Apple Mac Mini (M1): The Parallels Desktop Experience

Posted on January 7, 2021 by Paul Thurrott in Apple, Mac and macOS, Windows 10 with 24 Comments

I met (wait for it, virtually) with Parallels ahead of the launch of Parallels Desktop 16 this past fall, and before Apple shipped macOS Big Sur. Aside from the usual product updates, the big news this year was that Parallels had been featured in Apple’s M1 chipset reveal, and I was quite curious to know what that would look like.

I mean, obviously. Right?

But there’s a rich history to consider here.

Virtualization has long been important on the Mac, primarily because of the app gap, a situation that is a lot less problematic today. I used Connectix Virtual PC, which was later purchased by Microsoft, back in the early days of OS X almost 20 years ago before moving on to more modern solutions like VMWare Fusion and then Parallels Desktop.

And anytime there’s a processor architecture change, these things get even more interesting. Back in the day, that meant emulating Intel-based (x86) Windows on PowerPC-based Macs. In the near future, it’s Windows (and presumably Linux) on Apple Silicon (M1). Today? It’s a bit more limited. We’ll get to that.

And with the shift away from Windows as the center of personal computing, we’re starting to see more solutions for running Windows applications on new platforms, many of which are mobile. Some are cloud-based, like Microsoft’s coming Cloud PC offering. But some are traditional client-installed virtualization solutions like Parallels Desktop, which is starting to make its way to Chrome OS now in addition to the Mac.

There are pros and cons to both approaches, of course. But one key benefit of Parallels, at least for those using virtualization to solve that “last mile” problem of running one or a handful of key Windows applications, is its Coherence feature. This lets you run those Windows apps side-by-side under macOS, as if they were native apps, and not in an OS/desktop window that is visually isolated from the rest of the system. Coherence is a big reason why I prefer Parallels over other Mac-based virtualization solutions. (It’s supposed to come to Chrome OS in the future as well.)

But there are lots of other reasons why one might want to use a virtualization solution on whatever platform. In addition to running Windows productivity apps, developers use virtualization to test native and web apps on other platforms and browsers. They’re used in help desk and support scenarios. And I use virtualization to capture screenshots of Windows during Setup for the Windows 10 Field Guide.

Anyway, the Parallels Desktop technical preview release for M1-based Macs is an early look at the work that Parallels is doing to adapt to Apple’s new architecture. And that means it’s not complete. Most notably, you can not use it to run x86/x64-based versions of Windows (or Linux, or whatever) at the moment. Instead, it can only run ARM-based virtual machines (VMs).

ARM-based?

Yeah, that’s a pretty small field of choices, and I can only imagine the issues people would have trying to run an ARM-based version of Linux right now in the technical preview. But what we’re really interested in, of course, is Windows. And as it turns out, there is one way to use Parallels Desktop on an M1-based Mac with Windows: You can download an Insider Preview version of Windows 10 on ARM (WOA).

Despite this being an early preview, things work as expected, assuming you’re familiar with Parallels Desktop, and aside from the Windows Insider requirement, the whole thing already seems really polished. I credit both Apple, for its high-quality M1 transition, and Parallels, for its own engineering, for this. In any event, after adding the WOA VM to Parallels and activating the technical preview (using a code that Parallels provides when you sign-up), Parallels configures the environment and then boots into WOA for the first time. The entire process takes just 5 minutes.

Since I’m familiar with Parallels, I’m impressed by what I see here. Unlike on Chrome OS, where you can only run Windows VMs in a window, the M1-based version already supports advanced features like Coherence.

This means you can just use the Mac normally and then run Windows apps—which can be searched for just like Mac apps and pinned in the Dock—normally. That’s powerful stuff.

You can also resize the Windows VM window arbitrarily (as you can on Chrome OS) and run it full screen (ditto).

While I will immediately dismiss any nonsense about a virtual version of WOA running faster than on native PC maker hardware, performance is nonetheless excellent and feels very similar to the experience of using Parallels with Windows on an Intel-based Mac.

I’ve not tried to run any x64 apps yet—indeed, so far I’ve only upgraded to the new Microsoft Edge—but I’ve signed-in with my Microsoft account to get a few customizations going and will look at installing apps today.

Regardless, this is impressive stuff, and it’s already at a quality level that I’d consider ready for the public. The only thing holding back, and it’s a big one, is the ability to run x86/x64 VMs and the software they will contain. But this is just another piece of the puzzle for making Apple’s M1 transition work, and it’s clear that this is an excellent solution, even at this early point in time.

No one should buy an M1-based Mac right now to run a virtualized WOA, obviously. (The Insider builds time-out and has to be constantly upgraded, for starters.) But no one should buy a WOA-based PC, either. Getting an M1-based Mac is a far more viable option right now, regardless. The ability to run virtualized Windows apps on that system is just more icing on the proverbial cake.

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Comments (28)

28 responses to “Apple Mac Mini (M1): The Parallels Desktop Experience”

  1. Avatar

    michael_babiuk

    Pity you do not have an M1 laptop, Paul. I am curious to know how a Parallels Desktop WOA VM impacts battery life.


    I do have a few questions or points I would wish to make - since I am VERY curious on this particular issue.


    1) Running a WOA VM is not particularly important for my future plans. I wanted to see if this new beta Parallels Desktop M1 version was ready to emulate the performance - and - how well it could match the performance of a “regular” Parallel Desktop version coded to run x86/x64 VMs on an Intel Mac. I guess I will need to wait just a bit longer to find out.


    2) I understand your point on not having a discussion about “can a VM run native ARM based apps “faster” than a native WOA based machine can run them. If the hardware is “equal” between two computers than the answer is obviously no.


    However, other writers do point out the superiority of the M1 chipset to other ARM chipsets on WOA based computers by indicating the performance differences obtained when native ARM based apps are running in a VM on a M1 based computer compared to how those apps perform on other WOA computers. For example, Geekbench 5 results obtained in a VM on a M1 based computer report results that are double the benchmarks scores of those obtained when Geekbench 5 is run natively on the latest Surface Pro X computers. The point being that the M1 chipset is so superior to other ARM based chipsets that apps in a M1 VM perform at a much higher level than those apps do natively on other ARM based WOA computers.


    Do you have any idea when Windows 10 (natively coded to run run x86/x64 apps) can be installed as a VM on a M1 class computer?

  2. Avatar

    captobie

    Coherence view isn't unique to Parallels, I believe they call it Unity view in VMware.


    Regardless, I've started using Remote Desktop in place of virtualization software. Seems to be a better solution for my use case.

    • Avatar

      hallmanac

      In reply to captobie:

      I wonder how the performance is running the native (M1) Mac "Microsoft Remote Desktop" app. I use it on my MacBook Pro 16" (Intel Mac) every single day and it runs great. The only thing Parallels has over that experience (from my usage and perspective) is the keyboard shortcut options. I've mapped a lot of my keyboard shortcuts to get as close as I can to a Windows keyboard experience while running from a Mac.

  3. Avatar

    sgbassett

    What I wonder is whether the M series Macs, with virtualization (via Parallels or anything else) will ever be able to run MS Word with Windows-only Word add-ons that are essential to my workflow. As an appellate lawyer, I depend on Word add-ons (add-ins?) like Best Authority, WordRake, and PerfectIt.


    While I understand that there is (or soon will be) a native version of Word for the ARM-based Macs, is there any chance these add-ons will ever work with Word on an ARM-based Mac. For that matter, will they ever work on a WOA machine? If the answer is no, then I will be confined to Intel-based Windows machines for the duration.

  4. Avatar

    markbyrn

    Have you been able to run any of the Microsoft Store app or the Windows Store app? Just crashes when I open any of them.

    • Avatar

      Paul Thurrott

      I got the crash when I tried to use the Store previously as well. Will look into this today. I wonder if it's tied to activation, as I am using my Microsoft account with the VM.
      • Avatar

        echorelay

        In reply to paul-thurrott:

        Nah it's happening because the Store is ARM32 compiled and not ARM64 compiled (as well as all the "appx" apps that come pre-installed on WoA builds from Dec 2020). The M1 chips do not contain the ARM32 instruction set. There are blogs online about how you can force download the x86 versions of the free apps (with a ton of PowerShell required) - but I suspect this process will get simplified in the near future.

  5. Avatar

    longhorn

    Let me be the devil's advocate and suggest that it's not Parallels' job to make x64 Windows run on Apple SoCs. It's Microsoft's job to make x64 applications run on WoA.


    If we are going to take WoA seriously that is.

    Are we sure Parallels is working on x64 support? There is basically no reason to do that for Linux since I don't know a single Linux application that doesn't support ARM, but I'm sure there is. I think both Ubuntu and Fedora are running in Parallels for M1, but there are no stable versions released yet.


    As long as macOS devs are happy to build for ARM there shouldn't be any problems with development.


    I wonder what kind of x64 Windows application a macOS user would want to run. Clearly you don't buy an Apple ARM SoC if your main workflow is centered around x64 Windows applications. And hopefully if you need one or two they should soon work with WoA anyway.


    Supporting Windows x64 on Apple SoCs might actually be a blow to WoA development.


    • Avatar

      wright_is

      In reply to longhorn:

      x64 applications are supposed to be supported in WoA, in the current dev build, which is what Paul is running in Parallels.

      As to what x64 applications users would want to run? I can think of many, for business users. But they wouldn't be allowed to run a pre-release build of Windows, they would have to run an official and licensed copy of Windows on the Mac. That is not currently possible with WoA.

      Certainly, any user here who tried to use a Mac would need to have all of our Windows LoB software installed and much of that is forced to the bit-ness of the operating system (i.e. if you have 64-bit Windows, the 32-bit installer will refuse to install). Our telephony software is a prime example, only available with .net 3.5 and only Intel and must install x86->x86 or x64->x64.

      • Avatar

        bkkcanuck

        In reply to wright_is:

        ha ha ha, made me remember Chicago (Windows). Use to run a Netware fileservers back at that time, and we had all the computers running SMC ethernet adapters.... I remember installing and running Chicago (from MSDN) on a computer on the network... and one of the first things I did was click on the network icon.... and boom, the file server went down.... I thought well, that is unfortunate timing... so we brought up the file server again and I tried again... and again... boom... there goes the file service... The issue turned out that the SMC ethernet cards had large package ethernet options and Windows was sending out a 'large packet' and it hit the file server and the SMC ethernet card there - the driver for Netware... was defective and saw the packet and boom...

    • Avatar

      Paul Thurrott

      The primary use case for Parallels on Mac is Windows. And by Windows, I mean "real" Windows, not WOA. WOA doesn't solve the problem right now for several reasons, key among them that it's only available as a non-supported Insider build and cannot be purchased. That won't fly in a shipping version of Parallels.
      • Avatar

        longhorn

        In reply to paul-thurrott:


        The Intel era is over. It's time for Mac users to stop piggyback on Windows.


        What has Apple been giving back? The answer is nothing. Your are not allowed to install macOS in a VM on a non-macOS host for example.


        It seems there is no support for x64 virtualization in the M1 SoC. So for the M1, x64 virtualization seems unlikely.


        On the other hand Federighi is open to the possibility of WoA running natively on the M1:

        "that's really up to Microsoft".


        As for licensing, this can be done the same way Microsoft and Parallels did it for Chrome OS. Enterprises could license Parallels/WoA if they have a need for it.


        A macOS home user shouldn't require Windows. If they do they bought the wrong machine. Like buying a sports car when you need a pickup truck.


        I assume the common scenario is that a corporate worker is assigned a machine suitable for the tasks they are supposed to perform. Usually a locked-down version of Windows administered by someone else.


        Maybe Apple could support x64 virtualization in their next SoC by dedicated hardware. It would be pretty cool for geeks, but it would also pretty much kill the performance/energy advantage of Apple SoCs.


        This time I actually think Apple is courageous. What Apple is saying is that it's OK to buy a Mac without the safety net of Windows underneath.


  6. Avatar

    glenn8878

    The last time I ran any emulation software was back when Apple converted to Intel. That's a long time ago and I barely used the software after installation. It's all a waste of time and quite costly. Only the most tech savvy should attempt this if at all. It might be fun to see how Windows applications work on M1, but it's not necessary.

    • Avatar

      wright_is

      In reply to glenn8878:

      It isn't something only for the tech savvy, these are (at least on Intel) mainstream packets and lots of people use them. Especially Mac users in businesses that are traditionally Windows based. A lot of Line of Business software (I'm talking the custom stuff and "business" software here, ERP systems, custom database systems etc. not Office, Adobe etc.). The Mac user might be able to use Mac versions of Office and Adobe, for example, but if the ERP software, CTI software etc. is Windows only, they will need a virtual version of Windows on the Mac in order to run that software.

      Likewise, Office for Mac has never been feature complete or 100% compatible with the Windows version. If they need some advanced functions that aren't supported in Office for Mac, they will also need a Windows version of Office installed - I believe multiple Exchange accounts (i.e. main account and subordinate accounts - the user only has to set up the main account and all subordinate accounts are automatically loaded. E.g. Sally works in sales and has her own account, plus Sales, Info, Commercial and other related email accounts, which she shares with other members of the department. She only needs to know her own password to set-up the accounts, the sub-accounts simply appear, once they have added their main account, they don't even appear in the list of accounts in the Account Management interface) are still not supported in Outlook for Mac.

      That feature is something we use all the time. I think about 2/3 of our users have their personal address, which is barely used, plus their departmental email address, this means that all business correspondence goes through the departmental account, so if the user isn't there - holiday, sickness, left etc. - nothing gets forgotten or missed. For a Mac users, the IT department would have to manually set-up all of those subsidiary accounts for them (the users never get the passwords to the shared accounts).

    • Avatar

      rosyna

      In reply to glenn8878:


      that wasn’t emulation, that was binary translation, which is a different and faster strategy but requires more memory and/or disk space (Rosetta 2 translates on first launch and creates a new translated binary that is use throughout, making disk space the most used resource while decreasing memory usage significantly).


      Windows uses an emulation strategy for Windows on Qualcomm that’s much slower. Which is weird because for Xbox backcompat, they use binary translation.

  7. Avatar

    casualadventurer

    My freshman year of college I was editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper, and we used a Mac Plus with an extra external floppy drive and Aldus PageMaker to put the paper together (this was 1987). I was impressed with the Mac because Apple was using its own hardware and its own OS. I couldn't afford a Mac back then and started building my own Windows PC's instead, but always maintained a secret love for the Mac. That is, until Apple decided to adopt PC hardware and Unix OS for the Mac. Lame.


    Today Apple is back to making the hardware uniquely theirs, and the more they shape OS X and integrate iOS into it, the more it becomes a uniquely Apple operating system. And for me, at least, that means the Mac is becoming cool again. Leaving the hyperbole of Apple's performance stats alone, has anyone considered what a huge change this is for Apple at this point in its history? For it to be going back to making its own hardware from the ground up? I think that's the real story here, not performance stats or battery life.

    • Avatar

      wright_is

      In reply to CasualAdventurer:

      I used Aldus Pagemaker as well. We had a copy on our HP Vectra "IBM (nearly) compatible", running under a Windows 1.0.3 runtime, I believe.

    • Avatar

      Jim Lewis

      In reply to CasualAdventurer:

      The macOS is hardly based on straight-away Unix. Read Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs or even the Wikipedia article on macOS. And it was part of the deal that Jobs would return to Apple, that after a futile search in the '90's for a newer, better OS for Apple machines, that Apple would not only welcome Jobs back but they would adopt and adapt his customized NeXT OS for Apple machines. It was a relatively slow evolution - they hardly slapped the Unix OS onto Mac's straight out of the box. And an advantage for Apple has been they've had ~Unix available from a command prompt for a decade or two before Microsoft ever got wise enough to introduce WSL. For many science professionals, having Unix or Linux a few keystrokes away is a blessing for scientific software that only runs under one of the latter two OS's not to mention server applications. So when Apple couldn't come up with a decent new OS on its own for years, adopting and adapting Unix quite well to its purposes is hardly a curse. And, BTW, iOS, is essentially just a dumbed-down and evolved version of the macOS. For initial iPhone development, Jobs pitted his macOS team against the iPod team and Scott Forstall's macOS team won. At the release of the iPhone in 2007, Jobs claimed OS X ran on the iPhone ... (Wikipedia article on iOS).

      • Avatar

        bkkcanuck

        In reply to Jim_Lewis:

        There was no 'straight away' UNIX at the time of NeXT - it is more of a large family tree of variants of UNIX that existed at that time. Mach was effectively a re-architecting of the BSD kernel using a fundamentally microkernel architecture (rather than a monolithic) -- focusing on multi-tasking. This was the foundation of the NeXTSTEP implementation which became the kernel of macOS. Effectively they moved the macOS UI onto a UNIX kernel. Early on they took the time to replace the compositor (used for X11 UIs) [something that Linux is currently struggling through replacing]. So yes, macOS X was at the beginning fundamentally of the UNIX family and as such went through the process of certifying it as such. macOS before X was in trouble primarily because of the failure to develop a replacement kernel that was fully pre-emptively a multi-tasking OS...


        I went with macOS in 2007/2008, and my primary reason for the move was at it's heart it was UNIX with a custom UI ontop. IMHO I went with the best of both worlds as I had all the UNIX I needed, with UI that had a lot of good commercial software options.

      • Avatar

        wright_is

        In reply to Jim_Lewis:

        Except, NextOS was mainly a graphical layer and additional networking tools on top of a Mach Kernel and BSD UNIX underpinnings. That isn't to belittle NextOS, it was a great system, but it was still a customized UNIX. That is why the OS X/macOS user has had a UNIX terminal program available since the beginning.


  8. Avatar

    mclark2112

    Interesting, I'll probably be upgrading my Macbook Pro when the next gen (M2?) comes out. I do run Parallels now for a handful of apps, but it is becoming much less important to me. I also use the Surface Pro X, and I do love it. Everything I need runs on it fine, with the caveat of the Barracuda VPN client, and I don't think Barracuda will ever fix that. So I use Teamviewer, which works but isn't optimal.

  9. Avatar

    robotraccoon

    You're doing the Lord's work here, and saving me a lot of time by not having to do this testing myself. Thank you.

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