Microsoft has made a huge deal of the fact that its virtual assistant, Cortana, can run on Windows 10, even on your desktop PC. This is a supposed advantage over the Mac, since Apple hasn’t opted to include Siri on OS X.
Not that Apple couldn’t do it, but this is clearly a design and/or marketing decision that may actually make a lot of sense. While talking to your iPhone or iPad may not seem so strange, speaking commands to your computer is hit or miss. It’s a miss at the office, for example, and the jury is out how businesses will treat Cortana, even if they agree to upgrade to Windows 10. That Microsoft has been rushing out critical security and performance updates over the first three weeks doesn’t help your piece of mind.
But if you must have Cortana on your Mac, Parallels has a way to make it work across the board, even in the Mac environment. Can you dig it?
Now Parallels has a long history with the Mac platform. Back in the spring of 2006, with the first Intel-based Macs available, I was among the first journalists invited to get beta copies of Parallels Desktop, which allowed you to run Windows on a Mac in a virtual machine. Mind you this wasn’t a new feature. There had been utilities that did just that on Macs for years, but performance was terrible with the older PowerPC Macs.
Running Windows natively on an Intel processor was a revelation. Apple created Boot Camp, which let you boot into Windows, using a special partition on your drive for storage. But Parallels made it more efficient at some sacrifice in performance. You’d could run Windows and Windows apps side by side with your Mac apps. You could also run various flavors of Linux and other operating systems.
The other big player in virtualization, VMWare, released Fusion, a very credible alternative that some might find superior overall. But Parallels almost always manages to offer snappier performance. Nonetheless, a new version of Fusion, with support for OS X El Capitan and other new features, is expected soon.
Over time, Parallels managed to find ways to reduce startup times, app launch times, and overall performance. Support for graphics hardware was added and enhanced, and you were able to even play Windows games, though obviously not quite as fast as on a regular Windows PC, or even with Boot Camp.
A special integration feature, Coherence, essentially lets Windows apps appear within OS X windows, so the Windows app is no longer segregated from the rest of your software. It was the utmost in integration if you had to reside in both platforms. Indeed, perhaps the best way to run Windows is on a Mac, so you get the added benefits of OS X and Apple’s superb integration of hardware and software.
Parallels upgrades come pretty much every year, and each time there’s the promise of improved performance and a few enhancements in OS integration. Since Apple lets you run OS X in a virtual machine nowadays, Parallels Desktop is a way for you to experience a development version and not abandon the release version for regular work. A developer can jump back and forth to see the impact of the new OS to their software.
That takes us to Cortana.
This week, Parallels Desktop 11 arrived, with full support for Windows 10. That includes making Cortana available on a Mac under Coherence mode. So you can use Cortana to run Mac apps, according to Parallels, or answer questions including those related to your location, taking advantage of OS X’s Location Services.
In addition to the standard desktop version, there’s also a Pro edition of Parallels that lets you run virtual machines using up to 16 CPUs and 64GB of RAM, clearly earmarked towards the Mac Pro. Except that the Mac Pro’s most powerful processor has 12-cores, or maybe Parallels is looking towards the future.
Regardless, Parallels sent me a link to the Pro edition with a two-year license (it’s sold on an annual basis), so I was able to test it full tilt on an iMac with 32GB of RAM.
Long and short of it is that Windows 10 did appear to start and resume faster than with Parallels 10, though I didn’t take the time to run official benchmarks. Either way, it’s fast enough. The new Microsoft Edge browser was acceptably quick, and Word 2013 launched within a few seconds, but not as quickly as Word 2016 for the Mac.
I haven’t spent a lot of time with invoking “Hey Cortana,” but it did sort of work. I configured my Mac’s internal microphone, rather than my studio mic since it’s not always on. You have to engage the voice activation feature and a few other settings before it runs, which probably gives businesses an excuse to keep it disabled.
So the setup is not near as automatic as Siri, but both failed when I inquired, “Where are the Rockoids?” That’s the name of the sci-fi novels I wrote with my son, and since the files for that book are plentiful on my Mac, and I use a “rockoids.com” email address on the Mac and the iPhone, I give both Cortana and Siri a zero.
Honestly, I find Cortana more or less a wasted effort. To ensure precision, I’d rather just type my commands in the search window to avoid mistakes and having to repeat myself. Still, it’s a flashy feature that Parallels clearly believes will help sell upgrades to the new version. Regardless, it’s a credible refresh to what, for many Mac users, is an essential app.