When it comes to virtualising Windows or Linux on your Mac, you have two main choices: Parallels or VMWare Fusion. I’ve always been more of a Parallels man myself in the past, so I was really excited to get hold of a copy of Parallels 6 to try out on the latest generation iMac, as I could really take it for a spin and test its capabilities when running more than one virtual machine at a time.
Last year, we took a look at Parallels 5 for Mac and I was left impressed at its tight Windows 7 integration when running in Coherence mode with OS X. With new features, and even a new operating system to play with, Parallels 6 is bound to set the bar that little bit higher, so let’s take a closer look!
Setting Up A New Virtual Machine
Parallels is compatible with various versions of Windows all the way up to Windows 7, and it will also allow you to create numerous Linux virtual machines too. If you want to set up a brand new machine, you can do so by either using a physical CD or DVD, or you can use an iso image that you have downloaded from the internet.
The ability to use .iso files is a great feature for Linux users, as most distributions come downloaded in that format, but it also allows users to install Windows a lot quicker than it would be when using the optical drive. A lot of people tend to make backups of installation DVDs now as well, so that they don’t have to use the original copy and risk damaging the disc, so it’s a great option to have.
You can choose to create a new virtual machine from the menu bar by selecting File > New, and a dialog box will appear to guide you through the process. Using the drop down menu, you can choose to either choose your real CD or DVD drive as the installation source, or you can choose an image file from a Finder window.
If you install your operating system from an image file, you will find that installation is significantly quicker than it would be if you were using an external media source. I installed Windows XP in under 10 minutes, which is pretty impressive.
Once you have your virtual machine installed and set up, Parallels 6 will, like Parallels 5, create a shortcut on your desktop to the new machine by default. If you don’t want it here though, you can delete it safe in the knowledge that it’s still accessible through either the welcome window of Parallels when you launch the application, or through your Documents folder where it will be placed in a folder called ‘Parallels’.
So, what’s new?
Everything that I have talked about so far is identical to Parallels 5. The previous version had support for Windows 7 and Linux distributions, and you could choose to create a new virtual machine through either physical media or an iso image on your computer. So what’s changed? Why should you upgrade to Parallels 6 if you’re already using Parallels 5? Actually, there are a few good reasons.
Parallels 6 is even more fine tuned than the previous version to squeeze that little extra performance from your machine, and if you’re a user of Spotlight in Mac OS X, then you will love the fact that you can now search for any Windows application right from inside Spotlight. You dont have to open your virtual machine to see any applications appear, so even if you have it shut down and Parallels isn’t running, you can still quickly search for an application that you need.
Of course, if the virtual machine is switched off then it will take a while to boot up just to load your application, but if you have it set up in Coherence mode, this will all happen behind the scenes and you’ll just see your application open once Windows has done its thing.
Another improvement made to Parallels 6 is in the graphics department. Now, I would never do any serious gaming on a virtual machine and I wouldn’t recommend that anyone else did either; games are always best run in dedicated partitions where they have access to 100% of your system resources that aren’t being used by the operating system.
If you do wish to run some games within a virtual machine, however, you will be glad to know that Parallels 6 improves 3D graphics by 40% when compared to the previous Parallels 5. This doesn’t only benefit people who want to play games within their virtual machines, though, it also helps massively when you’re running Windows 7. If you wish to use Aero effects in 7, then 3D graphics rendering is compulsory, so performance when doing so can only improve under Parallels 6. If you found that, using the previous version, you were only able to access the bare minimal that Aero has to offer, you should definitely see if you can run the same themes from the updated version; you might be surprised at just how far that 40% will end up taking you.
These improvements are great, but you probably won’t see the Spotlight feature on a regular basis unless you’re a power user, and all of the 3D graphics are handled behind the scenes. There is one more additional feature that you’ll probably see a lot more of though…
Exposé is a feature which was originally released in Mac OS X Tiger, and subsequently improved upon following the releases of Leopard, Snow Leopard, and now Lion. For me, it’s one of the features within OS X that makes me use it more than I use Windows. It makes everything ridiculously easy to organise and view, even if you have dozens of windows open within the same desktop.
Making it even more simple to organise all of the Windows you have open, Spaces was released with Mac OS X Leopard and allows you to create a number of virtual desktops on your machine so that you can better organise what you’re doing. For example, I’ll have a space for Internet, one for IM and Twitter, and another for Mail.
In Parallels 6, these features can now work with Windows applications as well. If you’re running Parallels in Coherence mode, where all of your Windows applications are running side by side with your Mac applications without showing the operating system itself, you can use Exposé and Spaces to organise all of your applications, regardless of whether they’re running under Windows or Mac OS X.
In fact, if you really wanted to make your Windows applications look native to the Mac, you could run Windows in Coherence mode and then apply the built in OS X skin that comes with Parallels 6. That way, all of the windows on your desktop will look the same, and behave the same. This is certainly much tidier than keeping Windows boxed up in Parallels, as you will have to choose between using Windows and Mac. This way, though, you can be using Mac applications such as Things and Twitter at the same time as Windows applications such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking and Microsoft Office, without even having to switch space!
Using Your Virtual Machines
When testing Parallels 6, I ran it on a Mid 2011 iMac with a 2.8 GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB of DDR3 RAM and AMD Radeon HD 6770M 512 MB graphics. Interested to see just how far it could be pushed, I decided to run not just one, or two, but three virtual machines at the same time. I set up one virtual machine with Windows 7, another with the latest version of Ubuntu Linux, and a third with the latest version of Fedora Linux.
The hardware in the test machine handled all three virtual machines without any issues whatsoever, and I was impressed at Parallels’ ability to run Windows 7 with Aero, and Ubuntu Linux with the new Unity user interface. Unfortunately things weren’t so easy going with Fedora, and the new version of the Gnome environment.
Despite several attempts to get Gnome 3 to work with Fedora, it kept on rolling itself back to Gnome 2. Even some command line trickery from the kind folks at Parallels tech support didn’t do the trick on this end, so hopefully this is something that will be solved by the time we see Parallels 7. Ubuntu users needn’t worry though, Unity 3D ran out of the box without any hiccups or issues whatsoever for me, so if you have a decent setup then you’ll be absolutely fine on that front. The same goes for Aero 3D in Windows, which ran with absolutely no issues either.
If you’re using Windows, then you can access your applications in the same way as you would have done in Parallels 5, with the addition of spotlight. If you don’t want to use Spotlight to search for your applications, you can have an icon sitting on your menu bar which will produce the start menu and allow you to open your applications that way instead.
A surprise addition to Parallels 6 was the addition of Chrome OS, which you can download directly from the menu bar, and it will instantly configure itself and set up a new virtual machine for you to use. Chrome OS is Google’s own operating system, and is nothing more than a browser with some key system features such as Wi-Fi so that you can connect your computer to the internet. It’s currently shipped on a few netbooks, but is included in Parallels 6 so that you can try it out in a virtual machine.
Unfortunately, there isn’t an awful lot that you can actually try out. The operating system works fine and functions perfectly well, but you can’t update it at all. The version that is downloaded to Parallels when you want to install it is an outdated version that doesn’t even support extensions, so you can’t use the Google Web Store to download any extra goodies such as Spotify.
Naturally, your first instinct is to try and update the software so that extensions can be installed, and you can be running on the latest version with less bugs and more features. As it stands, however, you can’t do this either. There isn’t an update ability in the version that ships with Parallels, so you’re stuck with what you have unless you want to try and hack yourself a manual way of doing things.
It’s definitely a great feature of Parallels to have Chrome waiting to be downloaded, but surely the download could be updated to the latest version each time a new virtual Chrome OS is created. That way, you’re always running the latest version and it will be able to update and run extensions without any issues.
There isn’t any doubt here that Parallels 6 is better than Parallels 5. It surpasses the previous version on not only features, but also improves performance – on Windows machines, anyway – to squeeze as much as you possibly can out of the hardware you’re running. For those running games within Windows on a virtual machine, the 40% increase in 3D graphics performance alone is well worth the upgrade, and if you’re a fan of Ubuntu Linux then you can be assured that the 3D Unity does indeed work flawlessly with Parallels 6 as long as it’s supported by your graphics card. It’s a shame I can’t say the same about the latest version of Fedora, but we should see a fix for that in future updates of the software.
If you want to get your hands on Parallels, you can purchase it from the official Parallels website for £64.99. Alternatively, if you’re already using a previous version of Parallels, such as Parallels 5, you can upgrade to the latest version for a discounted price of £34.99. If you’re undecided, then you can also grab a free trial without entering any payment information, and then buy it at a later date if you enjoy using it or think it’s worth the upgrade.
If you’ve used Parallels in the past, or are running a virtual machine on it now, let us know what you think in the comments! We’d love to hear your thoughts, as always.