Taking the New Parallels Desktop 8 for a Spin


I have been a long-time user of VMware Workstation and Fusion. You may have seen my recent article about What’s New in VMware Fusion and Running vSphere 5.1 in VMware Fusion 5. However, you may have heard of Parallels Desktop as being a great solution for running virtual machines on a Mac desktop or laptop. Recently, there was a new release of Parallels Desktop, now version 8, and I wanted to check it out for myself.

Common Uses

Quickly, for those who are unfamiliar with why they would want an application like Parallels Desktop, here’s a quick explanation. “Type 2” hypervisors like Parallels Desktop, VMware Fusion, and VMware Workstation run inside the operating system, already running on your existing desktop or laptop computer – just like any other application. Inside the hypervisor you install (such as Parallels Desktop), you can run whatever applications or operating systems you want to. Here are some examples:

  • Students or IT Pros could run common Windows applications on their Mac laptops
  • IT Pros can test and practice with other operating systems such as Linux, Hyper-V, Windows 2012, or vSphere
  • IT Pros can create virtual machines and move those virtual machines into production or take VMs from production and run them on their desktop
  • Developers can test their applications in multiple operating systems and use snapshots to take “pictures” of their environment and move forward and back in time

In my case, I use all of these desktop hypervisors for learning, testing, and moving VMs in and out of production. I also use these desktop hypervisors to create virtualization labs, fully contained on my laptop computer. For example I can create VMware vSphere or Microsoft Hyper-V lab environments (multiple VMs running those hypervisors with virtual machines inside, all on the same computer).

In learning enterprise-grade virtualization, you may be looking to use desktop hypervisors like Parallels Desktop to do the same thing.

Features and What’s New

While taking Parallels Desktop for a spin, I learned that it is indeed a very competitive solution for running virtual machines on Mac OS machines. Similar to VMware Fusion, Parallels Desktop can run Windows, Linux, and other operating systems; it offers virtual networking between them, snapshotting, and seamless integration between the Mac Desktop and Windows apps running inside virtual machines (for example).

New features include:

  • Make Windows Apps Mac-Friendly – the ability to use Mac OS X Mountain Lion features like Launchpad, Mission Control, and gestures with your Windows applications, like they were made for the Mac
  • New virtual machine wizard – option to purchase, download, and install Windows from the Parallels New virtual machine wizard
  • Presentation Wizard – which allows you to easily show presentations on any external monitor or projector
  • Fast application switching – switch from Safari to the same page in Internet Explorer with a single click
  • Retina support – support for MacBook Pro Retina displays
  • Mac in Mac – run Mac OS X Mountain Lion as a guest operating system, even with dictation support
  • Windows 8 Metro – the ability to run Windows 8 as a VM with full metro desktop support (including the option to download it directly as a virtual machine as a preview, which I cover later)
  • Improved Full Screen – now allowing you to see both the host and guest at the same time
  • Improved Integration – greater integration between host and guest for things like drag and drop files between different host and guest operating systems

There are a lot of new features in Parallels Desktop so I won’t list them all out as you can find them here.

What I Like

After having used VMware Workstation and Fusion for many years and now trying Parallels Desktop, there were a few things that immediately caught my eye. Certainly there are great features like performance but those are difficult to demonstrate. Here are my favorite features…

The first thing that caught my eye was that, besides the free 14 day trial, as an existing VMware customer, you can do a cross-platform upgrade to the latest Parallels Desktop for just $49.99. With the regular price of Parallels Desktop being $79, it falls in between the two new versions of Fusion, the regular edition (at $49) and the professional version (at $79.99).

Besides the simple download and install, the next thing I likes was the New Virtual Machine wizard.

Figure 1: Parallels Desktop New Virtual Machine Wizard

I thought it was innovative that you are given the option to, not only install an OS in your VM using a DVD or ISO media but also to:

  • Download Windows 8, directly
  • Download the Chrome OS, directly from Google
  • Download the Unbuntu OS
  • Download Andriod OS
  • Install the Apple Mountain Lion OS
  • Migrate Windows from a PC
  • Or add existing virtual machines from a another hypervisor such as VMware Workstation or Fusion

With this wizard, I was able to very quickly download Unbuntu Linux and get it running without any installation or real configuration. Here’s what it looked like:

Figure 2: Using Ubuntu in Parallels Desktop

Another feature that I enjoyed was Virtual Machine Library. This is quick access to the VM library that includes VMs on your host and VMs available for easy conversion from other desktop hypervisors you may be running (as are most of the VMs in my list).

Figure 3: The virtual machine library

This allows you very quick access to virtual machine consoles and to see performance utilization of your VMs.

Another feature that I enjoyed is that, even in Unbuntu Linux, the Parallel Shared Folders worked automatically without me having to install any tools. While I am sure there are some cases where you have to do a manual tools install, I did not experience one. The shared folders allow me to easily share files between the host (Mac OS X in my case) and the virtual machine (Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux).

The Parallels Desktop virtual machine configuration was easy to use and very visually appealing.

Figure 4: Parallels Desktop VM Configuration

As you can see, in the general screen, I like how it breaks down the virtual disk size and even allows you to reclaim space from that virtual disk that is unused. Perhaps this can be done in Fusion with some command line tools but I don’t see where it can be done in the Fusion GUI interface so I found this feature of Parallels to be unique.

Something else I found to be unique is the option to backup (or not backup) the VM on a schedule using Mac OS Time Machine backup. This can be configured in the options section for each virtual machine.

Figure 5:
Configuring Automated Backup of VMs with Mac Time Machine

Options are also where you configure coherence (or Unity as VMware Fusion calls it), sharing, startup, and more.

The Hardware tab is where you configure the virtual hardware for the VM. It’s really amazing that you can configure up to 1GB of video RAM for a virtual machine.

Figure 6: Configuring Video RAM for a VM

One of the new features that I like, being a Mac Book Pro Retina user is that the latest version of Parallels Desktop supports full resolution of the Retina display (which is 2880 x 1800), as does the latest version of Fusion.

Finally, I am still impressed that you can download Windows 8 directly from the Parallels Desktop interface.

Figure 7: Downloading Windows 8 Preview from Parallels Desktop

While it looks like this 3.3GB download will take a long time from my free local coffee shop Internet wifi connection, I remain impressed!

Next on my list to try is the Parallels Mobile iPad and iPhone application from the Apple app store to see if I can really remote control my Parallels Desktop VMs from those mobile devices.

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