Reviewed by Ron Schoedel, for Alaskan Apple Users Group
Parallels Desktop for Mac 5.0
Pros: Slick new interface, 3D video support including games, super fast virtualization, excellent integration with Mac OS and files and folders on your Mac, Mac gesture support in Windows, MacLook theme
Cons: Internet Security was installed with obsolete definitions and a corrupt blacklist, producing errors that I could not get rid of without uninstalling it
Parallels has come a long way since 2006, when the little-known developers from Ukraine released the first version of Parallels Desktop for Mac to run Windows on then-new Intel Macs. Less than four years later, Parallels is at Version 5 and sports a new look and new integration features designed to make using Windows a little more Mac-like. With competition from WMWare to keep the stakes high, Parallels has not stayed still but has pushed Windows virtualization on Mac into the future once again. This is not emulation as you may recall from the days of Virtual PC.
As an incoming law student, I am required (if I wish to use a Mac at school) to have Windows specifically as a Boot Camp installation for exams, which run in a special "lockdown" mode. Were it not for this, I would run Windows in virtualization only. But since I mostly want to use my Windows apps within the Mac OS, my primary criteria for a successful Parallels experience is how well it can run Windows from my Boot Camp partition. I was not prepared for how incredible and impressive the experience would be.
Parallels' "out of the box" ease of installation is, um, unparalleled. When I launched Parallels, it immediately detected and offered to start my Boot Camp partition. It took several minutes to automatically install Parallels Tools into Windows, which is the magically delicious utility that makes Windows aware of things like Mac trackpad gestures, keyboard input, mouse movements, and other goodness. Less than 10 minutes after downloading the Parallels installer, my Windows XP Boot Camp partition was being virtualized before my eyes.
The next pleasant surprise was that, without any configuration, internet access in Windows just worked. Parallels passed through my internet connection without any hassle or difficulty whatsoever. No need to fiddle with (or know anything about) NAT or IP addresses or ethernet adapters. Ditto for sharing of my Mac OS X Home folder. It just showed up under "My Computer" with no configuration necessary. (The preferences do contain the option to turn off this feature and entirely isolate your Mac from Windows, if you prefer.)
The next task was to install some software in the virtualized environment. I elected to download and install the Microsoft Office 2010 Beta. It was a hefty download, but the data throughput in Windows matched that in Mac, according to my monitoring of KB/s download speeds. I choose to use the Coherence feature, which Parallels debuted a couple versions back, which presents my Windows applications on-screen, set against the backdrop of my Mac environment. All of the Windows toolbars, taskbar, and desktop are hidden, and I get Windows apps with drop shadows that integrate pretty well into my mix of Mac windows that are on-screen. Using the new "MacLook" feature, I skinned my Windows windows to appear similar to OS X. The Windows minimize, maximize and close buttons in the upper right were replaced with the familiar red, yellow, green "stop light" buttons in the upper left, as in Mac OS X. Also, the window toolbars, buttons, progress bars, and the Start menu took on a more Mac-like appearance, with icons that even matched their Mac counterparts. Smooth, Parallels, smooth.
Parallels places a Start menu icon in the Mac dock as well as a Windows app folder at the far right end of the dock, with my Mac folders. Accessing any Windows app is as simple as accessing any file or app on my Mac. It is this sort of polish and attention to user experience that is making Parallels 5 such a joy to use.
In the Parallels preferences is a check box offering to balance performance between my Windows virtual machine and Mac OS X. That sounded good, so I checked it. I gave my Windows box 1 GB of RAM and 256 MB of VRAM, also in the settings, and then booted up with the intention of getting into my Windows apps to see how well they perform.
Office performed exactly as I would expect it to. Typing, scrolling, opening, saving, and working within documents seemed to be at native speeds. I could tell no difference between working in Office in Boot Camp and in Parallels. It all seemed the same to me. Same for OpenOffice, Internet Explorer, Safari for Windows, and Minesweeper (seriously, I put Minesweeper through a strenuous workout).
Next up, I tried a game that requires 3D capabilities. I'm not much of a gamer, so I don't have big-name games to try and FPS stats to boast about. But I do have Lego Indiana Jones for Windows. I'll admit to having been skeptical of the 3D video claims at first. But after installing the game, switching Parallels into Full-Screen mode, and launching Indy, I was just amazed at how smooth the graphics looked and how well the game played. I imagine there must be some frame rate difference between running the game in Boot Camp versus Parallels, but playing the game I noticed no difference to my eyes.
With all of the praise I have to heap upon Parallels, I also have one bone to pick. Installing the included Kaspersky Internet Security utility was a disaster. I got an endless loop of error messages about outdated definitions, followed by a complete inability for the program to update itself. Each attempt to download the updates resulted in a complete hang with no progress after a minute or so. Removing the Kaspersky Internet Security program proved difficult, and even after uninstalling it, Windows insists on popping up reminders to tell me that the (now-uninstalled) Kaspersky Internet Security was not turned on. To me, this suggests that uninstalling it did not really uninstall all of it. I'm going to have to work on this, because I really do want an antivirus app running if I am using Windows.
I have owned and paid full price for both of the major virtualization programs over the past few years. I have used them both, at various times. Parallels has leap-frogged the competition with this newest release. Parallels has a new home on my Dock.
Yes, we have truly come a long way in the world of Windows on Mac. If all you remember of Windows on Mac was how launching a document in the old VirtualPC could take minutes, you owe it to yourself to download the free trial of Parallels, grab a free trial of Windows, and check it out. Now, if you have no need for Windows, don't bother. But as millions can attest, for those of us with at least one tie to the Windows world (which even I, as a 20-year avid Mac user have a few such ties), Parallels will make your life much simpler and enable you to use the programs you must use on the computer you WANT to use. And that, friends, is worth the small price of admission to the world of virtualization that Parallels provides.
I feel like the difficulties with the included antivirus software do pose a problem, but not a big enough problem to detract from all of the advances Parallels has made and from the shiny new version that runs solidly in literally every other respect. A solid 5 moose rating goes to Parallels 5.