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Parallels Desktop 3.0 for Mac

In technical terms, good stuff gets better By Kevin Schmitt

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last year or so, chances are that you've at least heard that you can run non-Apple operating systems on Intel Macs using a number of methods. The one we're going to concern ourselves today is virtualization, focusing on a product that, to the outside observer, seemed to come out of nowhere in the last year: Parallels Desktop for Mac. Version 3 has just been loosed upon the Mac universe, so let's see what's doing in the latest rev of the virtualization solution for Intel Macs.

Overview and caveat

In this first section, which I'll attempt to keep brief, I'll once again directly address the apparent rock-dwellers among us who may not have heard of Parallels Desktop (hereafter referred to as either PDM or PDM3, depending on context). In a nutshell, PDM is a virtualization solution for Intel-based Macs that allows you to run Windows, Linux, or just about any other x86-based OS "on top of" Mac OS X at near-native speeds. In other words, you can enjoy all the good stuff in OS X and still, for example, have access to that Windows-only specialized application you need for work, and have it run just about as fast as it would on a "real" PC. For example, Web designers may need to check their sites in Internet Explorer, programmers may need to test their applications on other OSes, and so on. PDM makes that possible, and it is generally quite seamless and fast, provided you have sufficient resources on your host machine (RAM, hard disk space, etc.).

Now, keep in mind that virtualization products such as PDM don't work the same way emulation products (such as Virtual PC) used to work on PowerPC machinesóan emulated OS translates calls from one CPU type to another, and as a result was often excruciatingly slow. Virtualization works much better, since a big part of Intel Macs is (as one might expect) the inclusion of Intel chips, which Windows (and other x86-based OSes) is already designed for. So a very simplified way of thinking of it would be that products like PDM simply pass along "messages" in the same language, rather than needing to take the time to translate from one language to another, and the end result as far as speed is concerned is night and day.

Also, let me preface things by placing one of the largest "your mileage may vary" disclaimers I've ever felt the need to include right up front. Folks use PDM for many things, and as a result what may be an awesome experience for some might be a horrid one for others. There are just too many variables (hardware setup, OS version, use case, etc.) to arrive at a blanket recommendation which will satisfy everyone, so I'm going to cover things as they applied to me and let the rest take care of itself. It goes without saying (which is another way of telling you that I'm going to say it anyway) that you should definitely download and test out the 15-day trial version for yourself before plunking down your hard-earned dough. Here endeth the caveatólet's get to the goods.

What's not new

Since this is a review of Parallels Desktop 3, in the interest of getting you all out of here before too long it might be best to list some of the features of note that have been around for a while. Usually, I'll focus on new product features in a piece like this, but in the case of PDM, it may be useful to have a bit more context in order to paint a somewhat complete picture of the full product. In general, one big philosophical note to mention is that most of the advanced integration functions present in PDM are for Windows guest OSes only, so while PDM does support the installation and running of alternate OSes, folks who need Windows are going to get more bang for the buck. Anyway, here are some of the previously alluded-to highlights:

Slick Windows integration. Let's say you need to run Windows XP, which I'm guessing is a reasonably safe assumption for many of you. So, just insert your (bought at retail and perfectly legitimate) Windows XP installation disc, use PDM's Windows Express feature to create a new VM (virtual machine), enter in your name, rank and serial number (fig. 1), and off you go. Depending on the speed of your machine, you should be ready to rock with Windows in less than an hour (typically a Windows VM was up and running in 25-30 minutes for me). From there, install the Parallels Tools inside of your Windows VM, which will enable graphics acceleration, networking, shared folders, and the excellently awesome Coherence mode, which we'll discuss in a minute. From there, it's just a matter of getting to work: files and folders are easy to access from either OS, drag and drop is supported, and even your clipboard is shared between environments.

Figure 1: No, that's not a real product key.

Coherence mode. The addition of Coherence mode, for many, was the Big Bang that made PDM a seamless and supremely workable solution. While you also have your choice of "Windows in a window" or full screen presentation modes, Coherence mode ups the ante by relegating the Windows desktop to the background and allowing program windows to intermingle with native Mac programs in the host OS X environment (fig. 2).

Figure 2

Peripheral support. While somewhat spotty, Parallels Desktop nonetheless offers support for USB-based peripherals, such as printers and thumb drives and the like. Not everything will work, and there is the matter of tracking down appropriate drivers (depending on the peripheral), but I had success with the few things I needed to have Windows recognize (such as hardware dongles).

Transporter. Need to migrate a VM from Virtual PC or VMWare, or even move an actual physical PC into a Parallels VM? The standalone Transporter app can help you do that.

Boot Camp support. If you happen to have a Boot Camp partition on your Mac, PDM can use that instead of making you waste space on another virtual hard drive.

So that's the gist of Parallels Desktop up to this point. Let's take a look at the new features that make PDM3 rocket ahead.

New Features

We're seeing the makings of an epic smackdown in the Mac virtualization space, with VMWare Fusion (still in beta as of this writing) spurring Parallels on and vice versa. So it's not surprising that some of the new features in PDM3 are to simply keep pace with the VMWare product (just as features such as Unity in VMWare Fusion were added to keep pace with Parallels). It's a game of leapfrog that should keep users of both products satisfied. But I digressówe're here to talk about new features in Parallels Desktop 3, so discuss them we shall. In order of importance (to me, anyway, since I'm the reviewer so ha ha), here's the rundown:

Even slicker Windows integration. PDM3 takes Windows integration to a whole new level with SmartSelect, which allows you to open Mac files with Windows apps and Windows files with Mac apps (fig. 3). You can even set what file types open with which Windows applications through a handy menu (fig. 4). PDM3 even mounts the file system of your Windows VM onto your Mac desktop (fig. 5), so you have access to either file system from both environments. Of course, the more security conscious among us will end up shunning this solution, but at least major league integration is available for those willing to take the risk.

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 5

Snapshots. This was one of the big holes in the feature set, so it's a welcome improvement in PDM3. In a nutshell, PDM3 allows you to freeze a VM in a desired state (fig. 6), which you can then roll back to if things go horribly amiss (intentionally or otherwise). So, you're free to install whatever you wish in the knowledge that you can always rewind to a simpler or more stable state, and then proceed to mess everything up again.

Figure 6

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Related Keywords:parallels desktop, virtualization

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