Parallels Desktop 4.0 review

The competition between Parallels Desktop and VMware Fusion is good news for anyone that needs to run Windows on their Intel Mac. Unlike Apple’s Boot Camp – which requires you to shut down and restart the Mac in order to switch between OS X and Windows – these virtualisation programs allow you to run Windows in a ‘virtual machine’ alongside the Mac OS. This means you can effectively use both operating systems at the same time. We were impressed by the recent release of Fusion 2.0 (reviewed Expo 2008), now Parallels has responded with a major upgrade that combines improved performance with a host of useful new features.

The first thing you’ll notice is the redesigned interface, which aims to simplify the process of installing Windows and setting up your virtual machines. You can create a new virtual machine or import an existing one created in an earlier version of Parallels. Installing Windows on Parallels Desktop was definitely quicker than with Fusion, and we liked the option to ‘share’ desktops, so that folders or files on your Mac desktop are added to the Windows desktop inside the virtual machine for easy access.

However, one thing that puzzled us at this point was that there was no mention of Boot Camp. Like Fusion, Parallels Desktop can work with a copy of Windows that you’ve already installed using Boot Camp, so that, instead of having to shut down the Mac in order to switch over to Boot Camp, you can use the Boot Camp partition as a virtual machine. Unfortunately, Parallels didn’t automatically detect the Boot Camp partition on our iMac. We had to run the Virtual Machine Assistant a couple of times before we were able to create a virtual machine using our Boot Camp partition.

Fortunately, things ran more smoothly once Parallels Desktop was properly installed. Parallels claims that it’s completely rewritten the program to provide better performance, and we definitely noticed that Windows programs ran much faster and felt more responsive with this version. In fact, we’d go so far as to say that the performance improvement alone is enough to justify existing users upgrading.

There are other welcome improvements. In addition to the Coherence mode (which puts the Windows Taskbar at the bottom of the Mac desktop so you can quickly launch Windows programs), there’s a Modality view, which shrinks the Windows virtual machine down into a kind of miniature transparent preview window. This lets you carry on working in other Mac programs, but continue to monitor tasks such as file downloads that might be taking place within the virtual machine.

Like Fusion, Parallels Desktop allows you to take ‘snapshots’ that effectively freeze the Windows virtual machine and store it so that you can revert to the snapshot in case anything goes wrong with the virtual machine. Version 4.0 now allows you to schedule snapshots to take place at regular intervals, ensuring that you’ve always got recent backups available. You can also run the virtual machine in ‘safe mode’, which asks if you want to keep any changes that you made to the Windows set-up before you shut the virtual machine down. This is useful for testing beta software or trying out software downloaded from the internet. If you’re worried the software is going to cause problems you can shut down the virtual machine using safe mode and it will throw away any changes that were made during that session. For ultimate security, Parallels even includes a 12-month subscription to the popular Kaspersky Internet Security software for PCs to protect your virtual machine when you’re online.

Other new features include a set of 20 voice-recognition commands for controlling your virtual machine, improved 3D graphics support, and the ability to use external USB drives with your Mac and the virtual machine at the same time, so you can instantly swap files between the two. There are even plans to release a program that will let you control Parallels from an iPhone or iPod touch – though this wasn’t available as we went to press.

There’s one other new feature that opens up some interesting possibilities for the future. As well as creating virtual machines for running Windows or Linux, you can now create a virtual machine that runs Leopard Server. This could be useful for business users who don’t want to dedicate a machine to running Leopard Server all the time.

OUR VERDICT

The initial installation process has a couple of rough edges that could be smoothed over. However, the new features in Parallels Desktop 4.0 certainly make it easier to use Windows programs on your Mac, and to exchange data and files between the two operating systems. The improved performance is also impressive, and makes Parallels Desktop an excellent option for anyone that needs to run Mac and Windows software side by side.

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