Hi Tim, and all the lovely Mac Reviewcast Listeners! Allison Sheridan of the NosillaCast podcast here, hosted at podfeet.com.
Today I’d like to tell you about the newest version of Parallels Desktop, the virtual machine software for the Mac. I’ve got a special place in my heart for Parallels as I was involved in the early beta program, and have watched this program grow and evolve over the years. Most recently though I’ve been using VMware Fusion as a virtual machine, which is also quite capable. In fact, I reviewed VMware Fusion for the MacReviewcast in November of last year.
But let’s back up and explain first what a virtual machine is, and what problems they may solve for you. I think without that foundation it’s hard to figure out why you should care about whatever I’m reviewing! Virtual machine software allows you to run a guest operating system on top of your regular operating system (we call it the host OS). You can run Windows on top of OSX, you can run Windows XP on top of Windows 7, you can run Ubuntu Linux on top of Windows or OSX, the possibilities are nearly endless. The only thing you can’t (legally or easily) do is run OSX as a guest OS on top of anything else.
Now why would you want to run two OS’s at the same time? Well, in the XP on top of Windows 7 example, maybe you have some legacy software that only runs under XP, but you wanted to move to the current OS, a virtual machine allows you to have your cake and eat it too. In my case I like to fool around with other Operating Systems like Linux but I’m not comfortable enough to actually live in them. Running Ubuntu as a VM lets me play. In the past on my show I’ve reviewed Parallels, VMware Fusion, and OpenBox, and even VirtualBox, the open source VM software created by Sun Microsystems (also known as Oracle now). The progress over the years in ease of installation and use is astonishing. It used to be like gene splicing to install an operating system on a VM, but now it’s child’s play.
There is one tiny little tricky bit to the whole VM thing, but once you get the idea, it’s not too hard to deal with. When you first install the guest OS, you have to install “tools”. If you don’t, things are kind of weird, your mouse won’t move smoothly, your speakers may not work, and your cursor will get stuck in the window where you can’t get it out without holding some weird key combination. You WANT to learn about this install tools things.
In the old days, installing the tools was really hard, but in my most recent installation of VMware Fusion on Ubuntu, it was a piece of cake – just use a pulldown menu and install. I’m afraid it wasn’t very simple at all with Parallels unfortunately.
When I launched Parallels for the first time, it asked me whether I wanted to move over my Ubuntu linux OS from my VMware Fusion software. What the heck, that sounded like a good idea – not making me do a second install. Once it moved over, I opened it in Parallels, but the screen was real dodgy – SUPER high resolution so I could barely read it. No worries, right? I knew it was a matter of installing Parallels Tools. I pulled down the menu to do so, but then I got instructions that said: “to install Parallels Tools, open a terminal, and run the following command as root: “sudo ./install”. Now since I’m a bona fide geek I didn’t completely freak out when I read that, I do know it’s a command line way of installing applications.
I was up for the challenge so I popped open a Terminal window and typed in sudo ./install. no joy, it said it didn’t understand me. I read some more and it said I had to navigate to the CD drive first. Well I had no real clue how to do that, I did some change directory commands wandering around trying to find the virtual CD, and couldn’t find it. I ended up having to ask for some help from Donald Burr, but his instructions didn’t work, rebooted the VM and now the new commands he’d given me to find the CD succeeded and Ubuntu reacted to my sudo ./install. I got this creepy looking window, reminded me of if you’ve ever tried to talk to the BIOS on a PC, sort of a Soviet-war era look and feel as it walked me through the installation of Parallels Tools.
I thought maybe this command line nonsense was due to the fact that I was installing Ubuntu, not because of Parallels itself, so I gave Parallels a shot with a copy of Windows 7 next. Sure enough now Parallels started spoon feeding me the way I was hoping. For example, when it started the install it asked me if I wanted Windows to act like Windows or act like a Mac. If you choose the latter, it lets you easily access all of your files from the Windows side or the Mac side, so I chose that. Even better, once Windows was installed, it automatically installed the Parallels Tools. That proves that it was Ubuntu being janky not Parallels!
When Windows was completely ready to go, it popped up a window telling me that it was going to run in Coherence Mode. In this mode, each of your Windows apps stands alone just like a Mac application. So you can have Excel for Windows running next to Excel for Mac, and command-tabbing through open applications will show them as equals. I do like this mode normally but there’s a downside to it. The only way to flip out of Coherence mode with Parallels is to use the menu bar icon. Why is that a problem? Because I have so many menu bar apps that I can’t see the Parallels icon unless I connect my laptop to my big display and make the big display into the primary display! I couldn’t even command-tab to Parallels itself as an application because once it went into Coherence mode, Parallels was no longer available to me, only the applications within the Windows installation showed up. Parallels doesn’t even show up as a running application within your dock. I think this is a poor design and needs to be modified, you should always be able to get to your open applications!
When I was playing around with Parallels it suddenly offered to install the Chrome Operating System for me, also called Chromium. This is an as-yet released OS from Google where you live entirely in the browser. Odd way to think but I sure wanted to try it. I ran the install and didn’t have to do anything dodgy at all to get it to work. I’m not going to go into a full review of Chromium but it was fun of the Parallels folks to include it as an automatic install.
One problem I had was that I could not for the life of me to get audio to come out of Ubuntu or Chromium under Parallels. I verified that the same installation of Ubuntu did have audio functioning under VMware. In Parallels I double checked that audio was enabled, made sure it wasn’t muted from the Parallels side or from inside the sound preferences but I couldn’t get it to make sound for the life of me. I checked it in Chromium too and still no sound. I had no trouble at all getting sound to come out of Windows under Parallels though. If you’re not going to run Windows, then I think VMware would be a better solution for you for full functionality.
Parallels feels very very fast to me. Opening windows, launching applications, everything feels like the guest OS is as fast as if it were the host. Things just felt snappy! I think they’ve put a lot of effort into speeding things up on Parallels and it’s definitely noticeable.
The Parallels folks have created an iOS application too that allows you to access your running VMs using your iPhone or iPad. Unfortunately i couldn’t get this to work. I installed the app on both my iPhone and iPad, I logged into my Parallels account on both devices, I launched Windows under Parallels on my Mac, I did the preferences thing they tell you to do to log into your Parallels account on the Mac side, I told it to share the VM out…but neither the iPhone nor the iPad could find the running VM. The iPad found the Mac, but said I didn’t have any VMs running. The iPhone on the other hand said that my user name and password was wrong. I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to diagnose the issues, but then again I don’t think we should have to.
Bottom line time. Its great that we have choice in this particular technology, and I choose VMware Fusion over Parallels for this revision. VMware gave me less grief in installing linux, it gave me audio on linux while Parallels did not. The lack of ability to get out of coherence mode on Parallels if you have a lot of menu bar apps (and who doesn’t have too many if they listen to the MacReviewcast?), is a huge problem too. I did think Parallels felt faster than VMware, and the installation of Windows was easier on Parallels. And one final consideration, if you’re blind you won’t be able to run Parallels at all because the developers have created an inaccessible application. the good news is that VMware’s developers chose a more intelligent path and made Fusion fully accessible.