I have always loved the idea of running two operating systems in parallel, and the advancements in virtualization technology have been exceptionally intriguing. For the past few days I have had the opportunity to try out the next version of Parallels Desktop, which is available today for public purchase. The latest version has a few small quirks, and I am not able to test it in all configurations or its full capabilities, but overall it does live up to the advertised improvements over the prior version.
I regularly use virtual machines, though my uses are primarily limited to testing Web development. For the times when I need to do things that I cannot do on my Mac, such as running a few Office-related applications like Microsoft Visio, I have two virtual machines, one running Windows XP (my main one), and another running the latest Windows 7 (a test to run the latest from Microsoft). I also have a couple of other virtual machines for Linux distributions that I regularly install and delete.
Installing Parallels desktop was a relative no-brainer, and the new version replaced the old one without having an option to keep both. This would have been nice to easily revert to the prior version in case of errors; however, parallels will update your virtual machines so unless you also have a copy of your unmodified VMs, then you may run into problems with the updated VMs on the older software.
The installer mentioned an 80 percent increase in performance rather than the advertised 40 percent, but that could be a typographical error because the program is advertised with "80+" new features. Installation was relatively fast (less than 5 minutes) and took about 447MB of disk space when completed. A restart was not required, but a brief flash of a "restart you computer" screen with an "OK" button did show and then disappear.
Opening the program showed the Parallels activation screen (if you bypass this, the program goes to a 30-day trial) and then a registration screen, which is required to obtain product updates. There is no obvious way to cancel the registration, but you can simply close the window and register at a later time.
The interface for the VMs and settings is the same. The initial Welcome screen shows the "New," "Migrate," or "Use" options that previously looked like buttons but now appear like an opened book. Selecting "Use" shows the virtual machine list.
Opening any virtual machine at this point launched them quite smoothly, and upon logging in immediately updated the Parallels tools, which went smoothly. If you are using the seamless "Coherence" mode, you may find the program reverting to "Windowed" mode when installing the tools.
After installing the tools you will be required to restart the virtual machine, and then you will be fully upgraded. You will need to do this for all virtual machines that support the Parallels tools.
I use Parallels Desktop on my 17-inch MacBook Pro (Dual 2.66GHz Core2 Duo, 4GB RAM, Geforce 9600M/9400M), and overall the virtual machines I use do run notably faster than previously. Interface response time seems snappier than the previous version, and applications launch as fast as on many PCs I use (there is a little more lag in Windows 7 than in Windows XP, but that is to be expected); however, there still are some minor or even negligible quirks with VM windows including some small choppiness and appearance of the Windows desktop when moving them around on screen.
When booting in Coherence mode, the Windows toolbar will briefly show at the bottom of the screen, and though Windows XP's toolbar disappears quickly, the Windows 7's toolbar seems to stay for about 15 to 20 seconds before disappearing. This is not a major problem by any means, but is an odd visual to see when all other Windows features have been hidden. Periodically I have also noticed that when booting in Coherence mode the Windows 7 virtual machine will be shown in the "Modality" mode and take a few seconds to change to the desired view settings. You may also see the VM switch to full-screen mode for a few tasks such as shutting down.
In Windows XP, the Start menu used to appear over the Dock icon when you click the icon, and while it initially did this when running Parallels 6, it started appearing on the left-hand side of the screen and has not reverted, so to get to the Start menu you have to click the dock icon and then move over to the left. When clicking the Parallels menu extra icon; however, the Start menu shows up beneath the menu as expected.
In terms of CPU usage, Windows XP uses minimal CPU when not in use (about 1.5 to 1.9 percent), which is why I still enjoy it as my main virtual machine OS. However, Windows 7 seems to use around 20 percent of the CPU when idling, even with no applications or windows open. Though this is not a massive use of CPU resources, if you do a decent amount of multitasking it can cause brief pauses in some processes.
There have been some small changes to the view options in Parallels 6. The old "Crystal" mode has now become an option in the preferences for Coherence, and a new "Modality" mode has been introduced. Modality shows the full-screen VM view in a resizable window, which allows you to still interact with the virtual machine in a full-screen mode without it taking up your whole desktop. I do not see much use for this, but it is a better option than having the nearly identical Crystal and Coherence options as separate views.
Beyond this there are a few differences in the preferences and settings, but no real changes to the program's structure.
The real change to Parallels 6 is with "Parallels Mobile." In prior versions of the program, Parallels had an iPhone application that allowed you to interact with and manage your virtual machines as long as you could connect to your computer's network with your phone. This feature has seen a number of improvements in Parallels Desktop 6.
First off, the program is now available for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad, which allows you to interact with your VMs from practically any of Apple's mobile platforms.
The program has been enhanced as well. In prior versions of the program you had to connect directly to your computer in order to interact with the VMs. This meant you had to open ports on firewalls, and then enter your computer's address to connect. Now Parallels Mobile connections are managed through a central server run by Parallels, which like MobileMe's "Back to my Mac" feature allows you to connect to your virtual machines seamlessly from any network, even cellular data networks.
In addition to being able to connect from practically anywhere, the program appears to do a good job at implementing touch on the Windows interface, so you can view and run practically any Windows application in full screen on your iOS device, from nearly anywhere in the world. Unfortunately I have not been able to test this feature out yet, but it is exceptionally intriguing.
Other useful options
Parallels 6 comes with a couple of new features that may be useful for some VM users. In addition to full integration with Time Machine and being able to search for Windows applications with Spotlight, you can now compress your virtual machines to save disk space. My 9.7GB Windows XP installation compressed down to 7.8GB, saving me about 1.9GB of space, and it only took a few minutes to do. I am not sure of any impact on performance from doing this and did not see any difference in my testing, but my uses are limited to fairly nondemanding tasks.