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Parallels Desktop 7 for Mac review

Our Rating :
Price when reviewed : £65
inc VAT

An excellent virtualisation package, but there are only minor improvements over version 6

Parallels Desktop 7 is the latest version of a Mac virtualisation application that’s been around since 2006. The application allows other operating systems to run within Mac OS in self-contained virtual machines. Parallels claims the new version is faster than ever, and it’s also the first version of Parallels Desktop to allow non-server versions of Mac OS X to run in a virtual machine, but only if it’s OS X 10.7 Lion — and only because Apple has relaxed its rules about virtualisation for its latest desktop OS.

Lion within Lion
OS X Lion running in a Parallels Desktop 7 window in OS X Lion

Parallels Desktop 7 isn’t much use unless you have a guest operating system of some description, but it does offer some shortcuts for setting up a new virtual machine in the absence of an install disc. Direct download links to Chrome OS, Fedora and Ubuntu are built in and Parallels can also import virtual machines from other applications, including VMware Fusion, Virtual PC and VirtualBox. Parallels Desktop 7 can convert an existing Boot Camp partition to a virtual machine, too — the original Windows installation is left intact, but just made accessible through Parallels so you don’t need to reboot your Mac.

Virtual machines manager
The Parallels Desktop 7 virtual machine manager, used to create and launch guest operating systems

Parallels Desktop 7 is only compatible with 64-bit Intel Macs, but it doesn’t need Lion to be installed on the host — it will even run Lion as a guest OS on a Mac that’s still running Leopard. If the host is running Lion, Parallels Desktop 7 can use its recovery partition to set up a new virtual Mac and either download Lion from the App Store again, or import a Lion installation from a Time Machine backup. You can also install it from an already downloaded Lion installer .app file.

While running Mac OS within Mac OS is possible, most Mac users would want virtualisation software for a fuss-free way to run Windows without rebooting into a Boot Camp partition. To help with this, Parallels Desktop 7 has several features that help integrate Windows into Mac OS X. At its simplest level, Parallels Desktop 7 simply runs Windows (or any guest OS) in its own window and makes the host computer’s resources such as optical drives, USB ports and webcams available at the click of a mouse. The host OS can be completely isolated for security purposes, but it’s also possible to set up shared folders on both the host and guest file system, and files can also be dragged between desktops.

Windows 7 windowed
Windows 7 running in a Parallels Desktop 7 window on the OS X Desktop

This is more than sufficient for occasional use, but access to Windows applications can be made more seamless by switching to Coherence mode. This hides the Windows Desktop (though you can still access it) and floats open application windows on the Mac OS X desktop, alongside open Mac applications. Part of the Dock can be turned into a Taskbar of sorts too, complete with Start menu, although it is also possible to stick the proper Windows Taskbar to one side of the Mac Desktop. A permanent Mac-style folder for Windows applications can also be placed on the Dock for quick access when Parallels isn’t running and Windows applications can be (somewhat clumsily) skinned to look more like Mac ones.

Apart from support for virtual Lion machines, there’s little in version 7’s feature list to tempt existing Parallels Desktop users into upgrading to version 7, not least since its main Mac OS X integration features are already available in version 6. However, version 7 does promise some performance improvements. 2D performance is little better than before, according to our benchmarks, but Parallels Desktop 7 is still no slouch. When running our cross-platform benchmark suite natively under OS X Lion, our 2.93GHz Core 2 Duo iMac with 8GB RAM scored 44 overall overall (an Intel Core i5-2500K PC with 4GB RAM scores 100).

Coherence mode
Parallels Desktop 7 Coherence mode opens guest OS windows directly on the OS X Desktop, complete with optional Taskbar

A Windows 7 Boot Camp installation on the same machine scored 36. Meanwhile, a 32-bit Windows 7 virtual machine, configured with two processors and 4GB RAM, scored 28 overall – slightly more than a budget AMD Llano laptop such as the AMD A4-3310MX-equipped HP Pavilion DV7-6101sa. This isn’t quick enough for video editing, but normal desktop tasks and some light image-editing will be fine.

Parallels benchmarks
Our benchmarks show applications in Parallels run about two-thirds the speed they do natively in Mac OS

3D performance, however, is significantly improved. A Parallels Desktop 6 Windows 7 machine with one processor, 1GB RAM and the maximum 256MB of video RAM averaged just 9fps in Call of Duty 4 at 1024 x 768, but the same setup in Parallels Desktop 7 averaged 30fps – the frame rate also stayed at this high level when we increased the resolution to 1,440 x 1,050. Increasing the virtual machine’s specification to two processors, 4GB RAM and the newly increased maximum 1GB video RAM barely made any difference to the frame rate.

Boot Camp may reduce the need for Mac virtualisation software, but Parallels Desktop offers a better way to make Windows applications accessible without a reboot — and multiple OS installations accessible at the same time. Significantly improved 3D performance and Mac OS X Lion virtualisation are the only real improvements over version 6, though, so unless you fancy playing some PC-only games there’s little reason to upgrade.


Price £65
Rating ****

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