An in-depth look into Parallels Desktop 9 for Mac

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Parallels-Desktop-logoAlmost like clockwork, Parallels released yet another new version of their popular product, Parallels Desktop 9 for Mac, a year after version 8 was released. If you don’t already know what Parallels Desktop does, it’s basically software that allows you to run guest OSes, like Windows 8 or Ubuntu Linux over a virtualization layer. In plain speak, you can run Windows apps on your Mac, as if its built for the OS X.

In this article, I explore the new features in Parallels Desktop 9 for Mac and see how useful they are in reality. So, if you already are an existing user of version 8 or below, hopefully this will help you determine if the latest version is worthy of the $49.99 upgrade price. However, if you’re not already an existing user of Parallels,  well, you should be one of you own a Mac. But do read on and also some of my previous articles here and see why I say so. I’m quite certain you’d be convinced.

But before we go on, a disclaimer is appropriate. A complimentary copy of Parallels Desktop 9 for Mac was provided to me by Parallels for this review. But even so, I will strive to be as fair as possible as I’ve always been in my review and opinions, despite the fact that I’m quite the advocate of Parallels Desktop for Mac. Also, it’s important that I point out that I also owns my own copy of the latest version (as of today) of VMWare Fusion and regularly uses it for work, along with the free-to-use Oracle VirtualBox. And since I’ve mentioned Oracle’s VirtualBox, I work for Oracle but not directly involved in the development of VirtualBox.

Taking the in-depth look into Parallels Desktop 9 for Mac

Firstly, the installation. If you are a new user, then it’s really plain and simple. However, if you (like myself) are already using an older version of Parallels, you might be wondering if installing version 9 would break anything. Well, fret not at all as upgrading Parallels Desktop is super easy! Just simply open the .dmg image and run the Parallels installation package. It will ask you if you want to replace the existing Parallels and once you clicked through that, it would promptly remove the older version, and install the new version in its place, while maintaining any existing virtual machines in place, preserving also all the existing configurations of the virtual machines.

Once installed, it would start-up and will require you to re-login with your existing Parallels account, and then prompt you for the activation key. The installation would verify your key and auto-register it with your Parallels account if it’s valid. And that’s it! Installed, plain and simple!

Now that Parallels Desktop 9 for Mac is installed. Let’s explore what’s new.

The Parallels Wizard

In Parallels Desktop for Mac, they have made it easier to create a new virtual machine whether it is from a OS installation DVD, an iso image file, or from a bootable USB drive. You basically just click on the “Find Automatically” button and it will search your Mac and let you know what you can install. The easier way for installation using an image file is to simply just drag and drop the image file onto the Wizard and proceed on. Perhaps a feature that would make it easier for the average non-tech savvy user to get around Parallels Desktop, but definitely nothing interesting for a power user.

Security Center

Again, nothing breakthrough here. Just a more convenient place to manage security and install trial version of antivirus software for your host and guest machines.

Print to PDF

Print to PDF

Print to PDF

A great feature no doubt. Being able to print anything on the Windows virtual machine as a PDF file on your Mac is nice. Before this, you would need to install a 3rd party tool like CutePDF in order to do the same, something that you might think that Microsoft should have made it a built-in capability like OS X.

If there’s anything to complain, I would say that it saves the PDF only to the Mac desktop. This means that if you’re like me who needs to organise all your files to specific folders, this means that you will need to get on the OS X Finder and move it manually. Sure, this extra step won’t cause you any harm, but this is something that I could do when using CutePDF.

Print to Desktop only

Print to Desktop only

So for now, I would still be using CutePDF for all my Windows PDF printing needs. I do hope that Parallels would eventually enhance this to allow saving of the PDF file anywhere I like.

Dictionary Gestures

When I read that Parallels Desktop 9 will bring in support for dictionary gestures, I was actually quite excited.

OS X dictionary gesture support on Windows applications!

OS X dictionary gesture support on Windows applications!

However, I was initially stumped as to how to get it working. Only after a while, I realised that this only works in Coherence mode! I usually run my Windows virtual machine in Full Screen mode these days, especially since Windows 8 and its funny full screen only Metro apps. As you can see in the screenshot above, it’s actually kinda cool to have Dictionary support across OS X and also the Windows applications as I’m slightly dyslexic and often need to look up the dictionary just confirm my spellings and its meaning.

Again, the picky me as a couple of ‘not-quite-complains’ with this feature. One, I would like this to be available not just in Coherence mode, but also when the virtual machine is running in Full Screen mode. Not sure if the current OS X Dictionary Service allows for this. I’m not an OS X developer but looking at the HIDictionaryWindowShow function, it seems like it’s possible to do so. Secondly, notice that the Dictionary text selection is just a dash? The imperfection bothers me somehow, and I think Parallels could have made it do the Dictionary text selection look better, using the actual selected text and also using the same font, both of which can be extracted out from Windows APIs by the Parallels Tools and passed on over to OS X Dictionary Service.

Windows 7 Look

Ok. Parallels ‘cheated’ here a bit. But not a bad cheat at all since what you basically get is a bundling of Stardock’s Start8 and ModernMix, both priced at $4.99. So getting almost $10 worth of software along with Parallels Desktop for Mac isn’t too bad at all!

With Start8, you get one of the best (if not the best) 3rd party start menu for Windows 8. It’s definitely the most aesthetically pleasing one as far as I know. It’s also by far one of the most configurable start menu app there is. Start8 is everything you’d expect from a start menu and it works just as well as the Windows 7 one. Start8 is also the application that allows you to immediately boot your Windows 8 virtual machine into desktop mode.

Here’s also a video to show how the Windows 8 start menu is shown in Coherence mode.

ModernMix on the other hand allows you to run fullscreen Modern (Metro) apps in a window. This was one of the reasons why I would only run my Windows 8 VM in fullscreen mode on Parallels Desktop 8. “Ripping” out the fullscreen Modern UI (Metro) apps as OS X fullscreen apps in Coherence mode was quite wonky. But now that I can run these apps in windowed mode is great! So it’s back to Coherence mode by default again for me. 🙂

So while this isn’t exactly a Parallels innovation, its a nice bundle that you would otherwise have to purchase separately from Stardock.

Advanced Start Menu

You can now also show the advanced Start Menu from the OS X dock.

Advanced Start Menu

Advanced Start Menu

Great for power users to quickly access some of the more advanced utilities and tools on the Windows guest OS. My personal favourite is the quick access to the Command Prompt (Admin) and Task Manager.

Shared Cloud folders

"Share Cloud" configuration

“Share Cloud” configuration

Shared Dropbox folder

Shared Dropbox folder

This feature allows you to simply have a single cloud sync folder between your Mac and the Windows guest. However, as cool as this may sound, it’s actually just Parallels Desktop 9 for Mac automatically mapping the Dropbox, iCloud and/or Google Drive folders on your Windows virtual machine. Likewise on the opposite direction, you can share your Windows SkyDrive sync folder with the Mac. This essentially eliminates redundancy on both your Mac and Windows virtual machine if there’s a need to access those files on either end. However, there is a known issue on the SkyDrive sharing as noted here in this knowledge base document. Sharing SkyDrive folders with Mac OS X is not directly supported with the preinstalled Windows 8 SkyDrive app. You must download and install SkyDrive for the desktop in order for the feature to work.

You could actually also easily do this, albeit manually, on the previous versions of Parallels. Having said that, it does require you to know how to map network folders in Windows in the first place. So for the less tech savvy users, this is a nice feature to have.

Better multi-monitor support

If you use multi-monitors a lot, Parallels Desktop 9 for Mac provides a better support for it, remembering your setup at different locations, presumably by remembering your setup per monitor. Unfortunately, I’m unable to test this in details since I only have an external monitor at home and does not use one at work.

Parallels Desktop supporting external monitors better

Parallels Desktop supporting external monitors better

Improved Linux Support

Frankly, I hardly run any Linux OS as a guest OS on Parallels Desktop 9 for Mac anymore. Most of my the virtual machines I run for work is now built using Oracle (formerly SUN) VirtualBox, an obvious choice since I work at Oracle but also for portability with my colleagues and customers. VMWare used to be a popular choice for me to run the popular enterprise flavours of Linux, such as CentOS, RHEL and Solaris x86 (Ok, ok. Solaris is a Unix OS). These had always been VMWare’s domain and it still does lead in this area of support. So with further improvements in the support of Linux on Parallels Desktop 9, you could just have it running your Linux virtual machines.

In my short test run using Ubuntu Linux 13.04 Desktop, things runs just as it should. However, things got a little weird when I tried to run the Ubuntu Linux virtual machine on Coherence mode. See the following screenshots to see what I mean. The Unity UI just messes up the way Coherence should work.

Regardless, here are the list of improved support for Linux as stated by Parallels.

  • Shared applications
  • Shared profile folders
  • Automatic Parallels Tools update
  • Added support for popular distributions:
    • Linux Mint
    • Linux Mageia
  • Autodetect OS type from Live CD images
  • Nested virtualization support (Xen, KVM)
  • Symlinks in Shared folders
  • Support for latest Fedora
  • Download Ubuntu 13.04 VM from New VM Wizard

Other new features on Parallels Desktop 9 for Mac

A lot of the improvements are mostly under the hood to improve performance. But the following are a few more new features that can be quite useful as well.

Power Nap

If you have a MacBook that supports Power Nap, the support is now extended to your Windows virtual machine running on Parallels Desktop 9 for Mac as well so that both Windows and the Windows applications will be updates just like Mac apps. Not exactly sure how this works since as I understand it, there isn’t a public API available yet for Power Nap, so it would be quite interesting to know how this actually works.

Unfortunately, I’m still running a Mid-2010 MacBook Pro which does not support Power Nap, so I can’t really tell how well this feature works.

Thunderbolt/Firewire disk assignments

Well, a USB device feature that is now also available for Thunderbolt and Firewire devices.

Thunderbolt and Firewire assignment support

Thunderbolt and Firewire assignment support

Support for OS X Mavericks (10.9) and Windows Blue (8.1)

Mostly for peace of mind. I’m not sure if Parallels have anything in store specifically to support these two new OS that are yet to be released, so I’ll follow-up with a new update once Mavericks and Blue is released.

Improved Performance

Performance improvements are quite subjective and is very dependant on the configuration of both your physical machine as well as the configurations of your virtual machine. Parallels claims the following statistics, which I would usually take with a grain of salt:-

  • 40% better disk performance
  • VM shutdown up to 25% faster
  • VM suspend up to 20% faster
  • 3D graphics and web broswing 15% faster

Personally I’m sure that there are definitely optimisations that would allow Parallels Desktop 9 to perform faster than its predecessors. However, you have to remember that Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac is already pretty darn fast in the first place!

However, here’s a video of my Windows 8 virtual machine being suspended and resumed. Suspend in 5 seconds!


In Summary

Overall, my experience with Parallels Desktop 9 for Mac was a positive one. It has also been quite stable and has yet to show any major issues, which is quite impressive considering that I’m using the first version since its general availability for upgrading customers.

If you are a new Mac user or just only started looking for a way to run Windows on OS X through the means of virtualisation, not dual-booting on Boot Camp, you simply cannot find fault at Parallels Desktop 9 for Mac. Its a great solution. VMWare don’t even come close to matching the performance and level in integration between the Windows virtual machine and your Mac. And just to re-iterate again, I do have and use both Parallels Desktop and VMWare Fusion.

For more of my thoughts on Parallels Desktop vs VMWare, you can check out my older articles here:-

In all of those articles, my findings has always been consistent. Parallels invests far more in making sure that the Parallels Desktop product is as cutting edge as possible. It is after all one of their primary product. Because of that, they always had more features as compared to VMWare Fusion. But don’t get me wrong, VMWare works fine too and it does have the advantage of having better support for Linux OSes. My suspicion is simply that VMWare Fusion isn’t their flagship product at all and they would probably invest more R&D dollars on their enterprise solutions vs a consumer desktop one like VMWare Fusion.

But here’s the million dollar question for existing Parallels Desktop for Mac users. Is it worth the US$49.99 license upgrade price if you are currently using Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac?

Unfortunately, I would have to say not quite so. There are some great features in Parallels Desktop 9 such as the Dictionary gesture support and the bundle and certified integration of Stardock’s Start8 and ModernMix. However, you can also easily purchase your own license of Start8 and ModernMix and run it on your VM in Parallels Desktop 8, albeit the ‘untested’ integration of the utilities. Some of the other features such as the sharing of cloud sync folders like Dropbox are also easily emulated in Parallels Desktop 8.

However, if you are currently using Parallels Desktop 7 or below, then the combined features of version 8 and 9 makes it well worth upgrading.

Pricing and Availability

  • Full product: $79.99
  • Upgrades: $49.99
  • Student Edition: $39.99

As for the availability, upgrades has been available for current customers since 29 August, 2013. However, it’s not yet available the Parallels online store as of today. I suspect that the Parallels website will be updated along with the public and retail availability starting 5th September, 2013

Another thing to note is also that the upgrade or purchase of Parallels Desktop 9 for Mac includes six months of Parallels Access, valued at $39.99, at no additional cost. That’s actually quite awesome considering how cool Parallels Access as I’ve quickly discovered.

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