One of the advantages of the Apple Macintosh is that it’s the only computer consumers can buy that is able to run both Apple’s own Mac operating system and Microsoft Windows on the same machine. That means that, if you prefer the Mac environment, but need to run a program only available in Windows, you can do so on the same Mac, and even at the same time.
For instance, while I am writing this column on a Mac laptop in the Mac OS, using the Mac version of Microsoft Word, I am also simultaneously running the latest versions of Internet Explorer and Outlook—which aren’t available for the Mac—in Windows, on the same machine. I can switch back and forth among these programs with ease.
Now, the two most popular software products for accomplishing this feat, Parallels and VMware Fusion, have been updated to run faster, and to support the latest versions of the two operating systems, Apple’s (AAPL) Snow Leopard and Microsoft’s (MSFT) Windows 7. Each costs $80 and requires a Mac running an Intel processor.
I’ve been comparing these latest versions, called Parallels Desktop 5 and VMware Fusion 3, using each to run Windows 7 on the same Mac laptop powered by Snow Leopard. My verdict is that, after falling behind Fusion for awhile, Parallels is now the best choice again. In my tests, it proved to be both faster, and more capable of handling the heavy-duty visual effects in Windows 7.
Both programs work by creating a so-called virtual machine—a software version of a physical computer—on the Mac. Inside these faux PCs, you can install any of dozens of operating systems and the applications that run on them. That includes numerous versions of Windows, including Windows XP and Vista, and, now, Windows 7. In order to do this, you will have to buy separately a new, full (not an upgrade) version of Windows, which costs about $200.
Both programs can run either the full Windows desktop, or individual Windows programs with the desktop hidden. Parallels now comes with a new mode, called Crystal, which integrates the Windows system even more, by placing the Windows Start menu and system tray icons in the Mac’s own top menu bar.
These virtual-machine programs shouldn’t be confused with Apple’s own built-in solution for running Windows on a Mac, called Boot Camp, which also has recently been updated to handle Windows 7. Boot Camp can’t run the two operating systems simultaneously; you must reboot the computer to switch between them. That gives Windows sole control of the hardware when it’s running, but many people find Boot Camp inconvenient. I didn’t test Boot Camp for this review.
Fusion 3, from Silicon Valley company VMware (VMW), is a relatively minor revision. The latest version is mainly designed to add speed, simplify the interface, make it compatible with Snow Leopard and Windows 7, and to improve graphics performance. It achieves most of these goals, but I still found it ran more slowly with Windows 7 than it did with Windows XP. It also was significantly pokier than Parallels 5.
In addition, I found that Fusion had occasional trouble with the transparency effects in Windows 7, such as its ability to turn transparent Windows that are open so you can see your desktop. It also occasionally switched off Windows’ new Aero feature, which offers live previews of task-bar icons. It sometimes turned all my Windows desktop icons white momentarily.
The bigger story is the comeback of Parallels, which is made by a Swiss-based firm of the same name. It was the first virtual-machine program for Intel-based Macs, but got eclipsed by Fusion. Now, the fifth version of Parallels is much faster and much better at the sophisticated graphics upon which Windows 7 relies.
In my tests, on a 2008-vintage MacBook Pro with 4 gigabytes of memory, Parallels 5 started up and had Windows 7 ready to roll nearly two minutes faster than Fusion 3. Windows 7 Home Premium launched from a cold start within Parallels about a minute faster than it did inside Fusion. And, when I restarted Windows 7 with several common programs running, it took two minutes and 23 seconds in Parallels 5, versus over four minutes in Fusion 3.
Beyond that, I found Parallels 5 handled the graphical previews and transparent effects in Windows 7 more quickly and smoothly than Fusion did. The Aero previews of running programs in the task bar appeared more quickly.
Also, I found Parallels 5 played high-definition video in Windows more smoothly than Fusion did. It also seemed to slow down the Mac side of the computer less.
Parallels isn’t perfect. In particular, it displays a black screen for a bit during start-up, something the company says it hopes to fix. And, while it shares the Mac’s printer, it confusingly mislabels it.
Neither of these programs is the answer for Mac owners who want to run the latest heavy-duty games or other graphics-intensive programs in Windows 7. For them, I recommend either Boot Camp or a separate Windows PC.
But, if you’re looking to run typical, everyday Windows programs on a Mac without rebooting, Parallels 5 is now the best solution.