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Windows 7 and Lion on Sierra Parallels Desktop. (Daniel Rasmus Image)

For many years, Apple’s OS X (now macOS) met Windows in various dual-boot options that usually swapped out the Apple OS by running or sharing the Intel chip at the heart of the Mac. The root-level support for running Windows or other operating systems atop Apple’s hardware isn’t always convenient. Sometimes it would be nice to just run Windows, Linux or Chrome OS inside the macOS environment. The best way to quell that desire comes from Bellevue, Wash.-based Parallels, which, in its tenth year in the Seattle region, shipped Parallels Desktop 12 this fall.

Parallels Desktop 12 supports several use cases, most notably that of legacy application support and multi-platform development. While these two very different scenarios describe the edges of Parallels Desktop 12’s intended use, it also just runs Windows apps with considerable elegance and good performance.

Initiating the ‘Unvirtualized’

Windows 10 on a Mac. (Daniel Rasmus Image)

For those not familiar with Parallels Desktop, running Windows on Mac represents the product’s most prevalent use case.

People working outside of large corporations may be surprised by how much of the world continues to run on old software — some supported, some not. If a financial application relies on an old Windows NT or other legacy framework that doesn’t run on Windows 10, let alone on macOS, the choice comes down to investing in new software and the associated implementation costs, or keeping old hardware in play, or using a virtualization solution.

Parallels is also a great alternative to a second machine for those who need a Windows app to complement their normally Macintosh-centric work experience.

But Parallels goes well beyond Windows 10 cozying up to macOS. It also allows people to run a number of other operating systems, for a variety of reasons.

Parallels virtual machines can run almost any operating system, even those that are no longer supported (as long as you have a CD and license key). Running mission-critical apps doesn’t provide value if you can’t count on them to be there when needed. Parallels works closely with Apple, Microsoft and the open source community to ensure that Parallels Desktop will not only run their operating systems, but that they run relatively fast in a very stable environment.

On of Parallels 12’s best new features is the tight integration with operating system images, and access to trials. While Microsoft has ceased support for Windows 7 and Windows 8, that doesn’t mean people have stopped using them. Parallels offers a Microsoft-authorized wizard for downloading developer-specific images.

Parallels should be thought of as the virtual machine that makes running most operating systems possible within Apple’s Macintosh platform. For most developers, virtualizing target platforms might just be their dream environment.

A developer’s dream

In an era of multiple browsers and emergent operating systems, developers need banks of machines, or hordes of USB sticks, so they can boot into an environment and ensure that their latest web wonder performs as well on Ubuntu Firefox as it does on Windows 7 with IE or Windows 10 with Edge.

And then there’s the maintenance of those machines. With Parallels the disk images don’t experience memory glitches, hard drive failures or coffee in the keyboard beyond the main machine.

The real jewel here comes in the form of near-epic flexibility. Pre-configured virtual machines can be instantly downloaded. These include Chromium OS, Ubuntu, Fedora Linux, CentOS Linux, Debian GNU/Linux and a macOS VM using the recovery partition.

And then there is Windows. Parallels has worked closely with neighbor Microsoft to offer 60-day evaluations of virtual machines that include the Universal Windows Platform tools. This includes:

  • Windows 10 Enterprise Evaluation
  • Visual Studio 2015 Community Update 2
  • Windows developer SDK and tools
  • Windows IoT Core SDK and Raspberry Pi 2
  • Windows IoT Core project templates
  • Microsoft Azure SDK for .NET
  • Widows Bridge for iOS
  • Windows UWP samples
  • Widows Bridget for iOS samples

Of course, installing older versions of Windows also works, which provides the ability to test for legacy environments like IE across several versions, including IE 6 on Windows XP. Parallels even includes a network conditioner with settings for various network types, including Wi-Fi, 3G, and even a bad network.

Developers can run as many virtual machines as they have memory to hold, and can store as many types of virtual machines as they have disk. Virtual machines work just fine from external drives which means a 6TB USB 3.0 drive can hold a wide variety of OS types, all quickly available through the Parallels Control Center.

Forgetting About Windows

Anybody more interested in running Windows apps than in running Windows itself should consider turning on Coherence. This feature completely blends Windows with the macOS. Seamlessly and seemingly magically, Windows apps run in their own windows, without the Windows desktop. Clipboard data flows from macOS apps to Windows apps. A well-configured Parallels setup also shares peripherals and Bluetooth devices.

With Parallels Desktop 12, new icons join the menu bar, including network configurations, sound, battery and notifications. And apps installed on Windows can be added to the launcher, the desktop or launched from a function-click on the virtual machine’s image in the dock, which brings up the full Windows Start menu.

And in Coherence mode, Cortana will respond just as on Windows. If Siri can’t provide the right answer in macOS Sierra, then just ask Cortana.

This configuration, and its smooth operation, demonstrates the detail with which Parallels approaches their work. No other application demonstrates such an intricate internal knowledge of the two operating systems. It’s the kind of work computer owners deserve — the kind of work that can’t be delivered by the OS makers based on their heady competition, not to mention antitrust laws. Parallels delivers the best of all worlds on any well-outfitted Mac.

Performance

Speaking of configuration, don’t expect Quad Core i7 performance, but don’t expect performance to be sluggish just because you’re running a virtual machine. You can’t run many high-end games, but some will run just fine in Parallels Desktop, like Overwatch from Blizzard. As with most apps, the performance experience relates to the hardware configuration of the host machine. A fast disk (such as SSD) and more memory make for better performance, from app launching to app response.

Playing Overwatch in Windows 10 with Parallels Desktop 12. (Daniel Rasmus Image)

Parallels has learned from its years in the market, including its learning in automation, such as the “one-click” tuning that optimizes a virtual machine based on its use, such as gaming, design or development.

The hidden surprise for Mac aficionados

Parallels did their developers a solid. Instead of insisting on just developing the company’s core platform, they asked their team what kind of Mac utilities they would like to see, and then challenged them to build those utilities.

The result arrived as the delightful Parallels Toolbox that covers, with a click or two, many functions that take a few too many clicks or keyboard taps even in Apple’s UI. Mini apps include ejecting volumes, hiding the desktop and downloading a video from almost any site without streaming protected content.

I just recently rebuilt my Mac after a hard drive crash (nope, fully backed up, just wanted a fresh install). Parallels Toolbox helped me avoid looking for many old utilities by wrapping key features into a neat and accessible package.

Parallels Desktop also comes with a Parallels Access license that allows mobile devices to run Windows or Mac apps on tablets and mobile phones. Unlike tools that simply bring a Mac or Windows display into the mobile environment, Parallels delivers app-like interfaces to common tools like Word or Excel, creating very pleasant writing or analysis environments that don’t require squinting or squeezing in order to see sentences or cells. The Parallels Access UIs for desktop apps offer a great alternative to the not so-full-featured iOS versions.

What to buy

Parallels Desktop comes in three editions: Desktop 12 for Mac, Pro and Business.  Pro increases virtual RAM support up to 64GB, and Business adds on centralized administration and management, along with a unified volume license key. Pro and Business both include a Visual Studio plug-in. For limited personal use, the basic Desktop 12 will likely suffice. Developers will need Pro, and as implied by the name, if the tools are to be deployed in an enterprise setting, Business should be considered. A full comparison of features can be found here.

Pricing varies from a one-time fee of $79.99 for Parallels Desktop 12 download and perpetual use license for that version, or a $79 subscription that must be renewed annually. Subscriptions include the remote access component. $99.99 a year subscriptions are available for Pro and Business Editions. Volume licenses, as well as student editions are also available.

Bottom line

Parallels Desktop for Mac offers two very different value propositions. On one hand, the application offers support for legacy apps that just can’t, won’t or simply don’t migrate to a modern operating environment. A wide variety of these apps still exist in enterprises around the world, and in boxes and drawers in individual homes.

But the real power of Parallels Desktop isn’t looking backward at legacy applications, it is looking forward to tomorrow’s cross platform applications that require an array of hardware for testing and development. With Parallels and a big and beefy Mac, developers need only one box to develop and test across various versions of Windows, MacOS (and previous OS X versions) and the plethora of Linux implementations.

At $99.99 a year for business and pro users, the service is reasonably priced, especially when the bundled Access and Toolbox features are considered. The $79.99 version for individuals is an even better deal.

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