Revisited: release version far more polished than beta
by Alan Zisman (c) 2006 First
published in Low
November 21 2006 Mac2Windows column
Last April, I wrote about Parallels Workstation (see Running Windows
in Parallel on Your Intel Mac
This application, then still in beta, was the first software to let the
then-new Intel-powered Mac models run other PC operating systems,
including Windows, Linux, and more, in a virtual session running as a
program on top of OS X.
While Apple had released Boot Camp (also in beta) at about the same
time, Boot Camp, requires a reboot, as the name suggests. While
devoting the full resources of the computer to the PC operating system,
this can be more time consuming and less convenient for a user who
wants to continue working with his or her Mac applications while
running a single PC application.
Moreover, Boot Camp only works (at least officially) with Windows XP
Service Pack 2 (it's expected that the version of Boot Camp to be
included with Apple's upcoming Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard" will also
support Windows Vista), while even Parallels Workstation - in beta -
worked with a wide range of PC operating system, including the full
gamut of Windows versions, a range of Linux distributions, and more.
Still, the prerelease version of Parallels Workstation that I tested
back in April was a work in progress. In particular, USB support simply
wasn't there. I couldn't, for instance, print to the USB printer
attached to the Mac.
Back then, I was testing both Boot Camp and Parallels Workstation betas
on an Intel iMac loaned to me by Apple Canada; after a few weeks, I had
to send the Mac back to Apple.
Recently, I bought my own, a new Core2 Duo iMac. I upgraded the hard
drive to 250 GB and the RAM to 2 GB so I would have lots of resources
available to play with multiple operating systems.
"Hold on," I hear some of you thinking. "This is nothing new. People
have run Windows on Macs far longer than Macs have been available with
And you're absolutely correct. I've written in this column about
emulation software such as Microsoft (originally Connectix) VirtualPC
and Lismore System's Guest PC. Both of these (and other) products allow
owners of PowerPC Macs to run Windows and other PC operating systems as
programs on top of Mac OS X - but there's a huge penalty.
PowerPC-family and i386-family processors are unrelated, and at a
basic-level they "speak different languages". As a result, software to
run PC operating systems on a PowerPC Mac need to emulate an i386-type
processor, translating each instruction from the PC operating system
into an instruction that the PowerPC can understand.
Like trying to read a Czech newspaper with a Czech-English dictionary
at hand, all that translation slows things down a lot. It's workable,
but it's noticeably slower than even a low-end i386 PC.
Current Macs, however, are all built using Intel processors. In fact,
they are identical to the processors used by other manufacturers to
built Windows PCs. Current Intel (and competitor AMD) processors all
support virtualization, the ability to set aside a block of memory for
a "pretend" (or "virtual") computer. Since this virtual session is
passing on instructions from an operating system designed for Intel
processors to a real Intel processor, no low-level translation is
necessary. The result is near-native performance.
Back in Parallels
The release version of Parallels Workstation is available as a 30 MB
downloadable 15-day trial version from www.parallels.com
; to use it,
you'll need to register with Parallels to receive an activation key.
Using it beyond 15 days requires purchasing a license; when first
released, Parallels was priced at US$49 (and was available for preorder
prior to release for US$39); the cost has gone up to US$79.99. This
does not include the cost of purchasing any Windows operating system
that you might choose to install.
Installation is quick and straightforward, assuming, of course, a valid
Once installed, the next step is to create a virtual session and
install a PC operating system. The release version of Parallels is a
lot slicker at this than the beta that I looked at in April.
Important note: I
worked with the downloaded version of Parallels Workstation and had no
problems; a friend, however, also bought a new Core 2 Duo Mac. Along
with it, he bought a boxed retail edition of Parallels. It installed
fine, but trying to actually start a virtual session repeatedly forced
a restart of his Mac. Downloading the latest updated copy of Parallels
solved that problem- there's a menu option to check for updates. Be
sure to use it!
||An OS Installation
Assistant walks users through the process. If you're simply installing
Windows XP or Vista, there's an Express Windows Installation option.
|Selecting that lets you
choose either XP or Vista, then asks you for a machine name, your
Windows product key, and your desired Windows user name and (optional)
organization, all information that it passes on to the Windows
installer. Add a Windows installation CD and all will be taken care of.
||The second, "Typical" option, lets you choose
between Windows versions (from Win 3.1 to Vista), a short list of Linux
distributions, Free BSD or Solaris Unix, OS/2, or MS-DOS. In case the
exact Windows, Linux, or other version you want to use isn't listed,
each option includes "Other". After choosing an operating system,
you're prompted to give the saved file a name, then to insert your
operating system CD. A virtual computer is created with Parallels'
typical settings for that OS. Unlike the first option, no information
is automatically passed on to the OS installer.
|Finally, there's a Custom OS installation
option for those of us who would like more control or who just want to
know what Parallels considers "typical" settings. For instance, you get
to set the amount of RAM available to the virtual computer. In a
Windows XP installation, the default setting is 256 MB; personally I
consider this too low to allow XP good performance. On a Mac with 1 GB
RAM or more, I would increase this, ideally to 512 MB or so. (On my
wish list for Parallels: make note of the amount of RAM installed on
the Mac and change the default settings depending on how much RAM is
||I'm more happy with Parallels' default for
virtual hard drives; the virtual drives that are created are not huge,
but they are adequate for the OS versions selected. For Windows XP, for
instance, an 8 GB virtual drive is created. Even better, the default is
to create what Parallels calls an "Expanding Drive". While the virtual
computer thinks it has (for example) an 8 GB drive, the file that
stores the virtual drive is only as large as it needs to be. It grows
as you add more applications or data. On my system, I've got a virtual
drive that Windows XP thinks is 8 GB; it's currently actually a
relatively svelte 3.55 GB file.
|Custom OS users also get to choose between the
default Bridged Ethernet network and several other options. I seem to
be getting the best results for both Internet access and access to my
local network with the Shared Networking option - your results may
vary, i. In fact, when I was working with the beta last Spring, I got
good results using the bridged networking option.
No matter what installation options you select, these settings can be
changed after the fact; it's reasonably easy to change the amount of
RAM or the type of networking for each virtual computer. Changing hard
drive size requires use of a separate ImageTool utility included in the
No matter which OS installation option you select,
you get to sit through your chosen operating system's installation
process. While purchasers of Virtual PC could (optionally) purchase an
image file with a preinstalled Windows (or, for a short time, Red Hat
Linux) drive image, with Parallels, you've got to provide your own
operating system installation CD (or image file of an installation CD)
and patiently sit through the OS installation.
I installed Windows XP Professional, Windows Vista RC2, and Ubuntu
Linux 6.10. Each installed without problem.
Life after Installation
After installing the operating system(s) of your choice, Parallels
provides an information window for each virtual system. Clicking the
green "play" icon starts up the virtual computer. Clicking on a setting
brings up the Configuration Editor, letting you change that (or other)
settings. As with a real PC, there may be times when you may want to
change the boot options, perhaps to boot to a CD rather than from a
hard drive. Unlike a real PC, you can increase the amount of RAM
available to these virtual computers without having to open up anything
(assuming you have enough RAM installed on your Mac, of course -
remember, you need enough RAM to allow both Mac OS X and your virtual
PC operating system(s) to run at the same time).
Another perhaps useful option: You can set the (virtual) USB Controller
to "Autoconnect" to any USB device connected to your Mac, or allow
yourself to manually tell the virtual PC about individual connected USB
devices like printers. (Parallels virtual systems are unaware of
connected FireWire devices.) With autoconnect turned off, I needed to
manually click on Parallels' Devices menu to tell Windows about my USB
printer - when I did that, it correctly detected that the Canon i860
printer within a few seconds.
As a test, while running a virtual Windows XP with USB Autoconnect on,
I installed the Windows software that came with a new Palm Tungsten
PDA; after installing the software, the installer instructed me to plug
in the Palm. It was immediately identified, and synched up with the
virtual PC without problem. As far as I can tell, USB support just
Startup is pretty brisk - it took 35 seconds from clicking the green Go
button until I had a fully booted and usable Windows XP desktop on my
2.0 GHz iMac.
After you install a Windows OS version, click the Parallels VM menu and
select Install Parallels Tools. This points Windows to a CD image file,
telling it that it's a CD that had been inserted, and autostarting the
installation program. This lets you choose to install new drivers for
mouse, network, video, Parallels Shared Folders, and more. My advice-
install them all. The new mouse driver automatically changes your mouse
from a Windows mouse when you're hovering over the Windows window (!)
and back to a Mac mouse when it's pointing anywhere else on your
desktop. Without this driver, you have to press the Control + Option
keys to give the mouse cursor back to your Mac.
The new video driver allows Win2000 and NT to do better than 640 x 480
16 colour graphics; while Windows XP doesn't need that support, the
improved mouse driver requires the new video driver. A sound driver is
included for Windows versions prior to XP, which don't include native
support for the emulated AC97 sound hardware. A time synchronization
tool allows your PC to synch its clock to the Mac's clock, while a
clipboard synchronization tool lets you use the Windows and Mac
clipboards to share data between these operating systems.
Very useful is Parallels Shared Folders, also added in the Parallels
Tools installation. This lets you set folders on your Mac as shared
(prior to the OS startup); a Parallels Shared Folders icon on the
Windows desktop provides easy access to those folders and allows you to
map a drive letter to any of your shared Mac folders. This gives your
Windows session access to music, photos, or any other documents saved
on your Mac.
While these tools work fine with Windows operating systems, Linux users
just get a driver for the emulated network card. There's no easy access
to shared folders (though if you turn on Windows Sharing on the Mac,
you may be able to see those folders across your network), and no
automatic sharing of the mouse cursor between the Mac and virtualized
Also nice: Rather than shutting down a virtual session, you can choose
to suspend it; this saves the session to your hard drive, creating a
file the size of your installed RAM setting. This can be restarted
reasonably quickly, putting you back where your virtual session left
Even with the Parallels Tools video driver, the virtualized systems are
not gaming powerhouses; users wanting to run Windows games may find
themselves getting better performance using Apple's Boot Camp to create
a dedicated Windows XP installation that has full access to all of
their Mac's RAM and direct access to the Mac's video hardware.
The beta version of Parallels Workstation that I looked at last spring
was a proof of concept - it showed that it was possible to run Windows
and other PC operating systems with good performance within OS X on an
The release version is much improved; it makes installation of PC
operating systems easier, offers better performance, and includes good
USB support. The Parallels Tools make the various Windows versions work
better and integrate them with the Mac; I wish the various integration
tools were available for Linux installations as well.
Not all potential users will be happy with Parallels' US$80 price;
Microsoft's Virtual PC for Windows is now free, as are VMWare's Player
and Server versions. None of these free products are available for the
Still, many owners of Intel-powered Macs will find it worthwhile to
purchase a copy of Parallels Workstation, particularly if they need
access some of the time to a particular Windows application or piece of