Parallels 5 (build 9308)

When I last reviewed virtualization software in 2008, I found Parallels Desktop 4 for Mac effective, but saddled with a bit of bugginess and lacking some DirectX support. Parallels 5 Desktop for Mac (I tested build 9308) solves both problems, while adding features and improving performance.

Among the most notable of those new features: a much-faster virtualization engine; automatic compression of Windows' hard disks; a new virtual machine manager; and a new lockdown mode, which requires a password to exit full screen mode, make changes to the virtual machine state, or manage snapshots (perfect for system administrators who don't want end-users mucking up their machines).

Installation, setup

I tested Parallels Desktop 5 by using it to install Windows XP Pro, Windows 7 Ultimate (both 32-bit and 64-bit versions), and Ubuntu Linux 9.10 on my Mac Pro (2.66GHz quad core with 8GB of RAM, running OS X 10.6.2).

Installing both Windows and Linux is easy in Parallels; it has assistants that automate the process for both. It also installs Parallels Tools, which handles the task of mouse integration between the guest OS and Mac OS, as well as allowing easy guest desktop resizing by resizing the guest OS window.

There are a couple aspects of installing guest OSes that could be improved. First, every time you create a new virtual machine, Parallels creates an alias to that virtual machine on your OS X Desktop. There's no way to avoid this, so if you find the aliases useless (as I do), you have to manually remove them each time you create a virtual machine.

More troubling is that, when creating a new Windows virtual machine, the default settings are for full integration of the Mac OS and the Windows guest--the default even sets the Windows' user folder to the Mac's Users folder. As someone who has personally experienced Windows malware infections, total integration is not something I recommend for most virtual machine users, and yet it's the default behavior in Parallels.

Parallels also defaults to booting Windows virtual machines in the fully-integrated Coherence mode, where the Windows desktop vanishes, and Windows' windows are intermingled with those of OS X. For someone expecting a standard Windows interface after installation, this can be disconcerting.

The basics

Like Fusion 3, Parallels 5 now supports Windows Aero in Windows 7, and also includes OpenGL 2.1 acceleration in both XP Pro and Windows 7 (Fusion only supports OpenGL 2.1 in Windows XP Pro). In addition, OpenGL acceleration is included in Linux guests, enabling full visual effects (such as windows that deform when dragged) in Linux systems such as Ubuntu 9.10. More usefully, you'll also be able to run Linux programs that require OpenGL acceleration. Parallels is alone in its support for OpenGL 2.1 in Linux and Windows 7. I found the Aero effects worked very smoothly in Windows 7 on my Mac Pro.

As with its competitors, Parallels handles typical office productivity applications with ease, in both Windows and Linux. Microsoft Office (Windows) and OpenOffice (Linux) both ran well, and had no troubles with the mixture of spradsheets and documents I tried opening and editing in both. Web browsers and e-mail clients also performed well; if this is the extent of your virtual machine needs, Parallels 5 will easily meet your requirements.

Parallels 5 was also the fastest of the three programs I tested in the vast majority of the benchmark tests I ran--including the all-important real-world tests. Whether it was copying files to or from the Mac, or expanding zip archives, Parallels easily outpaced its competition. As one example, copying 2.5GB worth of files from the Mac to a Windows 7 machine via a shared folder took just over a minute in Parallels. That same task took nearly two minutes in VirtualBox, and about a minute and a half in Fusion.

Suspending, waking, booting, and shutting down were all quickest in Parallels, too. There's a small caveat there, at least with suspending. When I tried sleeping the machine while a 3D game was running, it worked, but the game didn't work after waking from sleep. In Fusion, the same experiment worked just fine--so one tradeoff of the faster sleep time in Parallels is, at least in my testing, an inability to sleep and then resume a 3D game. As a user, you'll have to decide whether the faster suspend times in general are worth this tradeoff when trying to suspend an in-progress 3D game. (This may not be an issue with all games, but it was in the two I tested with.)

Like Fusion 3, Parallels 5 offers improved multi-monitor support, treating two displays as separate monitors in Windows, and as one large gargantuan display in Linux. Adding a third screen to the mix worked perfectly in Windows. In Linux, however, the third screen was seen by the system (the horizontal resolution reflected its existence), but it was all white, and I couldn't see anything that I dragged onto that screen.

To make working in full-screen mode easier, Parallels 5 lets you specify behaviors for mousing into the four screen corners--you can switch to one of the other available view modes, or show the Parallels menu bar. Once you've set a behavior for a corner, moving the mouse into that corner will "peel down" and reveal a bit of your OS X desktop. Unfortunately, there's no visual indication of what happens if you then click the mouse, so you'll need to remember which corner you've assigned to which task.

New looks for Windows

Parallels 5 features a new view mode, Crystal, along with a new Mac-loike theme for use within Windows. Crystal view mode takes Coherence mode one step further. You won't find the Start menu or task bar anywhere in Crystal mode--in fact, you won't even see the Parallels Dsektop icon in your Dock. Instead, a menu bar icon lets you change view modes, see the Windows Start menu, or work with attached devices. You'll also find your task bar icons (optionally) in the menu bar, and Windows Applications folder in your OS X Dock. Any open windows will be integrated with your OS X windows, as in Coherence mode.

Crystal mode works reasonably well, though you can't you Command-Tilde to toggle between multiple windows of the same Windows' application, nor can you use Snow Leopard's Dock Exposé mode with Windows' windows. Both of these features work as expected in Fusion. I also found that dragging windows around in Crystal mode, when using an Aero theme in Windows 7, was quite laggy on my Mac Pro. I had much better results after I disabled Aero in Crystal mode (you can control this in the virtual machine's Settings).

I experienced some strangeness when I had Windows Media Player window open in Crystal mode, and then used Exposé's All Windows mode. In addition to the opened windows, I also saw three "ghost" windows for Windows Media Player, and some visual distortion was visible in the Excel window.

Selecting any one of these "ghost" windows would simply switch to Windows Media Player, so it wasn't a critical issue, but it definitely looks odd when using Exposé.

The second new look for Windows in Parallels is MacLook, which is actually an OS X-like theme for Windows (XP, Vista, and 7). You apply MacLook via the View menu, and Parallels then works for a minute or two to install the theme. The objective is to make Windows less visually shocking for someone switching between the Mac OS and the Windows OS.

Because not every element in Windows is themable, what MacLook winds up giving you is a series of different-looking windows within Windows--some look something like OS X windows, others look like native Windows windows, and still others look like some strange Frankenstinian mixture of the two.

Some windows are square, others are rounded; none seem to have shadows and some are missing edge borders; some have the red/yellow/green buttons from OS X at the top right, some at the top left, and others lack them completely.

I can't imagine that anyone who likes and uses the OS X interface regularly will find MacLook to be an improvement over the stock Windows theme--at least there's some consistency there, and the windows all mostly look the same.

When I unchecked the MacLook entry in the View menu, which should disable MacLook, I had some issues in Windows 7--the uninstall process didn't quite complete, leaving an even odder mix of window appearances. I was able to resolve that issue by using the Personalization section of Windows preferences to pick a stock Aero theme.

Graphics and gaming

Parallels Desktop 5 has a very good engine for gaming. I had excellent results with older games, and very good results even with more-recent releases. The demo version of Call of Duty 4, which I was unable to run with decent frame rates in Fusion, ran acceptably (albeit at minimum levels of detail) after some tweaking in Parallels.

With OpenGL accleration in all main versions of Windows (and Linux), Parallels can handle programs that the other two virtualization apps just aren't capable of running at present. In addition, Parallels' OpenGl impelementation, as measured in the Cinebench benchmarking test, was the fastest of the three programs in any version of Windows. (All game tests were done in Windows 7, to stress the virtual machine as much as possible.)

Parallels also does an admirable job with DirectX games in Windows. For example, I was able to play the MotoGP 08 demo with good frame rates in a 1024x768 window, though the audio did stutter a bit.

More impressively, Microsoft Flight Simulator X, a program that just a few years ago required a high-end PC to run at all, ran admirably well in Parallels. The audio was mostly studder free, and the frame rate in a 1024x768-sized window was more than acceptable in the missions I tested.

That's not to say I was getting anywhere near the frame rate I'd get if I were to reboot my Mac and run Flight Sim X natively via Boot Camp. However, for someone who doesn't need every bit of speed in their games, the loss in frame rate may be worth the convenience of not having to reboot.

Most older games run very well, so much so that there's no reason to reboot via Boot Camp to play "vintage" titles. Note that some older games may need to run on older versions of Windows; Windows 7 won't run all your older games.

Given what was possible in gaming and graphics with the first version of Parallels a few years back--basically nothing--it's amazing how much progress has been made in a very short period of time.

Multimedia performance

To test Parallels' media handling, I watched a 1080p Windows HD media file in full screen mode in each version of Windows. I was watching for visual glitches, listening for any disruption in audio playback, and tracking CPU usage to see how each virtual machine handled the task.

In short, all three of the Windows OSes handled the HD video file without any major issues. The one-CPU Windows 7 box had a bit more variation in frame rate than did the two-CPU machines, but it was very hard to spot unless watching the video back-to-back (which I did, many times).

Other features and observations

This version of Parallels cleans up the installation on a Mac--in prior versions, Parallels' virtual network drivers were visible in the Network System Preferences panel. In Parallels Desktop 5, those drivers no longer appear, preventing possible user confusion.

Also new in Parallels 5 is support for Apple' multi-touch gestures (swipe, rotate, pinch) using an Apple Magic Mouse or the trackpad in a multi-touch capable Apple laptop (you can also use an Apple Remote for some basic control, if you wish). Parallels Tools takes care of the communication between the mouse/track pad and the guest OS, so no special requirements are needed on the Windows side--gestures simply work in Windows XP and newer.

I tested this using XP Pro on my MacBook Pro, and it worked as described. I was able to use pinch to zoom in/out on images in Microsoft's Picture Viewer, and to change the size of the text on an Internet Explorer page. Rotation gestures also worked as expected on the images. If you're a laptop or Magic Mouse user, this is a nice addition to your Windows virtual machines.

As you can probably tell from the features described in this review, Parallels is a feature-rich program. Sometimes, though, feature overload can lead to a complex user interface, and there are spots in Parallels where that's the case.

Take the virtual machine Configuration panel, for instance, which contains 15 separate sections. Or the Preferences panel, which includes 11 separate tabs, some of which contain a large number of items that can be configured. While these sections and tabs are relatively well laid out, the sheer number of choices can cause confusion.

For example, you might think that defining how Mac and Windows 7 keyboard shortcuts coexist would be found in the virtual machine Configuration panel...but that's not the case. Instead, you define the shortcuts in the Preferences panel, where you can set up definitions for Windows, Linux, OS X, and generic guests.

I also had trouble with the latest Parallels upgrade, to build 9310. With that build installed, I was getting much slower performance on a few of my speed tests--unfortunately, they weren't the same tests from OS to OS, so I wasn't able to identify an obvious area as the source of the problem. Historically, Parallels has released some upgrades that have caused problems for users, so this is something to keep in mind prior to installing an update.

Technical support to get the program up-and-running is available for 18 months from time of purchase (this is the same as Fusion's offering). In addition, though, Parallels offers 30-day chat and phone support.

Macworld's buying advice

Parallels 5 is, by both subjective and objective measures, the fastest virtualization application I've used. While Fusion isn't slow by any means, Parallels both feels faster, and its test results show it is faster. This speed advantage isn't in any one particular area, either--Fusion and VirtualBox only had a handful of wins in my testing, with the vast majority of the wins going to Parallels.

Excellent DirectX support means many old games play perfectly and newer ones play very acceptably, and OpenGL acceleration in all main Windows releases along with Linux enable the user to take advantage of programs that require it.

On the downside, the program's rich feature set leads to some complexity, and the default setup for new Windows virtual machines is overly sharing friendly. The MacLook theme is marginal, and I wasn't able to sleep and resume my 3D games.

If you're already a Parallels user, upgrading to the latest version should be a near-automatic decision. If you use a competing program, or you're just entering the market for such a program, though, is Parallels the right choice? It could be, depending on your needs--and our guide on how to choose a virtualization application hopefully gives you enough information on the performance and features of the three contenders to choose the program that's right for you.

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