Review: Parallels Desktop 8 virtualization software

Parallels 8 merges Mountain Lion and Windows 8 (September 8th, 2012)

Parallels has quickly updated its popular Desktop virtualization utility for Mac, bringing support for the latest software and hardware: OS X Mountain Lion, Windows 8 and Retina display-equipped MacBook Pros. In our full review, we take a closer look at Parallels' latest attempt to provide a common experience across competing platforms.

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Parallels

Price: $80

The Good

  • Faster performance
  • Dictation in Windows
  • Supports Windows 8
  • Retina display support
  • OS X gestures in Windows

The Bad

  • Costs more than OS upgrades
  • Awkward Windows 8 interaction

Parallels has quickly updated its popular Desktop virtualization utility for Mac, bringing support for the latest software and hardware: OS X Mountain Lion, Windows 8 and Retina display-equipped MacBook Pros. In our full review, we take a closer look at Parallels' latest attempt to provide a common experience across competing platforms.



We love the new 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, but cross-platform users have been left waiting for the 2880x1800 display resolution to be supported by Windows via Boot Camp. Parallels 8 overcomes this limitation, enabling the full Retina resolution to be presented in the virtual Windows environment.

Mountain Lion brings its own unique set of software-based features to a wider range of Mac hardware, with Dictation vying for top honors. We are impressed by Parallels' Dictation integration in Windows, seamlessly enabling us to use the same voice-based input capabilities that Apple developed specifically for OS X. The "Fn Fn" shortcut initiates Dictation in both environments (or whatever custom shortcut has been configured in OS X).



We were surprised to find that Desktop 8 supports Windows 8's Toast notifications. When running Windows 8 as a virtual machine, any Toast notifications are simultaneously routed through Mountain Lion's own notification system. If an Outlook e-mail pops up in the Notification Center, for example, clicking the alert will launch the corresponding app.

Parallels developers have also succeeded in keeping up with the evolution of fullscreen functionality in OS X and Windows. Clicking the expansion button in the title bar of the virtual machine switches the view from windowed to fullscreen. We did not run into any problems with this feature, which properly scaled between various resolutions when switching between modes or simply resizing the window.

Desktop 8 supports Mission Control, properly grouping windows by application, along with Launchpad for app organization. We were also delighted to use the full range of Mountain Lion gestures in Windows apps, including tap/pinch to zoom, swipe between apps, two-finger scroll, three-finger drag, etc. Drag-and-drop file migration between platforms is now extensively supported, while the Mac hard drive finally shows up in Windows as an actual drive rather than a shared folder.

The Windows 8 experience brings its own unique challenges as a virtual machine, particularly when viewed in a small window. Microsoft chose to eliminate the Start menu in favor of "hot corners," which bring up additional menus when the mouse cursor is moved to the edge of the screen in each corner. Users now must bring the cursor to the upper-right corner to bring up the Start, Search, Share, Devices and settings menus.

The hot corners are designed to work at the edge of a display, where the cursor will naturally stop. As a compromise between platform switching and usability in Windows 8, the virtualization software will allow the cursor to move beyond the edge of the virtual machine window if it is moving fast, however it stops at the edge if it is moving slow. It took us a little while to get accustomed to this, but we could not think of a better approach.

Parallels' Coherence mode focuses on seamless switching between OS X and the VM, enabling users to run Windows programs in multiple windows as if they were Mac apps. We ran into a bit of trouble with Windows 8 when attempting to start off in Coherence mode before opening apps, such as Internet Explorer, which could not be resized into a smaller window after launching in fullscreen mode. If we opened IE before switching to Coherence mode, however, everything worked perfectly fine. Considering Windows 8 is still a preview beta, we can't expect Parallels to iron out every bug until the OS formally arrives on the market.



We were able to view the Windows UI on an HDTV via AirPlay mirroring with an Apple TV. Parallels' fullscreen mode adapted to the automatic scaling settings in the AirPlay utility, though we lost the ability to quickly exit fullscreen mode from the drop-down OS X settings in the top menu bar. The Dock still popped up when we brought our cursor to the bottom of the screen, serving as a workaround to switch between the Mac and Windows environments.

Both Parallels 8 and VMware's competing Fusion 5 are claimed to bring significant performance improvements over their respective predecessors. When testing with Windows 8 on a 15-inch Late 2011 MacBook Pro with a 2.2GHz Core i7 processor and 512MB AMD Radeon 6750M graphics, we did not find a wide gap between the performance of Parallels or Fusion. Both proved capable of booting from a dead start (both the VM software and virtual OS shut down) within 17 to 18 seconds. Most people simply suspend the session and close Parallels, in which case the reboot time shrinks to just 10 seconds. If we kept open Parallels and resumed a suspended session, the boot time dropped to just five seconds.



Parallels 8 did prove to be slightly superior to Fusion 5 when running Futuremark's 3DMark06 tests, which are optimized for DirectX 9. We reached a total score of 6499 on Parallels 8, compared to 6103 on Fusion 5, which equates to a mere eight percent performance gap. Both virtual machines were set to utilize one CPU core and 2GB of RAM.

We also tried switching the software settings to allocate two CPU cores and 4GB of RAM, splitting our resources between OS X and the virtual machine. 3DMark06 scores jumped by 859 (totaling 7358) in Parallels 8, and by 772 (totaling 6875) in Fusion 5. The results appear to demonstrate that Parallels offers slightly better optimizations when provided with additional resources, however we typically keep VMs set to just one CPU core and 2GB of RAM to avoid any performance issues in OS X.

Our real-world tests subjectively arrived at the same conclusion: both Parallels 8 and Fusion 5 are far superior to their predecessors. We had no problem using Parallels 8 to run web-based multimedia and a number of native apps, while games that had been noticeably choppy on Parallels 7 have finally been made usable in the virtual environment. The first-person shooter Crysis and flight simulator Phoenix R/C both ran with acceptable frame rates.





Aside from benchmarks and performance in the virtual machine, we rarely experienced any excessive degradation in the OS X experience while running Parallels 8. With previous editions, even when we allocated a fraction of our resources to the VM, our system seemed to occasionally grind to a halt. In our tests with Parallels 8, however, OS X always felt like it was running with three of four CPU cores and most of the available RAM (when one core and 2GB of RAM were allocated to the VM).

Previous Parallels releases typically maintained a slight edge over Fusion in terms of 3D graphics performance, though VMware has held its status as the king of enterprise integration. Parallels 8 is available as an "enterprise edition" with unified volume licensing, administrator controls and extensive support, though it remains unclear if the additional business-focused features will pull market share away from Fusion.

From a consumer perspective, Parallel's iOS app ($5, App Store) is one of the few truly distinguishing features from Fusion. VMware does offer an equivalent app for Fusion, but it is limited to enterprise customers.

We encountered difficulty in attempting to find a clear winner between Parallels 8 and Fusion 5. Both take advantage of the latest features in OS X, recent Mac computers, and Microsoft's forthcoming Windows 8 release. Users who need to squeeze every bit of performance out of their Mac, for intensive tasks such as gaming, are still better off running Windows through Boot Camp. For the rest of the crowd, however, Parallels is a perfect way to simultaneously experience the best of both platforms.

Parallels Desktop 8 is available for $80, with upgrades from Desktop 6+ available for $50. The basic VMware Fusion 5 edition carries a $50 price tag.

by Justin King


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