When Apple Computer announced back in April that its new Intel-powered Macintosh computers could run the Windows XP operating system as well as its own Mac OS X, the news was treated as a big deal. It meant that people considering switching from Windows to the Mac no longer had to worry about being unable to run the one or two Windows programs they relied on that might have no equivalent on the Apple platform. They could buy a Mac, work mainly in the nearly virus-free Macintosh operating system, and simply fire up Windows occasionally — on the very same Mac — to run any Windows software they needed.
Now, there’s an even better approach to running Windows on a Mac. It’s called Parallels Desktop for Mac, and it’s from a small Herndon, Va., company called Parallels. It emerges from testing today and goes on sale for $79 at the company’s Web site, parallels.com.
I’ve been testing Parallels Desktop on a new MacBook Pro laptop, and have found it works very well, despite a few drawbacks. I prefer it to Apple’s solution, even though the Apple approach is free and also works very well.
Apple’s system, called Boot Camp, has one big limitation: It allows you to run only one of the two operating systems at a time, requiring you to reboot the computer to switch between them. As a result, you can’t quickly jump between Mac programs and Windows programs. You can’t, for instance, simultaneously download your corporate email in Outlook using Windows while editing a home video in iMovie using the Mac OS.
With Parallels Desktop for Mac, you can do this. You can run any combination of Mac and Windows programs at the same time, on the same screen. No rebooting is necessary. You can even cut and paste material between Mac and Windows programs, and share files between the two environments.
The Parallels approach, called virtualization, runs Windows, with all its features, inside a window in the Mac operating system. It creates a faux Windows PC, called a “virtual machine,” that co-exists with Mac OS X. You can devote the full screen to either operating system or you can reduce Windows, and whatever programs it’s running, to a window on the Mac that can be dragged anywhere on the screen and made as small or as large as you like.
Unlike Boot Camp, Parallels Desktop can run every version of Windows back to Windows 3.1, not just Windows XP. It can also run Linux and even older operating systems like OS/2 and MS-DOS. You can even create and run multiple virtual machines, with different operating systems inside, up to the limit of your Mac’s memory.
Virtualization isn’t a new concept, and it’s not even new on the Mac. Microsoft offers a product called Virtual PC for Mac that runs Windows inside a window on older, pre-Intel Macs. But Virtual PC runs painfully slowly on these older Macs, and it can’t run every Windows program. It doesn’t run at all on the new Intel-based Macs.
Parallels Desktop runs Windows a little more slowly than Apple’s Boot Camp does because it is accessing the Mac’s hardware through the Mac operating system rather than directly, as in a dual-boot system. But, in my tests, it was very snappy, as fast as many regular Windows computers.
Inside my virtual Windows machine, I was able to run programs like the Windows version of Microsoft Office, the Windows versions of the Firefox Web browser, iTunes, Adobe Reader, Google Earth and more. All worked well, as did Microsoft’s Internet Explorer Web browser, Google’s Picasa photo program and Google’s Google Talk instant-messaging software.
I was able to do email in Apple’s Mail program while simultaneously watching a baseball game in Internet Explorer inside my Parallels Desktop Windows virtual machine. I wrote part of this column in the Windows version of Microsoft Word and part in the Mac version, cutting and pasting between the two.
And, unlike Boot Camp, Parallels Desktop doesn’t require you to dedicate a fixed section, or “partition,” of your hard disk to Windows. Its virtual Windows computer is contained in a big Mac data file that uses only as much space as Windows needs.
Setting up Parallels Desktop is fast and easy, though some novice users may find the program’s terminology a little daunting. As with Boot Camp, you have to supply your own copy of Windows to install once you create the virtual machine. And because the virtual Windows machine created by Parallels behaves like a real Windows computer, you have to install the usual raft of Windows security software.
So what are the drawbacks? I couldn’t eject a CD in Parallels without switching back to the Mac environment. Parallels treats fast USB 2.0 ports on the Mac as if they were slower USB 1.1 ports. It doesn’t support Microsoft’s DirectX technology, which many games rely on. The company pledges to fix these things in future versions.
Also, if you elect to use the optional file-sharing feature, your Mac data files could be corrupted or erased by a Windows virus. For that reason, this feature is turned off by default.
Still, Parallels Desktop is a very good product and a pleasure to use. It’s like having two computers in one, the best of both worlds.
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