it’s own virtual machine.
You can think of computer virtualisation a little like a greenhouse in your back garden. The world is your computer, Parallels/VMWare/VirtualBox are the greenhouse. They both have an environment, but the greenhouse is encapsulated within the main environment. If it rains in the real environment it doesn’t necessarily do so in the greenhouse. The greenhouse might be warmer. They’re essentially completely separate environments, but the greenhouse cannot exist without the world. And so it is with computer virtualisation. Your Mac is the world and Parallels provides a greenhouse – or guest environment.
What’s Good About Parallels?
Installing Parallels is extremely simple. Download a trial from www.parallels.com and double click the Installer icon that should autostart when it’s finished downloading. You don’t need to any more than that to get started.
Parallels seems to be faster with less configuring/tweaking than VirtualBox. I was surprised just how quick it runs. It also doesn’t seem to interfere with the normal operation of your mac quite as much either. I found I didn’t need to put the video card into ‘performance’ mode just to run Safari for instance.
Parallels provides fantastic integration with the DockBar. If you run in Coherence mode, you’ll find that your Windows Start Menu becomes an icon on your Mac dockbar. Clicking it will bring up the familiar Windows start menu where you can fire off other applications. These applications show separately on the dockbar too, so if you have Internet Explorer and QuickBooks open, you’ll see those icons on your dockbar, making switching between Mac apps and Windows apps almost seamless.
If you can’t see where you left one of your Windows windows, fear not because you can use Expose to see all your Windows apps just as if they’re Mac OSX apps if you’re using Coherence Mode.
Parallels will import Virtual Machines from VirtualBox and/or VMWare and does so with little to no user input required. It even installs the Parallels Guest Tools automatically, hiding the installation behind a ‘feel good’ window – but bringing the guest out to the front if something goes astray.
Parallels supports Aero in Vista and Windows 7. Whether that’s a good thing is debatable depending on your tastes of course, but it’s a feature that is claimed to work on VirtualBox but doesn’t. At least I could never get it to work with VirtualBox. DirectX 9 is claimed to be supported in both VB and Parallels and although I’ve not yet tried it on Parallels it was another one I could not get going on VB. Given that Aero does work, I suspect there’s more chance of some of my 3D games (especially the older ones) running under Parallels. Which will be nice.
One of the best features, from a seamless integration point of view, is that Parallels supports Multitouch. This means that if you are viewing a web page in Internet Explorer and the font is a little small, you can use the pinch gesture to zoom out. Along with the two fingered stroke to scroll around too, it’s fantastic.
Drag and Drop of files between Finder and Windows Explorer is out of this world. You don’t need to use Shared Folders any more (though you can if you want). If a file is on your Mac drive but you want to move it into the Windows Virtual Machine, open up Explorer, open up Finder, drag the file from Finder onto Explorer and it’s copied, just as if you were going from one Finder window to another. It couldn’t be easier.
Given the performance footprint of Parallels I’ve actually found on occasions that I’ve forgotten that I’ve left it running. The Parallels software will automatically optimise memory usage so you don’t have to specify using a certain amount – and I’m sure I saw somewhere that it will put the guest OS to sleep if it’s not being used. But I can’t seem to find that option again now!
What’s Not So Good?
Well, Parallels costs money, VirtualBox is free. Although to be fair, if you’re using VB in a corporate or non personal setting you’re supposed to buy a license too. To be honest, $79 for Parallels is actually extremely good value.
Copy and Paste of images is touted as a big Plus of Parallels but I couldn’t get it to work. I’m probably missing the plot on something there though.
The MacLook Windows theme is pretty awful. It uses Window Blinds under the hood and I’ve previously had no end of trouble with Windows Blinds causing some serious system instability under Windows. That’s more Windows and Window Blinds problem than it is Parallels, but by offering it as an option they’ve made it their problem too.
Parallels seems to absolutely require Intel VT-X hardware virtualisation. I’m not sure how much of a restriction this is for genuine Apple hardware (it certainly isn’t on both my MacBook Pro nor iMac) but it can be a restriction on Hackintosh. It may be a restriction on earlier genuine Apples too.
Like any virtualization you really do need the RAM to be able to make it work well. My 4G MBP barely notices its running, but if I only had 1G I suspect I’d struggle.
What’s Not So Good About This Review?
There’s SO much to Parallels Desktop for Mac – the various ways of integrating with the OSX desktop (Window Mode, Coherence Mode, Crystal Mode, Modal Mode) and so many features available that this review has only really skimmed the surface. But if you have Windows software you need to run on your Mac and want to do it as seamlessly as possible then Parallels really is for you.
I’ll try installing some games to see how well it performs – if it performs at all. I used to like playing Auran Trainz, but could not get that to work at all under VirtualBox – I’ll see how I go with Parallels.
Positives: Great Customer Care, reasonably quick, imports various VM formats
Negatives: Non-free, upgrade treadmill
Trial Available: Yes, limited