Mac OS X only offers a few virtualisation apps, but the competition is strong. We’ve chosen Parallels as our favourite thanks to its excellent performance, ease of use and fantastic Mac-specific feature set.
- Easy installation of popular operating systems like Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X
- Run multiple virtualised environments simultaneously
- Windows virtualisation offers many methods of integrating your virtualised environment with Mac OS X, such as file sharing (even via drag and drop) and external device sharing
- Coherence mode lets you run virtualised Windows applications just like they’re regular applications in Mac OS X
- Virtualised Windows environments support your Mac’s multitouch gestures, Éxpose and Spaces (or Mission Control in OS X Lion)
- Supports Mac OS X Lion’s full screen mode (which is actually really great for virtualised environments)
- Easily install Mac OS X Lion to a virtual machine from your restore partition
- Parallels Transporter ($5.49) helps you move your files from your existing Windows machine to the virtualised Windows machine on your new Mac
- Parallels Mobile ($5.49)
- Buy a copy of Windows directly from the Parallels app
- Fast performance all-around
- Capable of playing pretty much any game your hardware can handle, allowing the allocation of up to 1GB of video RAM
- Surround Sound 7.1 support
Parallels Desktop is really a well-thought out application that has worked to consistently improve overall performance with every version and add new features to make virtualisation easy enough for anybody. Installation was never complicated in the first version of Parallels, but now you pretty much just give it a disc (or disk image) and it handles the entirety of the installation for you. Since version 6 (the current version is 7) I’ve been repeatedly surprised at how fast it runs and how easy it is to set up a virtual machine. You can always count on things getting faster and easier with each new version.
Parallels was designed to work with Microsoft Windows. While it certainly supports Linux and Mac OS X virtualised environments just fine, Windows is clearly the focus. This is evident when you start using your virtualised environment and see how integrated Windows becomes. Files are shared between them. It’s easy to access Windows apps directly from Mac OS X. With Coherence Mode enabled, you can even run any Windows app as if it is natively supported. It’ll show up in your dock, have its own window and respond like it’s a Mac app. You can also run Windows full screen, in a Window or in Modality Mode (which makes your virtual machine transparent). You have a ton of options.
If you’re looking to run more than Windows, Parallels can handle Linux and Mac OS X as well. You can even install OS X Lion from the restore partition on your existing Mac. The overall idea behind Parallels Desktop seems to be taking the pain and tedious effort out of virtualisation, and, in this regard, the software is very successful.
There are very few drawbacks to Parallels. Since we tend to opt for free software in most cases, Parallels’ $US80 price tag might seem a bit high. You do get a good discount on upgrades, however, as those usually are priced at $US50 (and often $US40 when first released). That said, it’s a great application and warrants the cost. If you’re looking for something a little more free, check out our competition section.
As for issues with the software itself, there isn’t much to speak of. Sometimes finding a particular setting in your virtual machine can be daunting because there are a remarkable number of options. Setup is so simple that when you go in to edit your machine’s preferences it’s almost shocking that there is so much available to configure. Once you get used to where things are it isn’t bad, but it seems contrary to the simplicity found in the majority of the Parallels Desktop application. I’ve also noticed Parallels Tools sometimes forgets its installed on my Windows virtual machine, and other little quirks here and there, but nothing that particularly problematic. These little things should be expected with pretty much any virtualisation software, just as they should be expected with any computer. When you’re dealing with operating systems, there will always be a few unusual and minor things that pop up.
VMWare Fusion ($US80, currently $US50 via promotion) is Parallels’ primary competition and is preferred by some. Performance and features are mostly on-par when it comes to Windows virtualisation (albeit a little slower at times), but VMWare’s gaming performance doesn’t stack up. It also doesn’t have 3D support in Linux, if that matters to you. At the moment it’s cheaper than Parallels by $US30, so that may be enough of a draw if gaming doesn’t interest you. VMWare Fusion is still a solid choice, but we feel, at this time, Parallels is noticeably better.
Virtualbox is your free option. It doesn’t offer a feature set that comes even close to Parallels or VMWare, but it also doesn’t cost anything at all. If you simply need a virtualised environment for mostly any operating system and you don’t need any of the hand-holding provided by your paid options, it’s a solid choice. It’s even preferred by some because it offers more technical features that other options do not. Basically, VirtualBox is a good alternative for you if you don’t want to pay or are more interested in running a test environment than using your favourite Windows and Linux applications on your Mac.
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