Parallels Desktop 3.0 [Mac] full review

Parallels Desktop has been a big success since its original release last year, and Parallels claims that there are now around half a million people using this ‘virtualisation’ program to run Windows on their Intel Macs.

Of course, the simplest and cheapest option for running Windows on a Mac is to use Apple’s own Boot Camp software. The disadvantage of using Boot Camp is that you have to shut down your Mac and then restart it in order to switch from the Mac OS to Windows – and then shut down and restart again to return to the Mac OS. This can become a nuisance if you need to keep switching back and forth between operating systems.

In contrast, virtualisation programs such as Parallels Desktop allow you to run Windows within a ‘virtual machine’ that runs in a window on your Mac desktop just like any other Mac program. This means that you get the best of both worlds, with both Mac and Windows programs running alongside each other.

It’s this integration between the Mac and Windows environments that is Parallels’ greatest strength. Version 3.0 of Parallels Desktop improves its ‘Coherence’ feature, which allows you to hide the main Windows desktop and just run individual Windows programs as though they were ordinary Mac programs. When you press the Coherence button, the Windows display neatly slides off the side of your computer screen, leaving just the Windows Taskbar – the Windows equivalent of the Dock – running along the bottom of the screen (the position of the Taskbar adjusts so it doesn’t overlap the Dock).

You can then use the Taskbar to launch any Windows program, such as Internet Explorer, and that program will start to run on the Mac desktop in its own little window (though you can display the full Windows desktop once more by turning off the Coherence option).

The program also includes a new feature called the Parallels Explorer, which is a kind of browser that allows you to view all your Windows programs and files and launch them straight from the Mac desktop. You can also keep icons for Windows programs in the Mac’s Dock and launch them from the Dock, or use the new Smart Select feature to specify which Mac or Windows program is used to open specific types of files.

These new features work well, and make it very easy to switch back and forth between Mac and Windows programs whenever you need to. Your Windows virtual machine won’t run quite as fast as it would if you were using Boot Camp to run Windows by itself, but we were impressed by how fast and responsive Windows was, even on a relatively modest 1.8GHz Mac Mini. We’d recommend having 2GB of RAM in your Mac if possible, as this will help Parallels run more efficiently, but our Mac Mini still did fairly well with just 1GB.

We did, however, experience one big disappointment with this upgrade. One of the headline-grabbing features in Parallels Desktop 3.0 is its support for Microsoft’s DirectX software. This is the software within Windows that allows it to handle 3D graphics, and Parallels now claims that Parallels Desktop 3.0 will let you play “today’s most popular PC games”.

Unfortunately, this just isn’t true. Most PC games released in the last couple of years require DirectX 9 in order to run properly. However, Parallels Desktop only works with the older DirectX 8.1, and we had no success in getting popular PC games such as Far Cry, Guild Wars, and Dark Age Of Camelot to run with Parallels Desktop.

To be fair, it’s asking a lot of Parallels to even attempt to run 3D games at all, but the company does itself no favours by over-hyping this feature. Fortunately, this limitation doesn’t affect Boot Camp, so that’s still an option for people who are really keen on PC games.

That’s our only real criticism of Parallels Desktop, and in all other respects the program works remarkably well. So if you’re thinking of switching from a PC to a Mac, or you’re a Mac user who occasionally needs to run specific Windows programs or files, you’ll find that Parallels Desktop 3.0 provides the (almost) perfect solution.

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