Parallels Desktop - A True Killer App for Mac With New Beta Features

by Chris Howard Dec 19, 2006

A recent article in eWeek listed 25 killer apps since the dawn of personal computing. Apple got a look in with Mac Write, Mac Paint, iTunes and OS X (the only operating system on the list), plus a few other Mac based apps. I don’t agree with a few things on the list, and particularly the absences (eg Word Perfect, Windows 95, Apache, and Word for Windows). To my mind, a killer app should either kill off an existing market leader, or be the reason a person buys a particular platform.

With that definition in mind, add to the list Parallels Desktop for the Mac. It scores on both. Parallels Desktop has become the choice of many on the Mac platform for running Windows applications. It has even knocked off Apple’s own solution, Boot Camp. There are alternatives to running Windows on a Mac, but Parallels Desktop has reduced them all to also rans.

Secondly, and excitingly, Parallels Desktop will sell Macs.

It’s only got one challenge - one very big challenge. Who needs it?

A while ago I tested Q, an emulator that runs quite okay on Intel Macs (but painfully slow on PPC Macs) and said for many people who have only the occasional need for Windows, it is an acceptable solution.

Since then I’ve been testing Parallels Desktop and I’d recommend it without hesitation - but it’s even more impressive considering it is the newcomer to the market, with Parallels Inc only opening shop in July 2005.

The hardest thing about reviewing it though has been finding a need. I usually review software I have a need for and, in Parallels Desktop, I was sure I had a need to run Windows applications to. . . you know. . . um. . .  Maybe the Mac does provide all the apps I need.

In the end, running Windows XP on it, I tried Mavis Beacon Typing Tutor, The Sims (version 1), Age of Empires and Palm software.

Parallels Desktop is of course an Intel Mac only app and is still in development. But development is happening at a rapid rate as Parallels Desktop’s short history attests.

Parallels Desktop supports a plethora of guest operating systems, including every nearly Windows from 3.1 to Vista; several Linuxes; FreeBSD, OS/2 and eComStation; Solaris; and MS-DOS 6.22. I’ve only tried Parallels Desktop with Windows so can’t comment on its reliability or otherwise with other OSes, although did successfully get a Ubuntu Live CD running; however, that’s all I did with Linux under Parallels Desktop.

Unfortunately, the one operating system it doesn’t support is OS X. Technically, it is possible; however Apple won’t allow it, which is a shame as it would be very useful for developers and others requiring a test environment. It’s interesting, because one of Microsoft’s reasons for buying Virtual PC a few years ago was it wanted to provided better support for users who wanted to run virtual Windows sessions in Windows. Shame Apple can’t be so accommodating.

In action
The configuration of the Virtual Machine (VM) I installed, to balance speed in XP and impact on OS X, is 256MB RAM and 8GB HDD (not compressed). If I was running multiple applications in XP, I’d increase that to 512MB.

Although Parallels Desktop skips along at full speed, the rest of your system does take a hit. This is to be expected with any application using so many resources (CPU, memory). The more memory in your system, the less that impact will be. 1GB is the minimum recommended.

With the XP VM, one of the nicest features of Parallels Desktop quickly becomes evident. You don’t need any shortcut keys to move the mouse out of the Windows VM. In a Linux VM and on other systems, such as Q, you need to press ctrl+option before the VM will release the mouse. For seamless integration with OS X, this is a small thing that makes a big difference to the user experience.

In the current version, some of Parallels Desktop’s features are only available through a Windows add-in called Parallels Tools, such as folder sharing.

Parallels Desktop runs at the full speed of the processor it is running on. I found it to be as fast as any Windows computer I’ve ever used. The applications I tested with it all ran better than I could have hoped.

One problem I encountered (and I’ve had the same problem with other virtual machine solutions on PCs and Macs) is a clash between usage of devices. For instance, I cannot perform a sync of my Palm if a VM is running. Also, sometimes the VM and OS X clash over which has access to a CD or DVD.

Parallels Desktop doesn’t yet support:
- Disc burning
- Playing of audio CDs
- 3D graphics hardware acceleration
- Dual monitors (although with dual monitors, you can run it on either)
- USB 2.0
- Inbuilt Mac devices such as iSight cameras

Parallels is working on these issues and, according to its FAQ, hope to have some of them fixed possibly by the next major upgrade.

One other niggle I have is that when you close the last window in Parallels Desktop, it shuts down the application. I’d much rather it defaulted back to the VM selection window. Currently it’s akin to if Word quit when you closed the last open document.

Once you’ve used Parallels Desktop you’ll find it hard to consider Boot Camp because you have to reboot, and Q because it is much slower. That said, both still have their roles, Boot Camp if you want all the features of Windows (although at the rate of Parallels Desktop’s development, that could come to it within twelve months); and Q if you do only have the rare need for Windows apps and not heavy duty ones - and of course Q is free.

Parallels Desktop is a killer app that will sell Macs, but you may be surprised to find you don’t need Windows as much as you thought you might. With Parallels Desktop solid feature set, excellent stability and continued rapid development, it is a must see for anyone wanting to run Windows apps. 8/10

Beta features
Lately I have been running the new beta version, build 3036. It has more than 20 enhancements, some of them quite significant. So here’s a few thoughts on some of them.

Speed!!! It has been quite noticeable since installing the latest beta version that resources management has been greatly improved. I find I can now leave Windows XP running without any performance hits unless I run another resource hungry app, whereas before build 3036 performance was affected in most applications.

If performance is an issue, rather than suspending your VM, you can now pause it. The Suspend button has become a Pause button. This is really useful as it provides a quick way to minimize the VM’s CPU usage on your system. This is a nice addition although I’d still like a Suspend button. (Suspend is still available from the menus.)

Coherence is a feature everyone is talking about. It makes VM’s background disappear, leaving only any open application windows. You can also retain the Taskbar.

Coherence is gimmicky in the sense that it uses a clever trick rather than actually only running a single app which many at first thought it did. The drawbacks of this solution are you can’t drag Windows apps to other displays; and selecting any Windows app, brings all of them to the foreground (thus covering OS X apps). It looks impressive as the screenshot accompanying this article shows, but just don’t expect it to be something similar to CrossOver (which is still in very early beta on the Mac).

That screenshot, by the way, shows iDVD and Pages in OS X, and Internet Explorer, Calculator and Solitaire in Windows. And, in fact, as it’s Pages v1, you see a an Intel native app, Rosetta emulation and Parallels virtualization all running happily on one computer. That’s pretty impressive.

All that said, many people will find Coherence mighty useful, especially those with single displays.

Express install of Windows XP or Vista sounds very useful but I didn’t test it as, for the time being, I’ve used up all my chances with Microsoft for re-using my product key.

This new build allows you to boot from a “Boot Camp” installation of Windows. It has a couple of small limitations in that you can’t suspend a VM booted from a “Boot Camp” Windows, and you need to reactivate the Product Key. Again for Product Key reasons I didn’t test, but it is very promising as you could have just the the one VM with all your apps, and those that needed the full system, you would run in the “Boot Camp” version of Windows.

A very appreciated feature is automatic screen resizing. In the new beta, you now can resize the VM window just like you would any OS X window, and the VMs resolution will adjust accordingly. That is exceptionally useful.

A new tool, Parallels Transporter, lets you migrate Windows PCs, or VMs from VMware or Virtual PC to Parallels Desktop VMs. Again, I didn’t test but can see that being quite useful.

Modifier-key remapping allows you to use command-Z, A, X, C, V (etc) keys in Windows!! Yay! That is really useful.

Another good thing about the beta version is some features that could only be activated through Parallels Tools, can now be enabled within the VM configuration, thus providing them to other OSes.

With these improvements in beta 3036, I’d rate Parallels Desktop an 8.5/10

With the development effort being put into Parallels Desktop, in a year or so, I expect I’ll be giving it a 10/10.


  • I see an ad for iListen on the side of this page, but my main reason for maintaining a Windows machine is Dragon Naturally Speaking, which I think is way ahead of any Mac speech recognition package at this time. The only other reason I can think of for keeping a Windows machine: frustrating incompatibilities that still crop up between MS Office on Windows and MS Office for Macs, especially in Japanese.

    datsuzei had this to say on Dec 19, 2006 Posts: 1
  • Unfortunately for me, I run resource heavy apps in Windows that necessitate Boot Camp.  Otherwise, I’d be all over Parallels.  Once they get full gfx acceleration and as close to 100% speed as they can, I’ll definitely get it.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Dec 21, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • <In a Linux VM and on other systems, such as Q, you need to press ctrl+option before the VM will release the mouse. For seamless integration with OS X, this is a small thing that makes a big difference to the user experience.>

    Sorry, also true for VPC7.2- hate to put this out here, but actually as long as VPC is the only virtual platform running on PPCs stably, it will still have its place on the market… I suppose this compatibility issue will never be resolved, sounded like a predisposition to run intel processors for parallel’s ever since- pity… I’ll use my G4 PB for quite a while still wink...

    mat!-) had this to say on Dec 22, 2006 Posts: 13
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