On the heels of Apple's launch of the Intel Mac, a company called Parallels captured the spotlight with an eponymous product that does for Mac OS X what VMware Workstation did for the Windows and Linux world -- full-blown hardware virtualisation in a workstation package running natively on the Mac OS. Parallels allowed less-than-satisfied Windows users to jump to the Mac and to take their Windows applications with them. Windows-only applications and games were no longer a sticking point.
The recent release of Parallels Desktop 3.0 for Mac brings OS X and Windows even closer together than before, and it adds several features that have become necessities in the virtualisation world. The laundry list includes snapshots, hardware 3D graphics rendering on the guest OS, a security manager that acts as a firewall of sorts between the host and guest operating systems, a guest file system explorer, and support for Windows Vista partition booting, which lets users of Apple's Boot Camp dual-boot framework run their Windows partition within Parallels Desktop.
Snapshot support is almost a given in any virtualisation platform now because the ability to freeze a virtual system at any given point in time and reset to that known-good point has become one of the major drivers of virtualisation adoption. For instance, taking a snapshot right before installing a service pack or significant update permits nearly instant recovery when things go south. As a time-saving mechanism, this is nearly second to none.
The new Parallels Explorer in Parallels Desktop 3.0 is also handy. Rather than booting a guest OS to retrieve a few files stored on the virtual disk, this utility opens the virtual disk's file system and allows drag and drop copying from OS X to the guest file system and vice versa. The security manager is also a nice new feature, permitting more granular control over which devices are visible to the guest OS and what level of file sharing is permitted.
For many users, the best new feature in Parallels Desktop 3.0 will be the hardware-accelerated 3D graphics support. This is the Holy Grail for Mac-longing gaming users held hostage by Windows boxes because the focus of their gaming addiction runs only on Windows. Dual-booting with Boot Camp is an option, but it's far more convenient to run a virtual system. Prior to this release, direct access to the graphics card within the host Mac wasn't possible, so frame rates on games and other graphics-intensive applications suffered greatly. Parallels Desktop 3.0 provides direct access to the GPU, meaning that OpenGL and DirectX software not only runs in a Windows VM, they run fast.
VMs of no return
I installed Parallels Desktop 3.0 on my trusty 17-inch MacBook Pro with 2GB of RAM and the 5400rpm 160GB disk. Because I had a previous version of Parallels installed, I was warned that updating would require updating my VMs too and that the VMs would no longer be compatible with older versions of Parallels Desktop. Otherwise, the installation was extremely fast.
Following the required reboot, I launched the new version and opened an existing Windows XP VM. The conversion process took only a few seconds, and then the VM booted. Immediately after logging in, the Parallels Tools installation wizard launched and installed all the necessary drivers in the VM. After that, the VM rebooted, and all was well. The new driver set is undoubtedly due to the new direct access graphics features of Parallels Desktop 3.0 as well as updates to the other drivers for the mouse, file sharing, and so on. From an end-user's standpoint, I noticed no difference in the way the Windows XP VM functioned, other than it seemed a bit speedier, and the boot time was reduced by roughly 20 per cent. I do have to note that the simple drag-and-resize feature is extremely handy. Rather than mess around with screen resolution settings within the VM, simply dragging the edge of the VM window resizes the VM desktop on the fly -- very cool.
Snapshots are as simple as you would expect. Creating a snapshot of my 8GB Windows XP VM took 30 seconds, and the snapshot was immediately available. I took a few more snapshots and reverted to an older one. The process of reverting to a snapshot involves either opening the snapshot manager and selecting the snapshot, or simply clicking a button on the right-hand panel. Either way, reverting to a prior snapshot with minimal changes between snaps took only 25 seconds. The snapshot manager's layout is simple and shows images of the desktop appearance when the snapshot was taken to assist in snapshot identification. The whole process is simple and elegant.
Then I tackled a tougher challenge: Installation of Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate. I took the easy route and allowed Parallels to slipstream the installation. This involves entering the Vista product key into the Parallels VM installer window and selecting whether to prioritise performance for OS X or Vista (giving Vista priority is the recommended choice). I acquiesced, slipped in the Vista installation DVD, and waited while the Vista installer cranked and hammered.
I was interested to note that although Microsoft recommends 1GB RAM for Vista, the default in Parallels is 512MB. My MacBook Pro has 2GB of RAM, and I would think that allocating 1GB to the VM would be appropriate here, especially given Vista's penchant to consume all available system resources.
The installation of Vista Ultimate took around 40 minutes from inserting the DVD to logging into the new VM. Following the first boot, Parallels automatically installs all necessary drivers, although they are unsigned and require manual confirmation at each step -- a minor annoyance. During the whole install process, the load on the MacBook Pro hovered around 1.25, which is actually remarkably good.
After installation of Vista, I installed Office Ultimate 2007. In total, the Vista and Office installation required nearly 16GB of disk space -- and Parallels' default disk size for the Vista install was 30GB, which was also the total free space on the MacBook's hard drive.
Windows Vista inside
Although Parallel's Coherence mode isn't new in the new version, it's still notable due to the relatively seamless nature of application presentation. In Coherence mode, the VM desktop isn't trapped within the Parallels window; instead, applications running within the VM appear as unique windows on the OS X desktop, and application interaction is functionally identical to native OS X apps. For those wishing to run only one or two Windows applications on OS X, this is surely the ticket. I did experience some significant sluggishness at times when running the Vista VM, always tied to heavy disk I/O. With a faster system -- and especially a system with a faster disk I/O subsystem -- these problems will likely be reduced.
The Parallels Explorer lets you browse VM virtual disks without powering up the VM itself. It offers a rather rudimentary navigation interface that mimics the OS X finder, and allows drag-and-drop file access. I found it functional and surprisingly fast.
One definite downside with Parallels Desktop 3.0 is that even with the new direct graphics controller access features, Vista's Aero effects aren't supported. The issue is that Parallels supports DirectX 8.1, but Aero requires DirectX 9.0. In fact, I've heard that the 3D acceleration is only functional under Windows XP for the moment, but I couldn't corroborate this statement before press time.
All in all, Parallels Desktop 3.0 is an amazing product for the $US79.95 (around $AU95.20) price. It integrates very well into OS X, looking and behaving like a native application while providing outstanding functionality. Make no mistake -- running two heavy operating systems on a single system will result in periodic slowness, especially during high disk I/O operations. But Parallels handles the task elegantly, and it certainly fits hand in glove with Mac OS X.