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  • Running a Parallel Operating System with Parallels Workstation

    April 20th, 2006

    Despite all the undeniable advantages of Apple’s Boot Camp, it has one serious shortcoming: You have to reboot to switch between the Mac OS and Windows. Now this may not be so serious a matter if you can exist in one environment or the other for an extended period of time, or you need performance that rivals or exceeds a regular Windows box.

    But for most of you, if you need to run Windows at all, it’s an occasional practice, and you’d like to be able to do it side-by-side without any delays for rebooting and reopening your documents. However, doing that on an Intel-based Mac, up till now, hasn’t been so easy. Microsoft is still waffling about whether it’ll ever make a version of Virtual PC for MacIntels. Other virtual machine applications, based on open source projects, haven’t fared too well. Performance remains unsatisfactory for extended use, and installations can consume many, many hours of your valuable time.

    Enter Parallels Workstation.

    You probably never heard of the company, largely because it’s quite new, but there are over 75,000 beta testers of the Mac OS X version of this application. And while still rough and not quite ready for prime time, Parallels Workstation has a huge amount of potential. If Microsoft were seriously considering bringing Virtual PC to Intel-based Macs, it may now be forced to reconsider.

    After equipping myself with a copy beta 4, the latest release, and Windows XP Pro, I requested a 30-day user license. When Parallels Workstation is released, it’ll cost you $49.99, but you can save $10 if you place your order now.

    Thus equipped, I went about putting Parallels through its paces. When you launch the application, you’ll find that things are spelled out, more or less, on the setup screens, but you have to get accustomed to such terms as virtual machine, which is the process of running another operation system at the same time as your Mac, and guest operating system.

    The first launch of Parallels Workstation will present a Startup Options dialog, and when you select the Create new virtual machine option, a Wizard or assistant will guide you through the remaining steps. After an introduction, you’ll select the Create a typical VM option, which supposedly delivers the proper settings. On the next window, you choose the kind of OS and its name. After choosing Windows and Windows XP, I clicked next to proceed.

    Here things get a little more complicated, because you’ll have a chance to specify the name for your virtual machine and the location of the configuration file. The best thing to do is don’t think about it and leave well enough alone. Click Finish and you’re ready to roll, well sort of, because there is one key step remaining and that is to activate your software, which requires selecting the appropriate function from the Help menu. This seems counterintuitive, since you ought to be able to take care of business the first time you launch the application, and I hope that Parallels will consider that option as it updates the software.

    Once your virtual machine is running, simply insert your operating system CD to begin the installation process and, as I said, I used Windows XP Pro. Unlike Apple’s Boot Camp’s restriction to the XP SP2 installer, Parallels can support many flavors of Windows, Linux, Solaris and even OS/2. Although some claim to have performed a full XP installation in 20 minutes flat, it took about an hour on the Intel-based 20-inch iMac Apple sent me for review. This is only slightly faster than my recent Boot Camp encounter.

    After Windows XP Pro was up and running, I installed Parallels Tools, a set of drivers that enhances video and input device support. I gave the virtual machine 512MB of RAM, and went about going through the motions of using my new operating system.

    In general, it seemed about as snappy as the Boot Camp option, although dragging windows around seemed a tad ragged. I also ran into some sound-related issues. When playing a stream of one of my radio shows, the audio would stutter momentarily before it got underway. Unlike Boot Camp, the audio stream would stop playing whenever the the Windows or Mac OS screen saver was activated. Optical drive support also needs a little work. I couldn’t eject a CD, and had to use the Finder to make it happen.

    Sharing files is a convoluted process at this stage of development. You have to literally set up file sharing for Mac OS X and Windows, but beta 5, due shortly, is supposed to provide a better alternative. Support for USB is also a work-in-progress.

    All in all, however, Parallels Workstation is an impressive application. The company is working hard to address the various bugs and performance is surprisingly good. Parallels takes advantage of the virtualization technology built into the Intel chips Apple is using, and the benchmarks reveal the benefits. Macworld’s Rob Griffiths reports that, compared to Boot Camp’s dual-boot option, Parallels speed approaches 80%. For those who are used to the pathetic performance of Virtual PC and other emulation options, this is an amazing achievement.

    As I said, however, it’s still a beta, so you’ll want to take the usual cautions should you give it a try, such as backing up your files, and preparing yourself to endure unexpected glitches. But the company seems eager to address as many problems as it can, and I’m really encouraged by this application’s speedy progress.

    I’m anxiously awaiting the final release, and I’ll then give it a full review.



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