Running Windows XP or Windows 7 on a Mac is a breeze: just install Boot Camp or a Virtual Machine and you’re off. Virtual Machines are more efficient if you want to exchange files and other data between operating systems. There are two commercial VMs available: VMware Fusion and Parallels for Mac. I tested the latter and found it to perform better than the former in more than one way.
Hypervisor based desktop virtualization applications like Parallels enable users to run operating systems and the applications that run on them inside a sort of virtual computer — a black box if you wish — in their known OS environment. This is the most important difference between a system like Parallels and Boot Camp on the Mac. If you want the utmost in comfort; i.e. the ability to switch between OSes and the associated applications, you install a virtualization program.
On the Mac, your choice of paid for and supported applications is either VMware Fusion or Parallels. The latter is the subject of this review. Parallels can run all sorts of Windows versions, but also all sorts of Linux versions, and even some versions of Unix.
Switching from an existing virtual machine, such as from VMware’s Fusion is extremely easy with Parallels. It’s in fact so easy you might see over it. All you need to do is… select the Open item from the File menu and Parallels will do the rest. It will automatically launch Transporter and convert the virtual machine to a new one that Parallels can run. A tool set for easy integration with Mac OS X will be installed too.
There are two features that I couldn’t test with Parallels Desktop 6: Parallels Mobile, which allows you to access your virtual machines from an iPod Touch, an iPhone, or an iPad, and Windows games performance — I guess the latter has been reviewed so many times already, I can safely refer you to one of those other reviews.
When you start Parallels after having migrated from VMware Fusion, the first thing you’ll notice is performance. In all areas, Parallels clearly beats Fusion and by much more than a margin. The second thing that you might not see immediately is the inclusion of Windows backup software (Acronis Image Home) and anti-virus software (Kaspersky 90-days complimentary license). None of this is delivered with VMware Fusion.
Another difference between VMware Fusion and Parallels: Parallels does not dump some 4 extensions and daemons in your system library folders, which will have to run all the time. Honestly, the VMware daemons and extensions never caused problems, but they so take up memory, albeit small amounts. Parallels on the other hand seems to only take up memory when it’s actually running. To make exchanging files and folders between Windows and OS X a real no-brainer, Parallels comes with MacFUSE, a virtual disk application.
MacFUSE allows Parallels to offer the user a virtual disk mounted on the Mac OS X desktop, just like any other disk. This is both a blessing and a pain. The disk’s structure is not immediately obvious, so its structure and content can easily be broken by an ignorant user who can remove files from it. However, if you want to copy files over to the Windows system, the “C-drive” may be the fastest way to do so.
There are three modes: Full screen, Coherence, and Modality. Coherence makes the Windows system behave as if it were integrated with Mac OS X — you won’t see a window inside which Windows is running. Modality is a special window mode. It allows you to customise the window inside which Windows (or another OS) is running and place that window side-by-side with other Mac OS X windows. This opens perspectives for developing software, web sites, etc.
Full screen is what you think it is. My personal favourite is the normal, windowed version or Modality because it gives me some assurance over which environment I’m working in.
Parallels is also very good at recognizing and using devices Mac OS X doesn’t know about. At first I thought this was the area where Parallels would lose out against VMware Fusion, but I was dead wrong. I tried hooking up my Zebra GX430t desktop label printer. That failed the first time. It worked the second time.
The reason why it failed the first time is that I ignored the Help file which says you can customise the way USB connections work. I should have opted for “Ask me what to do”. When you do, as soon as you hook up a USB device, a large popup appears with icons that let you choose to connect the device to Mac OS X or to Windows. If you forget to connect the device before starting Parallels the next time, it won’t nag you as VMware Fusion does. It will simply present you with the same popup again as soon as you plug in the device.
In terms of performance Parallels is indeed a lot faster than VMware Fusion, and not just with games. I tested various things that wouldn’t work or make Windows 7 hang when running in VMware Fusion. They all hummed along under Parallels. It seems Parallels Desktop 6 has won the war in the virtualization market for now. It costs approx. 60.00 Euros for a license.