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Review: Parallels Desktop 7

Can OS X and Windows live in perfect harmony? Parallels think so...

The introduction of Intel-powered Macs back in 2006 was a hugely exciting development for Mac and PC users alike, as it meant that the incompatibility headaches were effectively over.
Having a Mac with the ability to run Windows lets you finally use the same applications that the rest of the world was running at work, while still enjoying all the benefits of owning and using a Mac. Since then, the increase in market share enjoyed by the Mac has been significant, but the majority of business computer systems still run on Windows. This makes the ability to run Windows applications on the Mac platform an important consideration for many Mac owners, and is often the factor that makes moving to the Mac possible for many PC owners.

An integral part of OS X, Apple’s proprietary Boot Camp solution for running Windows works well enough in principle, but in order to switch from using OS X to using Windows, you need to restart your machine each time, which can be disruptive to your workflow to say the least.

In contrast, Parallels Desktop 7 is a virtualisation solution that enables you to designate a section of your hard drive to run a virtual PC within the OS X environment. This then enables you to use both Windows and OS X applications concurrently with no restarts required, a situation that Parallels call Coherence mode. In this mode, Mac users can run Windows applications as if they were made for the Mac. You can freely copy, paste, drag and drop files, text and graphics between OS X and Windows applications, as well as access local networks and printers from within Windows. Windows apps appear in a separate Applications folder, and can be launched from the Dock and used just like Mac apps, and they can access files located anywhere on your computer. A second, alternative Full Screen mode isolates your virtual PC in a separate window within OS X, with the new Lion full screen control in the title bar, making it consistent with the Lion user experience and gestures.

This latest version of Parallels Desktop brings more than 90 new features to the virtual computer table, chief among which is full Lion support, letting Windows apps exist in Lion’s new Launchpad and take advantage of Lion’s unique support for full screen apps in Mission Control. The Apple iSight camera can now be shared seamlessly between the Mac OS and Windows, and there’s a 60 per cent graphics performance improvement over the previous version of Parallels. Further workflow improvements in this version include faster direct access to Windows applications from within OS X and quicker and easier access to documents and files stored on either the Windows or OS X file systems.

Installation, while not quick, was surprisingly straightforward, thanks to the helpful documentation included with the download. Because the package does not include a Windows licence, once we’d set up Parallels itself, we also faced the daunting task of downloading and installing Windows 7. Guided by Parallels’ excellent setup wizard, we were taken through the process with no hiccups, following a path automatically initiated by the setup wizard

comparable to the installation of Parallels itself. We simply pointed the Windows installer at a previously downloaded .ISO disk image of Windows 7 and the wizard began installing the operating system onto our newly-created virtual PC just as if it were an actual hardware machine.

Once the setup was complete, Parallels worked exactly as described, with the Windows Start menu accessible from the OS X menu bar. Coherence mode initially turned out to be slightly spooky, the seamless blending together of Windows and OS X on a single desktop proving a little bit unsettling at first to us seasoned Mac veterans. This soon passed, and the overall experience ultimately proved to be thoroughly rewarding once we realized that we could launch real-world Windows stalwarts such as Outlook, Excel, Windows Media Player, Word and Powerpoint with just one click of the mouse.

On our four year-old test machine with 2GB of RAM and a hard disk already groaning at the seams, there was a discernible system-wide performance hit with Coherence mode enabled, but we were left with the view that if the software worked to this level on this machine, it would perform even better on anything newer. Users of more recent hardware should therefore have little to worry about, since the avenues that the system opens up in terms of flexibility and productivity more than make up for any sluggishness you might experience under emulation.

When you consider the new horizons of practicality and compatibility that Parallels offers for the moderate investmeennt of £65 (plus the added cost of the ‘guest’ operating system), there’s only one conclusion to be reached. If you’re a current Mac user who needs to run Windows apps, or if using Windows apps is the one thing stopping you from switching to Mac, Parallels Desktop 7 is a must have.