Review: Parallels Desktop for Mac 3.x

Windows and Mac OS X play nice on one Mac. (September 7th, 2007)

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Product Manufacturer: Parallels, Inc.

Price: $79.99 (Plus the cost of a Windows license.)

The Good

  • Snapshot. Smartselect. Shared Applications. Limited DirectX compatibility.

The Bad

  • Gaming (limited DirectX compatibility). Had to turn off directX in order to not conflict with Java. Not compelling enough to upgrade from version 2.

In January of 2006, the world changed just a little. It was a quiet change, but it modified 29 years of Apple history.

History of Windows on Macintosh

Apple had always used Motorola processors in one form or another, and for 11 years of that time, used IBM processors that were similar in architecture to the Motorola units. These were PowerPC architecture, which IBM was also using in its more expensive workstation and mid-size mainframe machines.

What this meant was that if you needed to run a Windows program on your Macintosh, you had limited options. In the mid-1990s, you could buy an accessory DOS card, or buy a Quadra 610 DOS compatible machine. The DOS card was an internal peripheral that had its own Intel 486 processor and RAM, and it was a whole computer that resided within a Macintosh computer. Other options were products like SoftWindows and VirtualPC, both of which emulate an Intel processor in software.

A Little Glossary

To understand the running of Windows on your Mac, it is helpful to go over the two terms that define the available options: Emulation and virtualization.

emulate. v. To create an environment where the computer thinks it has hardware that it does not, and uses it as if it were real.

virtualized. n. To use hardware that the computer actually does have present, but to expose it to software in such a way that each piece of software using the hardware believes that it has exclusive access.

To better illustrate this: VirtualPC was poorly named. It ran on PowerPC processors, and emulated an Intel processor, bios, graphics card, network, and used a file on the hard drive as a virtual hard drive.

Parallels, on the other hand, runs on Intel processors, and virtualizes the processor and hard drive while emulating the bios, network, and graphics card. The advantage is that virtualization is always going to deliver better performance than emulation, especially in computationally intensive resources. What makes Parallels interesting is that they've managed to make an emulated graphics adapter deliver the performance approaching the real hardware.

Parallels early lead

Parallels is the earliest commercial means of virtualizing a machine for Windows use on an Intel based Macintosh. Introduced in April 2006, just months after the release of Intel Macintosh, Parallels was first out of the gate. They've released updates early and often, each time increasing performance.

Coherence

Coherence is the ability to have Windows applications behave in some ways as if they belong on the Macintosh. That means that the Windows application icons appear in the Dock, and that the window of the individual application appears without the need for a Start Menu, Windows Taskbar, or Desktop. In this way, a Windows application looks and feels like it is just another application on your Mac.

From the beginning Parallels has been a way for customers to run essential applications that are not available on the Macintosh, or run Windows applications for greater compatibility. Early on, people found that running MS Office in Windows launched faster on an Intel machine than running the PowerPC-Rosetta based Office 2004. This is just one example of why someone might need Parallels. Other applications that require it could be AutoCad or 3DStudioMax, both of which use graphics hardware reasonably intensively.

This is where Parallels begins to get interesting, because in version 3 they have enhanced the graphics support emulation. The other applications that use graphics hardware unrepentantly are games.

Gaming

In August of 2006, Parallels said that they would have "Fast 3D graphics support via support for OpenGL and DirectX. You'll be able to run games at full speed without leaving your OS X desktop!" Now, in 2007, they have delivered on that promise.

You have to edit your VM properties to enable DirectX. I found that most games ran better when not run in Coherence mode, if they ran at all. I admit, I'm not a habitual gamer. The games I played most recently are Dungeon Keeper, Sanitarium, Oni, Worms3D, and others from that time period, which means I stopped playing computer games in 2001. To be fair I consulted the Parallels forums to see what other problems users report to supplement my own experiences. Forums aren't always the most reliable source, but it's worth seeing which games don't work well immediately, and how Parallels responds to those posts.

It seems that Parallels has only claimed support for a limited number of 3D games, listed in their release notes and at the end of this article. I have to admit that I'm not sure why Worms3D or Baldur's Gate is supported when they already exist on the Mac. Apparently, the folks at Parallels tested them and decided to put them in the list.

It is revealing how many forums users have issues with game playing in Parallels. The advice ranges from making sure that the VM properties are set to enable DirectX, advising people to work around copy-protection on the disc, or limiting themselves to only the games listed in the release notes. These of course are forums, and not the most reliable information on Earth, but these pieces of advice are coming from posters that appear to represent the company. Understandably, not everyone is pleased with the responses.

SmartSelect and other neat integration

SmartSelect and Shared Applications make your life switching contexts between the two operating systems that much easier. SmartSelect allows you to launch files with Mac programs from within the Windows right-click menu. Similarly, the control-click contextual Macintosh menu lists Windows programs that can open a file.

Shared Applications puts Mac Applications into the Programs menu of the Windows Start Menu. This makes it that more convenient to launch the application you need, regardless of which OS you're currently using.

The coolest, most useful feature of all among these OS integration options is the ability to have the contents of home folders shared. This means that Documents in OS X is the same as My Documents in Windows. Now you can access the same files in the same places in both operating systems.

Snapshot

Snapshot is the feature for which I'm most grateful. You can take snapshots of the virtual hard drive state as a backup, preserving files and configurations just as they were at that point in time. The resulting image files can be saved to an external hard drive. These snapshots are shown as a starting line of a race; with a checkered start flag, then a series of Desktop pictures whenever a snapshot was taken, and a finish line flag to illustrate the current state of the virtual hard drive.

This isn't quite as powerful as what Apple promises Time Machine to be in Mac OS X 10.5, but it's a valuable effort. As often as Windows suffers problems, I think it is a good preventative maintenance policy to take regular snapshots, including taking a snapshot before installing the software.

Conclusions

Parallels Desktop for Mac is a good product. If you need to run Windows on a Mac, this is one of three available options. Boot Camp and VMWare Fusion are the other two options. Of these three, Parallels has the longest Windows for Mac development history. The features that make it worth considering include the convenience measures like Shared Applications and SmartSelect, and the essential Snapshots. Seriously, the only thing I'd like to see added is a means of scheduling a Snapshot.

Supported 3D Games:
  • Alien Arena 2007 (OpenGL(r))
  • Baldur's Gate 2 (Direct3D(r))
  • Bus Driver (OpenGL)
  • Call of Duty (OpenGL)
  • Doom 3 (OpenGL)
  • Duke Nukem Manhattan Project (OpenGL)
  • Dungeon Siege 2 (Direct3D)
  • GORE - Ultimate Soldier (OpenGL)
  • Hitman Codename 47 (OpenGL)
  • Hitman Silent Assasin (OpenGL)
  • Hitman Contracts (OpenGL)
  • Max Payne (Direct3D)
  • Max Payne 2 (Direct3D)
  • Neverball (OpenGL)
  • Prey (OpenGL)
  • Revolt (OpenGL)
  • Quake 1 GL (OpenGL)
  • Quake 2 (OpenGL)
  • Quake 3 Arena (OpenGL)
  • Return to Castle Wolfenstein (OpenGL)
  • Scorched 3D (OpenGL)
  • Serious Sam The First Encounter (OpenGL)
  • Serious Sam The Second Encounter (OpenGL)
  • SiN (OpenGL)
  • Unreal Tournament 2004 (OpenGL/Direct3D)
  • Warcraft 3 (OpenGL)
  • Wolfenstein - Enemy Territories (OpenGL)
  • Worms 3D (OpenGL)


Edited by Ilene Hoffman, Reviews Editor

by L. Victor Marks


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