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Software Review: Parallels Desktop 6 for Mac

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If you use an Apple computer, you might have come across something Apple calls “Boot Camp”. This lets you install a version of Microsoft Windows on your Mac, restart your computer, and use your computer exactly like a Windows computer running applications and games that aren’t written for Apple’s software. When you’re done using Windows, you restart your Mac again, and chose to boot into Mac OS X and access your Mac apps once more.

This rebooting can become quite tedious if you’re often swapping between Windows software and Mac. To make life easier, there’s Parallels Desktop 6, an application that lets you create a pretend set of computers that run within your Mac (called Virtual Computers), each installed with a version of Microsoft Windows or a flavour of Linux like Ubuntu (a “guest” operating system).

The purpose of these virtual computers is to allow access to applications not intended for Apple’s platform, without having to constantly restart your computer to access them. The benefits of this should be pretty obvious: you gain access to a wealth of additional software, some of which might be essential for your place of work or school, without the chore of constantly changing operating system.

Parallels takes things a stage further, and actually blurs the lines between these computers. Windows applications, for example, can be accessed directly from the Mac’s dock, as if they were running as native applications. A web designer, for example, could have Internet Explorer running alongside Apple’s Safari browser in their dock, and easily test their work in both browsers. If they wish, they never have to launch an application from within Windows.

Parallels 6 introduces several great new features such as launching Windows applications from the Spotlight in OS X, or allowing you to encrypt your virtual computers to prevent unauthorised access. The two highlights of Parallels 6 have to be the improved performance, and availability of a iOS (iPhone/iPad) application. The performance improvements extended to various aspects of Parallels: booting a Windows virtual computer is 41% faster than the previous version, working with network files and shared folders is quicker than before, and 3D graphics are an impressive 40% faster than in earlier versions.

The iOS application allows you to remotely active and control a virtual computer on your iOS device from anywhere you have an Internet connection. Given the lack of support for flash video on iOS devices, there’s an obvious opportunity here to connect back to a virtual Windows computer and play videos you’d otherwise be unable to watch.

In order to put Parallels Desktop 6 through its paces, I installed several virtual computers running a number of Guest operating systems: Windows XP, Windows 7, Ubuntu Linux, and even an early version of Chrome OS. When creating a virtual computer in Parallels, you define the amount of resources you want that computer to have. For example, how much system memory should it use, and how big should its hard disk be. Depending on whether you’re going to be using your Mac for anything while the virtual computer is running, you can scale this quite high and devote the majority of your physical computer’s resources to the virtual one.

I found that if I wanted to run intensive applications like Microsoft Visual Studio, I needed to allocate plenty of memory for the virtual computer. I’m pleased to report the system is remarkably useable even in intensive scenarios like this, and it’s quite bizarre seeing a Microsoft specific application running on your Mac as if it’s a normal, native application!

I also connected to a number of those operating systems with the iOS application, and it works well. It was a little sluggish on my network, and thanks to the non-touch design of most desktop operating systems, I couldn’t see myself untethering from my desk and doing my day job using it, but it’s certainly a nice touch and could have its uses for referring back to things on a virtual computer in the absence of a real physical computer you can connect to. In particular office type applications could benefit from this approach.

One thing I didn’t test were the graphics performance claims. Most of the games I had to hand are quite graphically intensive, and my MacBook isn’t exactly a graphical powerhouse at the best of times. There are a number of articles online that explore the graphics performance in detail though, and the results on the right hardware are very impressive.

If you need to access Windows or Linux specific applications from your Mac computer, or have an interest in alternative operating systems but don’t want to be constantly installing and uninstalling to check out new versions, Parallels is a worthy purchase. It’s nicely presented, easy to get to grips with, performant and does most of what you’d want without running into any problems.

Parallels RRP is $79.99, and a 15-day demo can be downloaded from the Parallels web site.

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