Review: New Parallels, Fusion virtual desktops for OS X fail the smell test

Parallels has interesting ideas that only half work, and Fusion adds almost nothing new beyond better hardware support

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Parallels Desktop 9: Making Windows 8 a little less objectionable
Unlike Fusion, the new version of Parallels tries to add something new for users to experience.

A neat idea is shared access to your cloud storage -- be it iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, and/or SkyDrive. Its appeal may not be so apparent until you realize that these cloud storage services copy their files to your local devices in a cache while you're connected; if both your Mac and VM access one of these services, you end up with two caches taking space. When running Windows, Parallels displays the iCloud (including Photo Stream), Google Drive, and Dropbox caches on your Mac as if they were local folders in Windows. They're actually aliases.

Likewise, your SkyDrive folder in Windows is supposed to appear as an alias on the Mac, in the Devices section of Finder windows. But even after installing the SkyDrive desktop app in the Windows 7 portion of Windows 8 (so that it appears in the File Explorer), I couldn't get it to display on the Mac.

Also, if you use SkyDrive on the Mac, it's not aliased to your Windows VM as the other services are, nor to Box in either direction. Cloud aliasing doesn't work if you're running an OS X VM on your Mac either.

But most of what Parallels proposes to make Desktop better in the new version has to do with Windows 8. Nearly everyone who's used Windows 8 strongly dislikes it; everyone I know who's tried it has bought a Mac or found one of the few remaining Windows 7 PCs at Dell or Hewlett-Packard instead. Not a single person I know went with Windows 8 by choice -- and these people were not fanboys of any platform.

So making Windows 8 work better is a laudable goal that may have limited appeal. After all, one of the beautiful aspects of running Windows in a VM is that you aren't forced to switch to a new version when you get new hardware. A Mac can be a Windows 7 PC you run forever.

But let's say that you have to run Windows 8. Parallels Desktop 9 claims to make it less obnoxious.

First, Parallels promises that you'll get a real Start menu, not the silly button in Windows 8.1 that merely switches between the Start screen and the Desktop -- which the Windows key on your PC (or Command on your Mac) already does for you. But Parallels' Start menu is not there out of the box. To get it, you need to ... well, I don't know. I couldn't figure it out, and Parallels didn't respond to my several queries. You might as well get an app like Start8 for your current VM and not fool with the new version of Parallels Desktop. [After this article was published, Parallels exlained that to get the Start menu, you have to choose View > Windows 7 Look to download the Start menu application into the VM, which will appear whenever the Windows 7 Look option is enabled. The company did not address the other issues raised in this review.]

Parallels also promises that you can run Metro apps in windows on your Mac's Desktop, rather than in Windows 8's ungainly full-screen-only Start Screen mode. I guess the folks at Parallels took InfoWorld's suggestions for improving Windows 8, even if Microsoft didn't. However, you can't run Metro apps in their own windows within the full-screen Windows Desktop -- where this feature would be most useful. Worse, I couldn't get this feature to work as advertised on the Mac Desktop, either. Parallels' PR shows multiple Metro windows on the Desktop, sized appropriately. But in my tests, every Metro app took a full screen (and required switching to what Parallels calls Coherence mode) -- a major waste of screen real estate if you have a 27-inch monitor as I do.

There are some promising under-the-hood improvements in Parallels Desktop 9. For one, Windows apps can update while Windows is asleep, using the Power Nap mode in late-model Macs that allows OS X background app updates during sleep. Another is direct support for Thunderbolt drives, which can be directly connected to the Windows VM, if formatted as NTFS, FAT, or ExFAT. Then there's the ability to print straight to PDF from any Windows app's Print dialog box, offered by OS X for years. (Unlike some of the other Parallels additions, these actually work!)

Linux gets more support in Parallels Desktop 9, including new compatibility with the Mint and Mageia distros, as well as the ability to share apps between a Linux VM and OS X, as you could long do with Windows apps and OS X.

None of Parallels' enhancements are worth the upgrade price, especially given the futility of the key features, but at least they try to make your virtual life better.

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