Monday, 22 March 2010 18:08

Parallels Desktop 5 for Mac


Virtualisation software is especially popular among Mac owners who want the flexibility to run Windows applications without having to restart in a Boot Camp installed operating system. How does Parallels Desktop 5 shape up?

I tested Parallels Desktop 5 for Mac build 5.0.9344 with Windows 7. Installation of the host operating system went smoothly thanks in part to Parallels' wizard. It's worth taking a few extra moments to install Parallels Tools within windows for tighter integration.

If you've ever used a virtualisation product, you shouldn't be surprised to  learn that the amount of physical memory is important when it comes to performance. My iMac has 3 GB of RAM (more than the minimum that Apple ships, but a fairly modest amount these days) and once Parallels is launched it takes around a minute and a half to restore a suspended VM.

For comparison, my Windows PC (with a 3.16 GHz Core 2 Duo rather than the iMac's 2.4GHz) starts Windows 7 from cold in 50 sec.

A lot of the delay seems to go on paging out other Mac applications that are running, and if you tend to have as many applications on the go at once as I do, you may notice further pauses when switching between them if Parallels is running. (My Windows 7 VM seemed to take up over 800 MB of real memory, which is a fair chunk out of 3 GB.)

Telling Parallels to optimise its operation for Mac OS X performance rather than Windows performance did seem to help a little in workaday use.

What about Mac/Windows integration? See page 2.

The integration between operating systems was good. For example, the Parallels dock icon gives an almost live view of the Windows desktop, programs running in Windows appear in the Mac OS X Dock, and Mac applications show up in the Parallels Shared Applications folder in Windows 7's Start menu.

Rather than being limited to having Windows running in its own window, Parallels gives the choice of four other modes.

Full screen is what it sounds like, and you can switch back to Mac OS X with a keystroke or by mousing to a hot corner.

Coherence mode puts each running Windows application into its own Mac OS X desktop window, with the Start menu available by clicking the Parallels dock icon. A menu of Windows applications is also available from a folder icon at the right end of the Dock. At smaller icon sizes, this folder isn't very distinctive as it is designed after the other 'special' folders such as Applications.

Crystal mode tightens the integration even further by placing the Start menu and system tray items to the Mac OS X menu bar.

If you're using Coherence or Crystal, there's something to be said for selecting Parallels' MacLook theme which applies a Mac look and feel to Windows windows. Having the familiar red/yellow/green buttons at the top left of a window seems more comfortable than the Windows controls.

More on modes and discussions of defaults on page 3.

Yet in window or full screen mode, it's more natural to stick to one of the native Windows themes. (Aero seemed to work just fine, including Flip 3D.)

Modality is a variation on the traditional window view. The window can be adjusted to any size (the content is scaled, not resized), making it easier to keep an eye on what's happening in Windows while paying most attention to Mac applications. The window's opacity can also be altered, which may be beneficial on smaller screens.

One thing I didn't like was that the default settings automatically download Parallels updates. In countries such as Australia where ISPs often separately meter peak and off-peak downloads, you really need to pick and choose when software updates occur.

On the other hand, Parallels sensibly presents the choice of connecting a newly-detected USB device to Mac OS X or to the active VM. You can then make a permanent association for that device, for example so that your iPod always mounts in Mac OS X. Another sensible default is that VMs are not backed up by Time Machine.

I also liked that way Parallels doesn't 'capture' the mouse, requiring a special keystroke to return control to Mac OS X. The pointer seamlessly switches back to Mac OS X when it leaves the confines of a Parallels window.

Something I couldn't figure out was that Windows 7 kept reporting that I had no Internet access, even when I was successfully using a web browser or other Internet application.

What else is new? Please read on.

Other new features that I couldn't test (or couldn't conveniently test) given the hardware I used include support for multiple CPU cores per VM, multi-touch trackpad gestures, and multi-monitor support.

If you were planning to make daily use of Windows (or another OS), I can see that spending $200 or so on a 20in monitor could be a good investment if you have the desk space. But if you're running Parallels to gain access to a single Windows-only application (eg, the Australian version of QuickBooks), you're probably better served by Coherence or Crystal.

System administrators may like the way Parallels can be configured to disallow changes to the VM configuration without an admin password.

And if you're already using virtualisation, Parallels Desktop claims to import VMs from its earlier versions, plus VMware Fusion, Microsoft Virtual PC, and VirtualBox.

So would I use Parallels? Ignoring the fact that part of my work requires the use of a non-virtualised Windows system (when I'm reviewing hardware or software, I don't want to worry whether any issues that arise are caused by to virtualisation), my answer so far is yes.

If I only needed access to QuickBooks, Internet Explorer (eg, for web compatibility testing), or some other specific application or two, I'd probably be happy with Crystal. But if the idea was to avoid switching back and forth between two separate computers during the day then I'm pretty sure I'd add that second screen.

Also, Parallels is a convenient way for a Mac owner to experiment with other operating systems such as the various Linux distributions.

Emma Chizzit? (How much is it?) Find out on the final page - along with details of a current special deal that's quite remarkable.

Parallels Desktop 5 costs $US79.99 including Acronis Disk Director Suite 10.0 (for disk management), Acronis True Image Home 2010 (backup and recovery), a one-year subscription to Parallels Internet Security 2009 by Kaspersky (anti-malware, etc).

As a boxed retail product in Australia, the RRP is $A109.95.

At the time of writing (and until the end of March), Parallels Desktop is also available as part of the $US50 MacUpdate bundle, so you'd be ahead even if you didn't need the other nine applications in the bundle (in which case you're allowed to gift them to someone else).


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Stephen Withers

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Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.



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