If you've ever used Parallels Desktop or its younger competitor, VMware Fusion, you know how magical it is to be able to run a virtual computer on your Mac. I have VMs for Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, and Windows 8, as well as Ubuntu 13.04 and the beta OS X 10.9 Mavericks, which lets me test software and OS capabilities easily from one computer. It's a favorite technology of developers who need to support multiple OSes and browsers. Although recent versions of both products have been minor upgrades, it's an amazing technology.
Parallels Access's "home screen" for desktop apps
So I was excited to see what Parallels would do with the VNC (virtual network computing) technology that lets you remote into another computer and essentially run it over a network or Internet connection. Both Windows and OS X have built-in remoting, which is a boon to those who support nontechnical relatives and coworkers (if their firewalls allow VNC access). There have been VNC applications for the iPad as long as there's been an iPad, so you can run your PC or Mac from the iPad.
[ Review: Parallels Desktop 9 vs. VMware Fusion 6. | Why iPad apps can't replace your desktop software -- yet. | Discover the best productivity apps for your iPad. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights via Twitter and with the Mobile Edge blog and Mobilize newsletter. ]
But they're awkward to use, given how different a computer operating system is from a tablet OS. Even with iOS and OS X sharing a common core and OS X having recently adopted some gestures from iOS, they operate very differently. And PC apps, as any Windows tablet user can attest, are too cramped to be readable or manipulable on a tablet's 10-inch screen. Windows 8's poor interface is a major reason that Windows tablets have failed, but the fact that a tablet isn't a PC and shouldn't try to be one is a bigger reason that no one's buying Windows tablets while millions of iPads and Android tablets are selling.
I thought that maybe Parallels Access would change the game, making remote use of a Mac or PC from an iPad a good, workable experience. The $80-per-year service has some cool capabilities, such as the home-screen-like view of all apps (a clone of OS X's Launchpad or Windows 8's Start screen), a dock to easily switch among running apps, and a zoom-in pointer that works like iOS's zoom-in text cursor: Tap and hold to get a magnified view of what's under the pointer to overcome the cramped PC or Mac screen. Parallels Access also resizes your computer's desktop to 1,024-by-768-pixel resolution, to match that of the iPad. Apps are also sized to fit that window, essentially acting as a single-screen app in the iPad style.
Parallels Access's dock is a smart way to switch among apps on your remote Mac or PC.
Even with those smart adjustments, I found Parallels Access unsatisfying. Yes, there's a thrill of being able to open InDesign or Excel on your iPad. But that thrill quickly dissipates once you realize how little you can actually do.
Say you open a file in InDesign and want to resize the document window so that you can see another window, such as to copy content from one to the other. Sorry, can't do that. (Ditto in the Finder or Windows Explorer.) You have to switch from one window to another. Yes, it's just like an iPad, except iPad apps are designed to work this way, whereas OS X and Windows apps assume you have multiple, resizable windows you can arrange and move content among.