REVIEW: Parallels Desktop 6 for Mac

Virtualization on the Mac has been widely available for several years now and a lot of creative professionals need and use Windows and other operating systems to handle all their clients’ needs. I run Windows XP, Windows 7, Chrome OS and Linux as well as Mac OS X, originally to test websites in PC environments but also to run Windows-only software for tech reviews.

After a few years of using Parallels Desktop 4, I wanted to try out version 6—the latest version—and see what’s changed since then. Version 4 worked pretty well but it was also a drain on computer resources and I had some display issues when switching back and forth out of Coherence mode, which runs Windows programs in the Mac environment without maintaining a separate Windows desktop window.

Parallels Desktop 6 is a definite improvement. The most noticeable changes are in the UI for turning on and switching virtual machines. There’s more transparency in the dialog boxes and I can tell the design was a major focus during development. I think this is important because Mac OS X users generally use that OS because of its strong design aesthetics, and dull gray interfaces can be a turn-off. Parallels Desktop 6’s UI has a stylish glass and charcoal palette that reminds me of Windows 7 more than Mac OS X but it’s certainly not out of place on a Mac. This attention to detail earns points from Mac users.

The integration between Mac and other OS applications is well-done. Coherence mode allows virtualized applications to run beside Mac OS X applications within the Mac desktop, as opposed to having the virtual OS take over the screen or run in its own window. It works well in version 6 but I have to say I still run Parallels Desktop in its own maximized window. I am not usually running Windows and other applications regularly and am comfortable jumping in and out of Parallels. I run two monitors at once and when I’m working between two operating systems I will often run Parallels on one monitor and move my needed Mac apps to the other.

Rather than Coherence, what I appreciate more is having the Windows folder in my Mac’s Dock. This folder is automatically placed in the Dock while I am running Windows in Parallels Desktop, and it lists all my available Windows applications and folders. In version 6, this now includes Windows Start Menu items like My Computer and the Control Panel. It saves me a step when I want to launch something in Windows.

Let’s discuss performance, which was only average in Parallels Desktop 4. Parallels Desktop 6 is a significant improvement if you have enough processor power and memory in your machine. On a stock Mac Pro purchased a couple years ago, Parallels Desktop 6 boots up quickly and doesn’t have much trouble suspending and stopping virtual machines. It can be a little slow sometimes with this, but a user like me who needs Windows or another OS for a particular task can launch Parallels, do the task and then end the session.

I have read that graphics-intensive applications like games perform very well in Parallels Desktop 6 and boast good frame rates. I don’t play games in Parallels, and use it instead to test websites in Internet Explorer and other PC-based browsers or run review software such as Autodesk MotionBuilder. Like I mentioned previously, an operating system’s performance in Parallels Desktop 6 will really depend on your computer’s performance, and it will also depend on the computing resources you allow Parallels Desktop to allocate to the operating system. When these are set to the right levels, Parallels Desktop 6 allows for good performance and I didn’t see any issues while working.

I’ve not had any bugs affect Parallels Desktop 6 in the time I’ve worked with it. However, I’ve read about some isolated bugs that I think are related to long-running processes like Time Machine updates or a constantly running instance of a virtual OS. If you’re jumping in and out of Parallels to run specific applications, then you are probably a lot safer from any bugs in Parallels Desktop 6.

Parallels Desktop 6 also marks the release of a nice new iOS app called Parallels Mobile, which allows access to your virtualized OS from the iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch. There was a similar app available for the iPhone only in version 4, but it didn’t have much functionality. Parallels Mobile is much improved, and it’s pretty easy to set up from Parallels Desktop 6.

Along with the usual Parallels functions like suspend or shut down, Parallels Mobile allows a great degree of control over virtualized applications but it’s limited by the two main deficiencies of gesture-controlled interfaces: inaccurate targeting of small UI elements and difficulty mastering all the gestures that correspond to mouse input. It can be mastered but I’m really not sold on the idea of handling complex applications like Photoshop on the iPad by tapping tiny checkboxes and sliders. Of course, this will all be avoided when they make an iPad the size of my monitor….

Besides the difficulties with the UI, Parallels Mobile runs nicely. You can even quit Parallels Desktop altogether and still use your virtual machines with Parallels Mobile, but they will continue to use computing power that way.

I’ve enjoyed working with Parallels Desktop 6 and the product is value-priced even at its upgrade price. Versions 4 and 5 have somewhat mixed reviews so those users should consider the upgrade, and new users should consider the purchase even more if they ever need to run non-Mac operating systems. Buyers need to know that Parallels Desktop does not include the operating system itself—if you want Windows, you have to buy it separately. But there are open-source operating systems like Linux or Google’s Chrome OS that are free to run and handy to have.

Parallels Desktop 6 for Mac
Parallels
US $79.99/$39.99 upgrade
Rating: 9/10