Hands on: Parallels Desktop for Mac 2.5 'a must-have'

It's the best tool for running Windows on Intel Macs

Parallels Desktop for Mac is the best tool on the market for running Windows on any Intel-based Macintosh. Windows users are not going to believe me, but it's true. Parallels runs Windows even faster on Intel MacBook Pros than it does on comparable PC hardware. My two Windows XP Pro on Macintosh installations run great. One is a year old, which is about how long Parallels has been available either in beta or release form -- and both have lots of software installed on them.

The single best feature in Parallels 2.5 (Build 3188), which sells for $79.99 and was released Feb. 27, is something the company calls Coherence. I'm not sure I like the name, but I love what it does. Coherence makes Windows apps look for all the world like they're running on your Mac. They're not, of course; they're running on your Parallels virtualized Windows installation.

Now I know some people reading this are already skeptical. But let me tell you, the Parallels folks delivered on this one. You can switch into Coherence mode whenever you want. I have it set up to do this when I press Ctrl-Spacebar. Once in Coherence, the Windows desktop disappears entirely. Your Windows apps have program stubs in the Dock whenever they're running. By default, the Windows taskbar and Start button appear along the bottom of your Mac desktop, which lets you launch other Windows programs and switch among running apps. Your Mac programs resize their windows automatically to accommodate the taskbar. (Or you can use Windows' settings to make the taskbar disappear unless you point at it, whereupon it rolls over your existing app windows.)

I frequently have Internet Explorer 6, for example, running on Windows XP in Coherence mode when I'm working on my Mac. Windows apps running in this way look and act much like any of your Mac program windows. You stop even thinking of them so much as Windows apps or Mac apps. They're just your apps.

Parallels has thought of all the little things. If you're an Expose fan, for example (as I am), you'll find that your Windows apps running in Coherence mode act exactly as your Mac apps when you press F11 or trigger Expose in your preferred way.

Someday I hope the Mac will be able to accept Windows app installations and run them on its own. Until then, Coherence is as close as it gets, and that's OK because the user experience is excellent.

For those of you who just want to work in Windows, Parallels does that well, too. By pressing a key combination (I use Command-Spacebar), you can toggle back and forth between your Mac desktop and your Windows desktop. Parallels offers a rotating 3-D cube effect -- and other transition effects -- to animate the change between desktops. It's quite easy to work in both desktops at once, moving back and forth. You can also minimize the Windows desktop to the Dock if you prefer.

Hardware support is excellent in Parallels. Like most virtualization utilities, you install a tools pack, which is largely a driver set that allows your guest operating system to make use of your host operating system's access to the hardware. Wireless networking, Ethernet connections, USB 2.0, audio and video are all extremely well supported by the Parallels Tools, requiring no configuration on your part.

Parallels also supports Vista. It's not able to display the full Aero interface, but it does support 3-D video, and it runs Vista well in other regards. As a working Windows installation right now, my interest is in XP, though. It has fewer software compatibility issues.

Another cool new feature recently added by Parallels is the ability to run Apple Boot Camp-supported Windows installations in a Parallels virtual machine. In other words, it lets you access your Boot Camp Windows installation without having to restart your Mac.

Like any piece of software, Parallels Desktop for Mac has a couple of shortcomings. I find that I'm unable to use keyboard commands to copy and paste strings of text from a Mac program window to a Windows program window or vice versa. So, Command-C to copy text from a Mac browser and then Ctrl-V to paste the text into a Windows text editor doesn't work. I have to go the context menu route and choose Cut on one end and Paste on the other.

A slightly more frustrating problem is that Parallels, like many virtualization programs, uses a shared-folder approach to allow folder-based navigation to files and folders from either side. Parallels' system doesn't really allow you access to Windows; the special folder access appears only on the Windows side. More important, though, Windows applications don't all support this folder access fully. If you have a program that sets a default start folder, and you want that folder to be on the Mac, you may find that it won't work properly.

But that's the whole of my criticism about Parallels. This product is absolutely an essential tool for Mac users who have the need to access Windows applications. It provides several ways to do that, and it works exceedingly well. Parallels for Desktop 2.5 is one of my picks for a Top Product and it's on my A-List of Mac Apps. If you're running an Intel Mac, you have to grab Parallels. Without it, you're just not getting the most mileage out of your Mac. This is a must-have product.

Learn more: Parallels has an FAQ that offers more information.

Scot Finnie is online editorial director of Computerworld and runs Scot's Newsletter. This review also appeared in the latest edition of his newsletter.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon