Running Windows on a Mac using Parallels

By February 13, 2017 November 25th, 2017 Uncategorized

Over the last few years we’ve seen the number of development companies who are using Macs increase significantly. This is no doubt due to higher adoption rates of rich, new open source frameworks, the OS’s Linux-based core which provides powerful features like the shell, and the growth of mobile and web-friendly apps. Yet despite these factors, there always seems to be a need for a Windows-based platform in the shop – whether it be for testing purposes, to run Windows-only software, or to run those legacy Windows applications that your business just can’t survive without. In this article we’ll take a quick look at the Parallels virtual machine which allows you to run Windows within your Mac operating system without the need to reboot, and discuss why you might consider this option over installing Windows natively on your Mac.

Before we get to that however, let’s step back in time. A number of years back Apple made a very smart move by switching to an Intel-based platform, which ultimately allowed for the installation of Windows on a Mac. To support this feature, Apple created their Boot Camp software which facilitates this installation allowing both OS’s to live side by side on the Mac, with the option to select which OS to run at boot time.

The advantage to this scheme is that both OS’s run “natively” on the hardware, meaning that they take full advantage of the hardware and will run as fast as the hardware will allow. The main downsides are that switching between the two requires a reboot, and the hard drive must be repartitioned. Repartitioning is not only a bit dangerous if you’re not careful, but you need to “guess” ahead of time as to how much space you think you’ll need for your Windows OS and data.

An alternative is to install Windows as a virtual machine, so that it can be launched from within the Mac OS. This eliminates the need to perform a reboot to switch between OS’s, and also eliminates any potential partitioning issues, since the virtual machine is simply stored in a file on your Mac OS which can be resized as your needs change. In addition, this scheme also provides easier facilitates for quickly transferring data between the OS’s. The downside however, is that a virtual machine does not perform at native speeds, though it’s getting close. So the question then becomes: if I run Windows on a virtual machine, will it provide enough performance to support the applications I use, or should I install it natively using Boot Camp?

The good news is that today’s virtual machines are in fact nearing native performance in many aspects. Unfortunately many of the performance specifications presented by virtual machine developers and in comparison reviews, consist of advanced performance figures that most people don’t understand. In addition, these figures are often derived in “ideal”, laboratory-like conditions that don’t necessarily reflect real world environments.

Given these issues, we’ve found that a better way to determine if a virtual machine will work for you is to simply try it and see how your apps perform on your specific hardware. In migrating from an existing Windows PC to a new virtual machine, you should spend time comparing the VM performance against that PC. This should include things like boot times, app load times, GUI responsiveness etc., as this will give you a good benchmark to compare against the PC that you’ve been using in the past.

Now, enter “Parallels”, which is one of the most popular virtual machines for Mac because it is Mac-specific and allows you to run Windows and Linux distributions from within your Mac OS. They offer a fully-featured free trial on their website which gives you plenty of time to try out the system, as well as more customization options than you can shake a stick at. Their installation process couldn’t be easier too, as it will fetch an OS for you if you want, and even includes recommended settings based on your intended usage.

In terms of operating systems—specifically Windows 10—many people are not aware that despite the end of the Windows 10 free trial period, you can still grab both Windows 10 Home and Windows 10 Professional from Microsoft for free. The only restrictions are that you can’t customize the OS and there is a watermark indicating that you need to activate Windows. But in terms of evaluating the performance of a virtual machine, this is an ideal solution because you don’t need to commit to purchasing a Windows license (or transferring an existing one) just to assess how well it will run in a virtual machine. In fact the Parallels installation process even provides an option to fetch and install the OS for you, which makes things incredibly simple.

What we found interesting about Parallels is that we went through three phases as we used it: the first was one of not knowing what to expect, the second was one of amazement and bewilderment as we discovered just how well the system worked, and the final phase was of slight disappointment over small nit picky issues as we pushed it to its limit. But, assuming you have decent hardware—we recommend lots of RAM and ideally an SSD drive—you can expect very good performance from Parallels. If you’re not looking for raw, native performance, it’s likely that most productivity applications will appear to run and respond as fast as they did on your native PC.

Parallels also includes a number of cool little features which makes for an excellent cross platform experience, notably the ability to:

  • span multiple monitors
  • share printers (including local and network-based), drives, and other resources
  • easily copy and paste text and other data between both OS’s
  • use Mac keyboard shortcuts within Windows apps

Perhaps one of the coolest features is the ability to select full screen, windowed, or coherence mode. Full screen, as the name suggests, takes up the full screen (including all monitors if configured to do so), windowed mode runs in a window which will automatically resize/scale the Windows desktop accordingly, and coherence mode which allows Windows apps to run in their own windows within the Mac OS desktop, making them appear as if they were native Windows applications.

So in conclusion, if you’re contemplating running Windows on a Mac, the tips in the article should give you a good starting point for how to begin your evaluation of Parallels, and the types of cool features and benefits Parallels offers.

About the Author

Dana Fujikawa is a contract programmer and technical writer located in Vancouver British Columbia. He is president of Essential Instructions Inc. – a boutique technical writing firm specializing in the development of API and software documentation, as well as the implementation of programming projects. On the documentation side he assists organizations who need a highly-technical writer who can read code and produce documentation from it. On the programming side he helps startups and non-technical people who need a programmer that can help them realize their software ideas. He is currently developing an Android Wear app for a client in Europe, while maintaining API and software documentation for several companies both in Vancouver and abroad.