Parallels Desktop for Mac 17 is shown running the Windows 11 Preview on an Intel-based, 2020 27-inch … [+]
When Apple revealed that it was going to use its own ARM-based processors in Macs during the 2020 Worldwide Developers Conference virtual keynote, it offered a brief demo of a version of Parallels, the popular virtualization software, running Linux on one of the hardware maker’s then-unreleased systems.
Even without showing what most Parallels devotees longed to see – Windows active on an M1 Mac – it was a glimmer of hope, particularly given that Apple’s new platform wouldn’t support Boot Camp, which allows Windows to run natively.
Fast-forward to April, when Parallels released a preview of its upcoming version, which included support for Windows. Well, actually, make that support for a very early version of Windows 10 specifically designed to work on a computer with an ARM-based processor, like Apple’s. Yes, it was preview software running a preview operating system and it was as limited as it sounds. Sixty-four-bit apps designed to run on Intel-based machines wouldn’t work on this version of Windows, making it much less useful.
But what a difference five months makes. On Tuesday, Corel – the company that now owns the Parallels brand – released a finished version of Parallels Desktop for Mac 17. While users are still stuck with that ARM64-based version of Windows 10 (and soon Windows 11), advances made by both Parallels and Microsoft have made the virtualization software worth owning for M1 Mac owners.
I’ve been testing the software on both Intel and M1 Macs for about a week, and while Parallels 17 is more capable and versatile on the former platform, it is now a viable option for those needing to run Windows 10 on the latter. There are still limitations, but most folks should be able to live with them. Simply put: for Intel-based Macs, it’s a solid, incremental update. For M1-based Macs it’s a breakthrough, although if you need to run older versions of Windows or the macOS on your M1 system, you’re still out of luck.
Parallels 17 comes as a Universal binary. You don’t have worry about which version you download – the installer checks your Mac and installs the right version. Here’s how it works on each Mac platform:
With each annual release, Parallels is touted as being faster than the previous year’s version. That’s true on the Intel side for Parallels 17, though I’d have to say that version 16 was pretty damned zippy.
One of the things many Parallel users do frequently is suspend a virtual machine, rather than shutting it down, when they are no longer using it. This takes the current state of the machine running in the host Mac’s memory and saves it to disk (or an SSD). When they need to work on it again, they just resume it, and the virtual machine wakes up in the same state as before. It works so well, you can even suspend the guest operating system while it’s doing something as critical as applying a software update without doing harm.
On my Intel iMac, Parallels 17 gets very close to instantaneous suspend and resume times, with three seconds to suspend and just two seconds to resume, when Parallels is running. From a cold start, in which the app must launch as well as the virtual machine, it’s about double that to resume, but that’s still pretty impressive. Even Windows 10 and 11 Preview boot times are snappy, certainly faster than booting up a real Windows PC.
The Intel version can run literally dozens of different virtual machines – 10 versions of Windows and Windows Server, as well as Boot Camp; 11 versions of macOS, including the upcoming macOS 12 Montery; and eight distros of Linux officially, though a Parallels spokesperson told me that it will run four more unofficially. It runs the Windows 11 Preview just as well as Windows 10, and those who set up that virtual machine won’t have to worry about the need for a TPM 2.0 chip that was originally part of the requirements. Microsoft has suspended that for now, but Parallels includes a virtual TPM 2.0 chip if necessary.
And while no serious gamer is going to consider using Parallels to run state-of-the-art titles, this version does include an improved graphics driver and better performance for Microsoft’s DirectX. You’re better off with 2D games, and many games that require additional graphics software just won’t run. I tried to get id Software’s “Doom Eternal” to run on both Intel and M1 systems, and it crashed on startup both times.
When the preview version of what became Parallels 17 was released last spring, it brought both promise and frustration. After installing the preview of the ARM64 Windows 10, you could run 32-bit Intel and ARM apps; 64-bit ARM apps; but not 64-bit Intel apps. That made the preview a non-starter for a lot of modern productivity software for Windows, which had long assumed that current PCs used 64-bit processors and the corresponding version of Windows.
The version of Windows for ARM64 available in April was the issue. Its emulator for running Intel-based software wasn’t yet compatible with 64-bit Intel apps, but that’s changed. I don’t have the biggest software library at my disposal, but every 64-bit app I tried performed flawlessly. That’s really a testament to Microsoft having improved its emulation layer, Parallels executives told me.
Parallels 17 makes it drop-dead easy to install the Windows for ARM64 Preview. After you sign up for a Windows Insider account, you’re able to download and set up from within Parallels a functioning virtual machine running the Windows Insider Preview for ARM64. You don’t even have to do a separate installation of Parallel Tools, the drivers that typically are installed on the Intel version to get it running smoothly.
I found Parallels 17 on M1 Macs to be just as fast as on an M1-based MacBook Pro as on the Intel version, with similar suspend and resume times, as well as cold startup times.
But where the M1 flavor of Parallels lags way behind its Intel counterpart is in the number of operating systems that can run on it. It will only run the ARM64 versions of Windows 10 and, when it’s released, Windows 11; it will only run macOS Monterey (not Big Sur); and only four distros of Linux: Ubuntu, Fedora, Debian GNU and Kali.
Parallels claims better gaming performance on supported titles on the M1 release, but I don’t have the library to test it.
One of the best new features for both Intel and M1 installations is the ability to drag and drop selected text or images from the host to the guest computer, and vice versa. In the past, you’ve been able to copy text or images to the clipboard, then paste them into documents between host and guest. But now, the simpler action of dragging and dropping is supported – so long as it’s supported in the app. During this review I learned – after literally decades of using Windows – that the venerable Notepad text app doesn’t support drag-and-drop. Who knew?
Parallels also has simplified the setup process for choosing the amount of memory a virtual machine used, or how many processor cores, it now can adjust those with an Automatic Resource Manager. You can still go in and set these parameters manually, but Parallels handles it smoothly.
There’s also an improved Coherence Mode, in which the Windows desktop vanishes while Windows apps “float” on the Mac desktop alongside Mac apps. In previous versions, Windows took over the desktop while system actions – such as doing Windows updates, shutting down, etc.. – but now it does so in a cleaner, windowed fashion.
Finally, there are updates to the Parallels Toolbox, a collection of applets that don’t necessarily have anything to do with virtualization. It’s also a universal binary, running on either Intel or M1 Macs, and now includes a feature that lets you extract text from an image and then save it as standard text in a document. This is also an upcoming feature of iOS 15, iPadOS 15 and macOS Monterey known as Live Text, but it’s a capability available to Big Sur users with this app.
For users of Intel-based Macs, version 17 is worth it for performance enhancements and the ability to run on macOS Monterey (and the ability to run that OS as a virtual machine). For Parallels users who have bought an M1 system and feel left out to sea, it’s a life raft – and definitely a smaller, less capable vessel than you were used to.
There’s also an alternative on the horizon. Microsoft is starting to sell Windows 365, a cloud-based version of Windows 10 that doesn’t require a full installation on your system. For now it’s only for business and enterprise customers, but it’s bound to be made available to consumers eventually.
Users of previous versions of Parallels can upgrade to 17 for $49. Parallels Desktop 17 Standard Edition is available for $79.99 for an annual subscription, or $99.99 for a perpetual license. The Pro and Business editions are $99.99 per year.
I write about personal technology, and have for more than 30 years. I have a newsletter – Release Notes – with a focus on Apple products, home and mobile connectivity,
I write about personal technology, and have for more than 30 years. I have a newsletter – Release Notes – with a focus on Apple products, home and mobile connectivity, cord-cutting, smartphones, tablets and wearables. I previously covered tech for the Houston Chronicle.