Running Windows (or another OS) in a virtual machine on a Mac has been possible and popular for some time now for those who need to do so. I’ve been primarily a user of VMWare’s Fusion to do this for quite some time. But Parallels just released a new version (v 6.0) boasting better performance and I thought I’d give it a try. It also makes it possible via an App to manipulate Windows via an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch, so that’s another reason to geek out and see what’s up.
First, as to the claims of performance improvement in Parallels. I do find that a VM under the new version of Parallels runs significantly faster than the current version of VMWare’s Fusion. I’m sure we’ll see an update to that application soon, as these two companies really do compete with each other neck in neck. But as of now, I’d give the nod to Parallels, especially if you’re running it on an older machine. Both applications offer similar functionality so it depends on what you’re looking for.
That said, Parallels jumped on the mobile bandwagon with its iDevice App, Parallels Mobile. Here’s how it works. You sign up for an account with Parallels. After installing the App on your iDevice you access the VM running on your machine via that account. Everything runs through the servers at Parallels. That means you can access it from anywhere and that’s the potential glitch in the system. You’re dependent not only on the speed of your connection but also on the server side load at Parallels. In testing this out yesterday, I noticed at times things were operating very efficiently, at times (while on the same connection on my end) not so much. Obviously, a speedy WiFi pipe will help you out a lot. The Parallels App allows you to adjust the display for speed or a higher quality picture, and by optimizing for performance you can help your cause out quite a bit. Trying it on 3G was a waste of time for me. I wouldn’t recommend it.
Now, once you’ve got the account and are up and running, the nice thing about this (on an iPad at least) is that you’ve got a touch optimized UI to manipulate Windows. As some others have reported, yes, you can even watch FLASH movies running on the VM on your computer while on your iPad. I installed several pieces of software on the VM while controlling it all with my fingers from the iPad. Was it silky smooth? Not exactly. But, if you need to do this kind of work, it is certainly more than adequate. The touch controls are pretty self explanatory and pretty simple actually. When things were moving through the pipes nicely, it was actually a very pleasant experience.
Using the App on the iPhone 4 (it is a universal App) was a different kind of experience for me, and not one that I’d recommend. You can make things happen, but even on the same (and decent bandwidth) connection, things were much slower and I needed to do a lot of pinching and zooming to have any sort of success. I imagine the speed is related to the screen constantly redrawing and this testing was with the settings optimized for performance. Note that the Parallels App once connected knocks you out of Windows 7’s pretty mode into Windows 7 Basic to try and move things along more quickly.
As an interesting side note (there may be a pun there) I fired up OneNote 2010 on the VM from the iPad, pulled out a stylus, and sure enough, you can use the stylus on the iPad to lay down some Digital Ink in OneNote running in the VM. The results are less than satisfactory as you can see from the picture, but you’re dealing with enough limitations that should give anyone pause about trying to do this for anything beyond testing.
There are other Apps for using an iDevice to do this kind of remote work, and it can be argued that the Parallels solution, while clever technologically, is nothing more than a curiosity and another way of doing the same thing for work you might want to do in a virtual machine. I guess it could be argued as to why would you even want to run Windows on the iPad. But for those who might need to get some work done remotely and do so in a VM, Parallels has at least shown that their first effort here is up to the task, and by and large capable of performing the job.
(Note: the first two pictures in the gallery below are from an iPhone 4, the remainder are from an iPad.)