updated 05:30 pm EST, Thu November 13, 2008
Ever since Apple switched to Intel processors, Macs have been able to run the most popular operating systems for the x86 architecture including Linux and Microsoft Windows. Apple offers Boot Camp for free, which lets you create a dual-boot partition, but forces you to choose between Mac OS X or Windows each time you turn on your computer. For a solution that lets you switch between Mac OS X and any other operating system without rebooting, you need a virtualization program such as Parallels 4.0.
If you've used a previous version of Parallels, you'll notice a big improvement in speed right away. In previous tests, Parallels 3.0 ran Windows XP/Vista at roughly the same speed as VMware's competitor, Fusion 2.0. Curiously, Parallels 3.0 ran other operating systems dramatically slower than Fusion. Most surprisingly, Parallels 3.0 ran Windows 2000 sluggishly. Clicking on the Start button would display the Start menu, but only after a noticeable delay. Version 4.0 has sped up considerably.
While testing Windows 2000, menus popped up as quickly as if the programs were running under a dedicated Windows computer. Similarly, Ubuntu 8.04 seemed to run much slower on Parallels 3.0 but now runs quickly under version 4.0. Strangely, it seems that Parallels 3.0 was specifically optimized to run Windows XP/Vista while Fusion ran all OSs equally well. With version 4.0, Parallels seems to have optimized their program for all OSs while consuming 15% to 30% fewer resources at the same time.
While running ordinary Windows applications has always been easy, version 4.0 now adds support for DirectX 9.0, DirectX Pixel Shader 2.0 and OpenGL 2, allowing you to play more sophisticated Windows video games than Solitaire or Minesweeper. Performance of graphics-intensive games obviously can't match the speeds of a dedicated Windows PC, but video game playing is now fast enough to be acceptable, although hard-core gamers will still prefer a dedicated Windows PC instead.
Under the hood, this virtualization program can now access up to 8GB of RAM. If you're using a laptop, you'll be pleased that the program's PowerSaver feature consumes less power, thereby extending your laptop battery's life. When running Windows on a Mac mini with 2GB RAM, this program felt responsive right away. When running Windows on a MacBook with only 1 GB of RAM, responsiveness did slow dramatically. (1 GB RAM is the recommended minimum system requirements, but 2 GB RAM is the minimum when running Vista.)
If you already have a Windows PC, you can transfer your entire system (applications, settings, and the Windows OS itself) as a virtual machine on your Mac using the built-in Parallels Transporter program. If you have any virtual machines created in another virtualization program, such as VMware Fusion, you can convert them to use in this program. This Transporter program imported all Fusion virtual machines with no problem, although the conversion process does take time (approximately 20 minutes for a Windows Fusion virtual machine).
Unique is the Parallels Compressor program, which can compress a virtual machine. Now you can shrink your entire virtual machine files without losing any functionality.
Although this virtualization program lets you run any Intel-based operating system such as Linux, OpenBSD, or SolarisOS, the obvious use for most people is to run Windows on a Mac. To help protect your copy of Windows from malware threats over the Internet, this program includes over $175 worth of additional software including Kaspersky firewall and anti-virus and Acronis True Image Home for backing up and protecting your data.
You can run another operating system, such as Windows, in its own Mac OS X window, or as a full-screen window, which creates the illusion that you're not even using Mac OS X at all. When switching between full-screen and ordinary window view, you can choose a visual transition such as a spinning cube effect. Such visual effects are more decorative than functional, but they demonstrate that the program has enough resources to do that without affecting the performance of your Mac. When displayed in full screen mode, another OS appears as if running natively on your Mac. If you need to share data, you may prefer shrinking the window so you can drag and drop files between Mac OS X and your Windows virtual machine. (Sadly, drag and drop doesn't work between non-Windows virtual machines such as Solaris or Linux.)
If you need to run Windows or another operating system, but don't want to give up the benefits of Mac OS X, then you'll need a virtualization program like Parallels 4.0. The program costs $79.99 or $39.99 to upgrade. Parallels 4.0 hopes to attract Windows users with its free security suite although you can duplicate its features with free software such as AVG Anti-Virus, or through Parallels' own Snapshot feature that saves your entire Windows virtual machine, making separate backup programs like Acronis True Image largely irrelevant.
If you need to run Windows, Parallels 4.0 is a far more convenient option than Boot Camp. If you need to run other OSs, you'll find that Parallels 4.0 is finally up to that task as well.