Powerful virtualization solutions like Parallels 11 Desktop make it possible for Mac users to run both OS X and Windows 10 at the same time. But even more impressive, Parallels let you run Windows applications next to OS X apps, with no need to boot into different environments.
To be clear, Parallels isn’t the only virtualization solution to offer these capabilities—VMWare Fusion works similarly—but after evaluating a previous Parallels Desktop version against the competition, I choose Parallels and haven’t looked back. It offers tremendous performance and deep integration with OS X.
With Parallels 11 Desktop, the promise is much better performance than with previous versions—Windows launch and shutdown is up to 50 percent faster, file operations within Windows and VM suspend are both up to 20 percent faster, and network performance is improved by some unstated amount—and up to 25 percent better battery life thanks to a Travel Mode feature. It supports OS X “El Capitan”—the latest, still-in-beta version of Apple’s desktop OS—and of course Windows 10. Parallels is also heavily pushing that this release enables support for always-on Cortana, meaning that you can invoke Cortana even when Windows 10 isn’t the focused app, and a number of other integration improvements including Force Touch support on the new MacBook, Quick Look integration, and more.
Virtualization has been key to the Mac’s success for a long time, as it enables users of Apple’s personal computers to run the far more abundant and popular applications and games. Back in the day, I used Connectix Virtual PC to run Windows on older Mac OS versions, slowly, using its software-based virtualization capabilities. Microsoft then purchased Connectix in 2003, and continued its PC-based product for many years, releasing the server-based Virtual Server a year later. Since then, Microsoft has moved on to the more powerful hypervisor-based Hyper-V, which is available in Pro versions of the Windows client (including Windows 10 Pro) as well.
Back on the Mac, two key solutions have emerged to fill the gap left by Virtual PC, Parallels Desktop and VMWare Fusion, and both have continually offered better performance, better battery life and, most impressive, deep integration between the host OS X system and the Windows guest. So, yes, you can simply run Windows in a window or full-screen, as with previous-generation virtualization solutions, and treat this system as a standalone, separate entity from the host OS. But you can also integrate the guest Windows OS with OS X, and run Windows applications side-by-side with OS X apps on the OS X desktop.
In Parallels, this capability is called Coherence, and it is the default mode for Windows-based VMs. After installing Windows 10 (in this case) in a Parallels VM—a process I’ll describe below—Windows 10 will appear as an icon the OS X Dock. When you click this icon, the Windows 10 Start menu pops up out of the icon, and you can launch apps or access Cortana normally. (You can also launch Windows 10 apps from a Windows 10 Applications folder that is also added to the dock.)
The integration is solid. Common Windows interfaces—OneDrive, the system tray widgets, and Action Center—are all available from the OS X menu bar. In many cases, you can use Windows or OS X keyboard shortcuts (so COMMAND + Q will quit a Windows 10 app just as it does an OS X app, and use COMMAND + TAB to switch between running apps regardless of whether they’re OS X or Windows apps). You can copy and paste and drag and drop between OS X and Windows apps. And Windows apps can use OS X’s unique full screen mode—which is truly full-screen, something most Windows apps can’t even do in Windows 10—just as OS X apps can. It is all very impressive and works as expected (assuming you’re used to the Mac).
Indeed, Parallels Desktop is particularly useful for people moving to the Mac, and it can be used in a P2V (physical to virtual) migration scenario to virtualize your old PC environment and bring it along for the ride. But most users will probably start from scratch, meaning a clean install of Windows. So your initial investment will typically be $200 or more (on top of the cost of the Mac): $100 or more for Windows 10 (Windows 10 Home OEM is about $100, and the retail version is $120) and $100 for Parallels 11 Desktop (or the Pro version, which is $100 per year and offers some unique features for developers).
You have two choices with a clean install.
You can perform a normal clean install in a VM as you would with any other virtualization solution—and here, Parallels offers some unique auto-tuning features that are based on your expected usage, a nice touch—or you can simply use an existing Boot Camp install—remember, I explained the right way to do that in Mac + Windows 10: Boot Camp—which has some performance benefits and doesn’t require a gigantic file in your Mac storage that represents a virtual disk.
I’ve tried both methods, and while the Boot Camp option probably performs more quickly—I haven’t tested that—there are some complexities around product activation that could make it less than desirable for some. That is, Windows might see the physical Boot Camp install as one PC and the hybrid-virtual install in Parallels as another PC, and not activate properly. It’s also possible that some applications, like Office, might see these two installs as separate installs, thus mucking things up further. My understanding is that once you “move” a Boot Camp install to a Parallels VM, you should only use it in Parallels from then on. Otherwise, you will face these activation issues regularly.
Fortunately, I find that the “normal” VM install works just fine. You will need a few things for this to work (and work efficiently):
RAM. Virtual machines tax your Mac’s resources, so you will want a Mac with 8 GB or more of RAM. My MacBook Air has 8 GB, which was (and still is) the maximum possible. I would prefer 16 GB.
Storage. Ditto for storage: a basic install of Windows 10 took about 11 GB of hard drive space on my Mac before installing any apps or data. (The virtual disk is 128 GB, but Parallels will only take what it needs and expand the file as needed.) My Mac has 256 GB of solid state storage, which is obviously ample for desktop virtualization.
Windows ISO and product key. This should go without saying, but you need a Windows 10 ISO (x64 works fine) in order to install it in a VM, and you will need a product key to activate it.
Once Parallels is installed, it provides a simple wizard that helps you choose between install types—a clean install, a PC migration, or using your Windows install from Boot Camp—or choose some free online “appliances” such as Chrome OS, Ubuntu, or one of the Modern.IE/Edge Dev test environment VMs.
If you choose a clean install—using the “Install Windows or another OS from a DVD or image file” option—Parallels will try to find the Windows ISO (it looks on the desktop and in Downloads, and possibly elsewhere. If it can’t find one, you’ll need to point the wizard at it. Parallels offers an express installation option, meaning you won’t need to step through Windows Setup normally by yourself, and you can even pre-apply your product key. For the admins in the audience, this is clearly an automated install similar to the ones you may configure using Microsoft’s deployment tools.
In one nice touch, the install wizard provides a simple screen for configuring the VM according to your needs. You can choose between various primary uses cases like software development, design, productivity, and so on, and Parallels will choose settings that are a match for the choice.
I chose Productivity, but I also chose to customize the settings afterwards, since I was curious what the defaults would be. And as suspected, Parallels only chose 2 GB of RAM for the VM, which I bumped up to 4 GB for better performance. What you choose here will of course depend on a variety of factors—the available resources, whether you’ll be running more OS X apps or Windows apps, and so on—but I generally find that splitting the RAM between Windows and OS X is where I want to be.
And then you’re good to go: Parallels will install Windows 10 in unattended mode, and will create a password-less account that matches the user name on your Mac. Once you get past the initial sign-in screen, you’re presented with the Mac desktop and will see a Windows 10 icon on the dock. When you click that, voila, the Windows 10 Start menu appears. (As shown previously.)
From here, initial configuration works as it does in any Windows 10 install: get updated via Windows Update, install app updates from the Store, and configure features like Cortana and OneDrive (both of which require signing in with a Microsoft account).
You’ll also want to familiarize yourself with some of the unique features of Parallels, including the OS X menu-based access to system tray icons and Action Center, and of course the fact that Windows apps run right on the OS desktop by default, thanks to that Coherence feature.
OS X integration with Parallels can be found throughout the system. You can right-click files in the OS X Finder, for example, and choose to open them with both OS X and Windows apps. (And can choose to use Windows apps as the default for opening different file types if you want.) You can right-click Windows apps in the OS X dock and access native (to Windows) features like Jump lists and (to OS X) features like the ability to keep (pin) them in the dock. You can choose to run any Windows app using OS X’s full screen functionality.
Because you are running Windows—and Windows apps—under OS X, you won’t experience some of the issues found with a Boot Camp install. For example, the Mac’s glorious trackpad works as well in Microsoft Edge and other Windows apps as it does with OS X apps.
When I had last configured Parallels—using Parallels 10 Desktop with Windows 8.1—I leaned very heavily towards Windows apps, and had installed Office 2013, Photoshop, and other key apps under Windows. This year, things are a bit different. The newly released Office 2016 for Mac is excellent—previous versions were a dumpster fire—so I have installed that rather than the Windows version. I use the Mac version of Firefox instead of the Windows version, and the Mac version of Photoshop. The number of Windows apps I’d use, were this my main system, would be significantly reduced. How you do things, again, will depend on your needs.
Regardless, I find that the performance and integration functionality of Parallels puts it over the top, and makes it a better solution for running Windows apps than Boot Camp. Yes, Apple’s dual-boot solution will always fill needs: gamers, for example, will be better served by running right on the hardware, of course, and developers with 8 GB systems like mine would likely find Boot Camp more accommodating as well. But for day-to-day access to the occasional Windows app, Parallels gets the job done. And it minimizes the weird context shifts of moving between Windows and OS X, each of which has its own quirks.