Review: Parallels Desktop 6 for the Mobile Professional

The days of major Windows/Mac compatibility issues have waned, but for the mobile professional, they haven’t completely receded into distant memory. Those who use Windows at work still run into the situations when a Microsoft Office (s msft) document just doesn’t work quite right on the Mac (s aapl). If your company uses Outlook, it might be easier to have access to it while at home with the Mac. Whatever your reasons for needing access to Windows, the newly released Parallels Desktop 6 may be just what you need.

Getting Started

Mac owners can install Windows under Bootcamp, which is part of OS X. This creates a Windows partition that allows booting into Windows as desired. Parallels Desktop (and competitor VMWare (vmw) Fusion) offer a simpler solution. A virtual machine is created inside OS X where Windows (or other OSes) can be installed and run while OS X is running. This opens up options not available to Bootcamp users, such as dragging and dropping files between the two “systems”.

Once Parallels Desktop 6 is installed, it walks the user through the Windows installation. There are options for installing Windows from the Mac DVD drive or from an image file (ISO), which is what I used. Windows is not included with Parallels; you need your own purchased copy. The Windows 7 Ultimate (64-bit) install went quickly and without issue, all in a window on my Mac OS X desktop. Once Windows was done installing (and rebooting) I sat through the long Windows Update session to add all the security updates.

Parallels has a Transporter utility for Windows users who wish to make the Windows system on the Mac mimic a Windows PC. The PC is connected to the Mac with a USB cable, and once the Transporter utility runs it copies the user’s Windows files and customizations to the virtual machine on the Mac. The new Windows system on the Mac then looks just like the Windows PC. I haven’t used this method, preferring a basic Windows installation on the Mac without transferring anything. My documents are on the Mac, and Parallels allows easy access to them on the Windows side.

The Parallels virtual machine that’s home to the Windows install is seen by the OS as a dedicated computer running that OS. Windows does not work differently this way than it does installed on a real computer. Parallels adds hooks into the Windows install that makes it easy for the OS X system to interact with the Windows side of things. It is like having two computers tightly networked together, all running on the Mac.

Parallels Desktop 6 has some new features not found in previous versions, most notably a healthy performance increase according to the developers. They claim a 40 percent improvement in both Windows boot time and system performance. I haven’t run any benchmarks, but it’s definitely faster than Parallels Desktop 5. The system has been so snappy that I was surprised to see that Parallels had allocated the Windows 7 virtual machine only 1 GB of memory. My MacBook has 4 GB of memory and a dual-core CPU and I thought about bumping the memory allocated to Windows (it’s user configurable) up to 2 GB, but performance was so good I left it at the default level.

Parallels in Use

The Windows virtual machine can be run in OS X in a Mac Window or in full-screen mode. The whole Windows desktop is in a regular Mac window in the former, and takes over the whole display in the latter. Full-screen mode is handy on setups with multiple monitors with Windows on one screen and OS X on the other. Those using Spaces on the Mac can do the same thing on single display systems and use a simple key sequence to toggle between the two OSes.

I actually prefer the third method that Parallels provides to run Window. The Coherence mode hides the Windows desktop completely, and programs run in Windows appear on the Mac desktop as a simple window. This facilitates having Windows and Mac apps on the screen side-by-side, and dragging objects between them. Parallels has an option to make Windows apps use frames just like Mac apps for those who want everything to look Mac. I prefer to have Windows apps display in a Windows frame so I can tell at a glance which OS I am dealing with. The Windows Start Menu is available on the Mac system bar at the top of the screen, and Windows programs appear as a folder in the dock.

Since the Windows virtual machine is a full implementation of the OS, everything you can do on a Windows PC can be done in Parallels on the Mac. Microsoft Office 2010 programs run very well on the Mac, and it’s handy to have access to full versions of Office without leaving the Mac environment. Outlook users will be happy with that program running on the Mac in a Windows on the desktop.

I’ve been running Parallels Desktop 6 on a unibody MacBook, not a Pro. It doesn’t have the dedicated graphics option that Pros have, but the performance has still been quite good. I’m running Windows in Coherence mode all the time, with programs running on my Mac desktop. I don’t have any issues with performance, and both OSes have played nicely together. The developers claim that Parallels Desktop 6 provides better 3-D game play than earlier versions. I haven’t tried that, but our friends at TheAppleBlog have done some testing that questions those claims.

Running Windows on the MacBook hasn’t taken an appreciable toll on the battery. There’s certainly a small hit due to having both CPUs running all the time and more memory allocated, but it’s not enough to be a concern. This makes the Parallels solution for running Windows particularly attractive to mobile professionals. I’ve covered using the iPad as a second display while traveling, and this works well with Parallels. It is quite a sight to have Windows running on the iPad next to the MacBook.

Parallels Desktop 6 will be widely available on Sept. 14, but owners of earlier versions can upgrade now for $49.99. The full version is $79.99, and there’s a special version for Windows to Mac switchers for $99.99.

Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub. req’d): Are You Empowering Your Mobile Work Force?