Walt Mossberg

In a Parallels World, Mac and Windows Coexist App-ily

I am writing these words in a preview version of the new edition of Microsoft Word, which is running in a pre-release version of a radically redesigned edition of Windows, called Windows 8. But I’m not doing any of this on a Windows PC. I’m doing it on a Mac, while simultaneously running standard Mac programs, such as Apple Mail and iPhoto.

Both Word for Windows and the colorful, tiled Windows 8 start screen are running on a MacBook Air. Scrolling is smooth and quick, as are visual effects. Web pages appear at normal speed in Internet Explorer. Videos, music and photos work well in Windows programs, including new full-screen apps in Windows 8.

Meanwhile, my Mac programs are running well, and I can switch between Windows programs and Mac programs quickly and easily.

What makes this all possible is Parallels 8, a new version of the leading Mac utility for running Windows and Windows programs with regular Mac programs. Parallels 8, set for release this week, has been especially tailored to take advantage of, and to integrate, new features in the latest Mac operating system, Mountain Lion, and in Windows 8, which is due out Oct. 26.

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Parallels 8 on a Mac, with running Mac and Windows apps, which have red lines on their icons.

This isn’t a review of either Windows 8 or of the new Office for Windows. It’s a review of Parallels 8, which I’ve been testing for about a week. It can run older versions of Windows, such as Windows 7, which worked well for me. Because running Windows 8 is a key feature of Parallels, I spent a lot of my testing time using a pre-release version of the new Microsoft operating system via Parallels.

Parallels 8 does a fine job of running Windows on a Mac, especially Windows 8. It doesn’t emulate every feature, like those taking advantage of a touch screen—which the Mac lacks. But it makes Windows 8 work on a Mac pretty much like it works on a standard Windows PC that you’d upgrade to Windows 8. And it integrates Windows 8 with some new features of Mountain Lion, like centralized notifications and text dictation. Parallels 8 is $80 for use on a single Mac. That doesn’t include the price of Windows, or Windows apps like Office, which is sold separately. Parallels has a feature that lets you buy, download and install Windows. It’s made by a closely held company of the same name based near Seattle.

VMware Fusion—a main Parallels competitor from VMware, a large publicly held Silicon Valley firm—also has a new version, Fusion 5, that is designed especially to handle Windows 8. Its main advantage is it’s less expensive, at $50, and a single copy can be used on multiple Macs. I also installed and tested Fusion 5.

Both Parallels and Fusion are able to run Windows and the Mac operating system at the same time because they create “virtual machines” on the Mac, essentially faux Windows PCs that run side by side with the Mac operating system.

By contrast, Apple’s own solution for running Windows, called Boot Camp, turns the Mac entirely over to Windows, running only one operating system at a time—and requires a reboot to switch between them.

In my reviews of the last couple of editions of Parallels and Fusion, I’ve found Parallels, which claims about 70% of the Windows-on-Mac market, superior. I’m sticking with that conclusion. I found Parallels faster at every common task, like starting and restarting Windows, and resuming Windows from a suspended state.

I never had a crash or observed any strange behavior in Windows 8 using Parallels 8, while Fusion 5 froze my Mac three times and caused some text in Windows 8 to disappear. (When doing these comparative tests I made sure the competitor I wasn’t using and the copy of Windows it was running were shut down.)

Windows 8 works best with a touch screen. You can just swipe to bring up its main controls (called Charms) or to bring up a list of running apps and switch between them. It’s designed to do these things with a mouse or touch pad, by placing the cursor on “hot corners” of the screen. On my MacBook Air, these cursor actions worked perfectly, after a bit of practice.

This function is helped by a Parallels 8 feature called Sticky Mouse. If you move the cursor quickly out of a window on the Mac containing Windows 8, it changes to the Mac cursor for use with Mac programs. But if you move it slowly, it stops at the hot corners in Windows 8 so you can trigger the Windows controls.

One thing that didn’t work as it would on a Windows PC, in either Parallels or Fusion, was swiping into the edges of the touch pad to bring up the controls and app functions.

In my tests of Parallels, I was able to run both the new, full-screen apps in Windows 8—code-named Metro apps—and the traditional Windows apps, such as Office, on the familiar Windows desktop.

The integration of Windows 8 and Mountain Lion features worked well. I was able to dictate text into Windows 8 apps and to drag a file onto the Mac’s Dock icon for the Windows 8 version of Outlook to create a new email with that file attached, just as you can do with the Apple Mail icon.

In the Mac’s new Notification Center, which alerts users to things like calendar events and new emails, Parallels allowed Windows 8 notifications, like new Outlook emails and conformation of Windows app purchases, to appear.

I did find one major downside to using Windows 8 on a Mac. While it worked like a breeze on my relatively new MacBook Air, both Windows 8 under Parallels, and Mac programs running simultaneously, suffered delays when I tried them on an older iMac.

I can recommend Parallels 8 as a good solution for running Windows on a Mac simultaneously with Mac programs, and especially for Mac users who want to also use Windows 8 later this fall, or experiment with the pre-release version.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.


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