Beginning Tuesday morning, Parallels Inc.'s site was slammed as perhaps tens of thousands of people tried to download the latest version of Parallels Desktop. It's amazing how this application has taken the Mac universe by storm. One estimate I heard (but never confirmed) claimed that this program, which lets you run Windows, Linux and lots of other operating systems on your Intel-based Mac as virtual machines, was second only to Microsoft Office for the Mac in sales.
That makes perfect sense to me. You see, being able to run Windows on a Mac with near-native speeds has been the holy grail for years. It gives you the best of both worlds, and you know that Apple's Boot Camp was really a watershed. Since then, things have moved along at a fever pitch. First, Parallels Desktop joined the fray, then CrossOver Mac, a solution that uses an open source set of APIs to allow you to run some Windows applications without Windows. VMWare, the biggest player in the virtualization industry, has put up a public beta of their pretender to the throne, VM Fusion.
Parallels hasn't been standing still, and it almost seems that, whenever one version is released, another is waiting in the wings to enter the public beta arena.
Version 2.5, which is a free update to existing users, attempts to traverse several frontiers of running a virtual machine on your Mac. At its core, the interface is smoothed. Installing Windows XP or Windows Vista, for example, simply requires a few steps in a setup assistant, including entering your Microsoft serial number. Parallels Desktop takes over and does all the rest for you, and you don't have to return to your Mac until the final steps of the process. This is an area where Microsoft is trumped big time, because it has never figured out how to make operating system installations easy.
If you're presently using Apple's Boot Camp, you won't have to reinstall Windows, and battle with Microsoft over using the same user license on the same computer. Parallels will be able to use that environment for its virtualization, so you don't have to reboot to switch operating systems unless you're playing a 3D game or require some powerful rendering software that would bring Parallels Desktop to its knees.
Even better is Coherence, which is basically a feature that opens any Windows application in its own window that displays against the Mac OS X desktop. This is as close as you can get to mimicking the Mac OS 9 Classic environment. In addition, Windows application icon appear in the Dock, and you can even launch that application (and the Parallels Desktop if need be) by clicking on that icon. This clever bit of legerdemain is similar to what you could do with Microsoft's now-departed Virtual PC for the Mac, except that the icons are lots prettier.
Another feature, which I've yet to try, is Transporter, which is designed to import your VMWare and Virtual PC environments. Readers, feel free to give it a try and let me know how it works.
There are lots and lots of clever touches, such as mapping Mac keystrokes to a virtual machine, so you don't have to remember to switch between Command-S and Control-S in order to save a document. It's all done the Mac way, but you can switch that off should you prefer to go back and forth when moving to that other operating system. But I think you'll leave it be.
Upgrading is pretty simple. After installing the new version, when you launch your Windows virtual machine, you'll be prompted to reinstall Parallels Tools, which provides the seamless integration with the Mac environment. That process requires a restart of Windows, after which things should be working at full tilt.
Indeed, performance is sped up somewhat, and Parallels boasts an up to 50% improvement in graphics power, which means more fluid and snappier display of menus and screen resizing. This, however, is not true 3D support, which Parallels is promising in a future update, one that's still a few months away.
In saying all that, nothing that Parallels Desktop does with its virtualization magic can really make Windows Vista run faster and in a more seamless fashion. Vista is one huge lumbering beast, and the features that are supposed to make it better, such as the plethora of security warnings, and the 3D eye-candy (on PCs that support the Aero interface) actually work against you most of the time. And early sales are apparently nothing to write home about.
As for Parallels, well, for a free upgrade, version 2.5 is magnificent. In its rear view mirror, however, is VMWare's Fusion for the Mac, with a release date that's still uncertain. For now, however, Parallels remains the best way -- with a bullet -- for running Windows and Linux on your Mac.
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