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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