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Review: Parallels Desktop® 6 for Mac

Why restart your Mac every time you need to run a Windows application?

Boot Camp is perfect for loading Windows natively on your Mac.
Once a partition is created and Windows installed, it only takes a single key press during startup to boot into Windows. It’s perfect for those still migrating to OS X, those with licensed Windows software or gamers looking to play the latest PC titles. But for the rest of us, it’s not exactly the most efficient way to run Windows applications on a Mac. Parallels Desktop 6 is just the solution. It creates a virtual partition on your hard drive and can run Windows applications as though they were native to your Mac.
It wo
rks by using hypervisor technology to emulate hardware using virtualisation software, creating a virtual CPU as the same type within your Mac. Up to 8 GB of virtual RAM is supported, as is 256 MB of video RAM, a virtual sound card, network connection and more. Basically, it runs an entire virtual PC on your Mac’s hard drive. This kind of emulation isn’t new to the Mac, but Parallels takes advantage of the Intel hardware found in Macs to provide a speedy emulation. As a result applications are perfectly possible to use for real-world tasks. New to version 6 is DirectX 9.0/Shader Model 3 support – so the latest games can be emulated on your Mac – a new setup process that makes customising your virtual PC far easier, the ability to add Windows applications to the Dock and a new 64- bit virtual machine emulation for faster performance. So how does it work in real-life use?
Installing isn’t complicated, but it is time-consuming given the application has to install an entire copy of Windows on your Mac. Parallels includes a number of integration modes. The first, called Coherence mode, runs Windows applications as though they’re native apps and shares music, videos and documents with both operating systems. The second option, Window mode, runs the virtual PC in its own separate window, without document sharing but with the ability to drag and drop files and copy text. You’ll also find a Full Screen mode for maximum compatibility, plus Modality mode.

We chose Coherence mode to begin. Once installed Windows booted itself in the background and a set of new icons appeared in the Finder menu for controlling network features, volume and Parallels itself. When the Parallels icon is right-clicked it loads the Windows Start menu, giving access to the entire Windows system, Control Panel and applications. It’s a handy way to control the PC from OS X. When a disc was inserted into the Mac it loaded using Windows 7, and we managed to install a number of games and software titles. These can be added to the OS X Dock, providing a quick way to launch PC titles without accessing Windows.

In Window mode you’ll see a virtual PC running on your desktop in a window that can be resized and moved around the screen. It’s great for using Windows as a separate machine; files can be dragged and dropped between the two desktops, and you can even run Windows on a second monitor resulting in two operating systems running simultaneously on one Mac.
As for using software, we installed and loaded Photoshop CS5 in Windows 7. Using Coherence mode we were disappointed to see garbled graphics in any documents created by the program. However, once we turned off GPU acceleration in the Photoshop preferences panel, the program worked perfectly. It didn’t run quite as smoothly as the native Mac app, but it was perfectly useable. A quick benchmark test showed that the program ran about 30 per cent slower than the Mac app.
Installing and playing games proved rather tricky. Any title that’s integrated with Steam wouldn’t install due to the key activation server not connecting. Titles such as Elder Scrolls: Oblivion installed without a hitch but when opened crashed immediately. It wasn’t until we ran Parallels in Full Screen mode that games began to work. It was worth the hassle, however. Oblivion played perfectly, with a smooth frame rate and no compatibility issues. Once the game was up and running we could also change to Coherence mode and switch to OS X and back without any problems.
Parallels is an impressive solution to running Windows software on your Mac, and when programs are run in Full Screen mode it’s almost as fast as Boot Camp. Applications can be loaded from the OS X dock and file sharing between operating systems is easy. It has a few compatibility issues in Coherence mode, but it’s the most efficient way to run Windows software on your Mac.