Parallels Desktop 7 for Mac full review

Parallels is one of four ways to run Windows, Linux and other x86 operating systems on a Mac. You can virtualise another OS with Parallels Desktop for Mac, VMware Fusion or VirtualBox; or run natively on the Mac's internal drive.

Parallels' virtualisation solution was the first available when Apple switched to Intel processors six years ago, and remains the fastest and most fully featured package available.

New version Parallels Desktop 7 for Mac provides running improvements to performance and the interface, along with some compelling new features; notably Lion in Lion.

Parallels 7: Windows on the Mac

The easiest way to run Windows is that provided by Apple: create a separate partition on the main drive and install Windows or another OS there to create a dual-boot system.

The Boot Camp utility included in OS X automates most stages of the installation process, and includes a simple, single program that installs all the necessay drivers. 

In truth, installing a clean copy of Windows on a Macintosh is easier than it is on any Windows PC.

The advantage of a virtual machine (VM) setup is to enable another OS to run at the same time as the original OS. With no need to reboot you can readily switch between different platforms in seconds. 

And especially so for Windows, it can be much more preferable to have the OS working in a more isolated and controlled environment, for security reasons.

If any virus, Trojan or inherent Windows vulnerability should compromise that system, your Mac is better insulated against any threat; it’s also easy to delete the whole VM and revert to a backup and have a working system back in minutes. 

Increased speed is one claim made for version 7 of Parallels. Not that Parallels 6 was exactly wanting for speed before. As a means to run Windows or Linux at the same time as OS X, it has rarely felt sluggish in recent versions, and tasks could be run with near-native performance. 

Parallels has also invested in graphics, providing enough performance that you can even play some Windows games, virtualised. But new version 7 does feel snappier still, for example when launching and closing Windows VMs.

Parallels 7: New features

In Parallels 7, it’s now possible to use a MacBook’s integrated webcam, in a guest machine from any of the three supported platforms of Windows, Linux and OS X. 

When assigning video memory to a VM, the limit has been increased from 512MB to 1GB. Microsoft’s graphics APIs up to DirectX 9.0c/9Ex and Shader Model 3 are supported.

The Parallels Mobile iOS app, formerly free but now £2.99, makes it possible to launch, view and control a virtual machine.

This works well enough, even over 3G in our tests. When running the remote desktop app on an iPhone and an iPad, it even penetrated our office firewall with no need for special port forwarding.

Whether used from the iPad or iPhone, it does suffer the usual challenge of VNC-type remote desktop control on a capacitive touchscreen – namely the fingertip control of a desktop OS. Scale down the guest OS to around 960 x 600 to make Windows more finger-friendly.

It can even give the iPad some approximation to Adobe Flash playback, by viewing Flash video from inside a guest VM running Windows... 

We did have some inexplicable issues with ‘Command execution error’ though when trying to run some of our virtual machines.

Other improvements include support for digital audio up to 192kHz sample frequency, 7.1-channel surround sound, and better integration with new UI features in Lion, such as full-screen mode, LaunchPad and Mission Control.

A small but significant change has been made to the full-screen user interface. Parallels previously used hot corners to enable a page-curl graphic, revealing the host OS below. While fine in theory, it could clash with other hot corners you had arranged. And there was no other simple way to interact with the host VM, other than leave full-screen mode entirely.

Now, you need only move your mouse to the screen top, and the regular OS X menu strip will appear. A simple change, for sure, but an example of losing unnecessary eye candy to improve productivity.

It’s still possible to run Windows programs in a Windows-less environment, so that those programs appear mingled with regular OS X apps.

Called Coherence, it still looks a little primitive, as Aero translucency is lost, and the corner of Windows programs’ windows are crudely squared off rather than rounded. But these orphaned Windows windows do integrate well with Lion’s Mission Control interface.

Parallels 7: Linux on the Mac

Parallels provides perhaps the best solution for running popular Linux distributions as virtual machines. Unlike competitior VMware with its Fusion 4 virtualisation software, Parallels supports OpenGL hardware acceleration, so the glorious three-dimensional interface of a modern desktop Linux can be appreciated.

The full interface works well in the last two versions of Ubuntu with Unity interface (11.04 and 11.10), as well as Linux Mint 12 with Gnome 3.

While copy and paste functions work with Linux guests, drag-and-drop between host and guest is not possible as it is with Windows guests.

Parallels 7: Mac on the Mac

Perhaps the most notable new addition in Parallels 7 is the ability to run Apple’s own operating system, OS X Lion, within an OS X host machine. This opens up new doors of virtualisation to software developers and security researchers, by creating a safe environment to experiment on a disposable Mac OS within the boot OS.

This is possible with the latest Lion version of OS X – for both host and virtual machine – in order to comply with Apple’s revised licensing restrictions. You can also still run OS X Server as a VM.

Hardware acceleration of video only seems to be possible with Windows and Linux though. Consequently, the virtualised OS X that Parallels creates feels conspicuously less fluid than it should. 

Using Geekbench to test processor and memory performance of an OS X guest, we saw a drop of just 9% in speed between host OS X Lion machine and its OS X guest.

But on-screen animations, like the moving of windows, would remain jerky; this running on a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 6GB of RAM.

We tried assigning up to 1GB of video memory, but the interface remained far from smooth. Embedded video in web pages using Adobe Flash was often too slow to play; or in the case of most YouTube content, would not play at all, leaving just a black screen.

When we tried to run an OS X guest OS on a faster MacBook Pro with 2.7GHz Intel Core i7, Parallels would not allow installation, nor the running of imported OS X virtual machines, for invalid reasons.

Parallels Support is investigating, and we will update this review when the issue is resolved.

Integration between host and guests is lacking in many areas, most notably with copy and paste functionality missing with OS X VMs. You also cannot drag-and-drop files between host and guest OS. 

Also missing are Apple’s multi-touch gestures that are ironically available to Windows guests. You can do a basic two-finger up/down scroll; but none of the other pinch-to-zoom, sideways scrollng or Lion’s three- and four-finger gestures will work.

We asked Parallels about all various outstanding issues for Mac OS X guests, but the company’s PR spokespeople did not reply.

Parallels 7: Performance

Most of the developers’ focus is on the breadwinning Windows-on-Mac functionality, and this is where Parallels still excels in speed. It’s so fast, we can no longer discern any difference between running Windows natively or through Boot Camp.

And for gamers, this virtualisation solution is still the app of choice.

In fact, we again saw framerates from a VM that exceeded that of a native install, which continues to baffle us. For example, running FEAR at Maximum detail natively on a MacBook Pro with integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics, we measured an average framerate of 22fps.

Using the same Windows 7 OS in Parallels, FEAR recorded an average framerate of 57fps – approaching three times the speed.

Sometimes speed comes at the expense of stability though. Of the many programs we run on the Mac platform, Parallels Desktop for Mac is the only one that still sporadically gives us the Unix equivalent of a system crash – the dreaded kernel panic.

Other times, when a Windows app seizes up within Windows, we find our whole computer freezes to the point of requiring a forced reboot.

If stable virtualisation is paramount to you, we would suggest the more robust VMware Fusion solution.


Parallels Desktop 7 for Mac: Specs

  • Apple Mac computer with Intel Core 2 Duo/Core i3/i5/i7/Xeon processor
  • Mac OS X 10.5.8 or later
  • 4GB of RAM
  • 500MB drive space (plus 15GB for each virtual machine)