As it always has, Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac lets you run Windows and Mac applications simultaneously in virtual machines without rebooting. I took a look at the the latest version. It integrates Windows applications with OS X seemlessly — and it works nicely with the latest features of Apple OS X Mountain Lion. But it sure isn’t perfect.
Here’s my review.
Installing Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac takes about four minutes. I found the process to be smooth. If you have a virtual machine from a previous installation, it will show up in the Parallels Desktop 8 Virtual Machines list when you launch it. As with previous versions, the system lets you install new virtual machines from within Parallels Desktop 8.
Note also that the list of supported operating systems is longer in this release. That’s a plus. Parallels 8 supports Google Android, Google Chrome and Apple OS X Mountain Lion. It also adds support for such Linux flavors as Ubuntu and the upcoming Microsoft Windows 8.
After installing, Parallels dumped a Safari extension on my system without asking or warning. That extension lets you switch the page you’re currently viewing between Safari and whatever version of Internet Explorer your virtual machine happens to be running.
Given the problems you can encounter when using Safari extensions, I was not amused. At the very least, Parallels Desktop 8 should allow you to opt-out of this extension being installed. I have a call into these folks …
Starting up Windows 7 from the list immediately invoked a kernel panic on my OS X system, involving Mountain Lion’s hypervisor and I/O kit.
A fresh startup fixed the problem but it introduced another one. In this reviewer’s experience, Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac doesn’t like OS X Spaces feature. I deduced this because the problems disappeared when I ran all my apps in the one default OS X Space.
For my first test, I activated Mountain Lion’s Dictate and switched to Parallels with Windows 7 running. I told the Windows equivalent of Stickies that “I should be able to dictate in Windows through Parallels Desktop 8,” and it turned out I could. This new feature works well. It’s as if you are dictating to a Mac app, even when Windows lives in its own Parallels environment — a strange experience. Of course, it also works in Coherence mode.
In Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac you can drag and drop files from the Mac desktop on the OS X Dock icons for Outlook and other Windows email clients to attach and share them. This works well, both in Coherence mode and when Windows is running inside the Parallels environment.
The integration with Mountain Lion’s LaunchPad was less successful. When the virtual machine is allowed to exchange data fully between Windows and the Mac (a Preference you can set), Mac apps should load in the Windows Start menu, and Windows apps in Mountain Lion’s LaunchPad.
To make this work (more or less) on my system I first had to restart OS X, switch to Parallels, then switch to Coherence mode and launch every app. Even then only some of the Windows 7 apps showed up in LaunchPad, and only randomly did Mac apps show up in the Windows Start menu.
Other new features include the ability to share Bluetooth connections between Mac and Windows, integration of Windows Notifications into the OS X Notification Center and Mountain Lion gestures for Windows apps. Bluetooth sharing works as advertised.
It’s totally transparent. Notification Center integration didn’t work on my system. I tried it with email. It should have notified me of new email coming in and it didn’t.
Gestures were useful with Windows 8 Preview. It took a bit of guessing before I could work out which swipes launched the sidebars in Windows 8.
With the right hardware in place, Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac is said to support Retina displays and full screen second-display PowerPoint presentations using a special wizard.
Most users will upgrade or buy Parallels Desktop 8 for speed. Parallels’ press release claims a 30% increase in I/O operations and games performance, and a 25% speed gain when operating the virtual machine (booting, suspending, restarting…). The latter was immediately noticeable. Parallels 8 certainly started much faster than version 7 did. Working with Windows apps wasn’t just snappier. It was a lot faster. I couldn’t tell the difference between a Mac app and a Windows app speed-wise.
I couldn’t test claims of 30% faster games performance as I lack games to try it with, so what I did was download the LightWorks video editing system (it’s a heavy lifting system with which “The King’s Speech” got edited). My goal was to see how video performance and edits — especially with effects which can easily bring a whole system to its knees — would fare on Windows 7 within the Parallels Desktop 8 environment.
The LightWorks people warned me I would probably see dropped frames and more unpleasant speed-related troubles, but much to my surprise I didn’t. Video playback, effects and edits were just as fast in LightWorks as they were in Final Cut Pro X on OS X. True, Final Cut Pro X isn’t a speed demon but it is no slouch either.
However, during my testing, Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac crashed at least three times. It also randomly spawned crash dialogs, even when I left it alone. This tells me that Parallels 8 is buggy, and I expect we’ll be seeing an update soon.
My conclusion, Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac isn’t ready for prime time. It crashed a lot, some features were working, while others were not, or only more or less. Performance-wise, Parallels Desktop 8 shines.
Price: $95.19; upgrade $59.49
Pros: Fast, integration with Mountain Lion, surprisingly good graphics performance (video)
Cons: Unstable, some features work but only “halfway”