Saturday, June 17, 2006

This is an early review of the Parallels Desktop for Mac, a virtual machine package (similar to Xen or VMware) that lets you run "guest" operating systems such as Microsoft Windows or Linux on your Intel-based Mac. Unlike older Windows-on-Mac emulation software, such as VirtualPC, the Parallels package runs at nearly full speed. Unlike Apple's own Bootcamp software, Parallels lets you start a guest operating system without rebooting. You can even have more than one virtual machine running at the same time, if you have lots of RAM.

System and software tested

Installing Windows on Parallels

First, download the Parallels software and register for a 15 day trial key. The software uses the standard Mac OS X install process, no Windows weirdness is involved just yet.

Once you get the software installed and started up, your first task is to create a new virtual machine. Choose file, then new VM. You should see this screen (click thumbnails for larger sizes)

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Although there are tons of geek-friendly settings to tweak on the custom configuration screen, I chose the typical VM option for now. Playtime comes after I'm sure everything works (besides, it's not a good idea to use up all the fun in one day).

Next, you'll get a choice of guest OS type among Windows, Linux, FreeBSD, OS/2, Solaris, or even MS-DOS. I'm installing Windows here, so I chose that.

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Now you have to choose a flavor. Your options here are Windows 3.11, 95, 98, ME, NT, 2000, XP, 2003 or "other Windows", whatever that is. Good gravy! I know I'll rest easier at night knowing that it's possible to boot Windows 3.11 on my brand-new Macbook. :-)

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After a couple more questions (e.g., asking you where on the hard drive you want to store your virtual machine image) your shiny new VM will be ready. Here's what it looks like:

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Click the green start button, and you'll be ready to enter the Wonderful World of Windows. It is a strange, ugly, silly, and slightly dangerous world, but not without its uses.

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This cheerful black screen is telling us that Windows can't boot. Not surprising, since we haven't installed it yet. :-) Put the Windows install disk in the Macbook's drive, click on the Parallels window to activate it, take a deep breath, and hit enter.

(this is a good place to mention that clicking on the client area of a running VM causes the keyboard and mouse to be "captured" by the VM. Keystrokes and mouse movements will be sent to the VM from that point on. To escape and return the keyboard and mouse to the host Mac, press the control and alt keys at the same time).

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I'll bet you never thought you'd see one of those on your Mac, huh? Not to worry, it's normal at this stage. Let's just hope we don't see the Color of Death too often after we get Windows installed.

From here on, it's mostly a matter of following the prompts and waiting. Lots of waiting....

If all goes well, you should eventually see this:

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Followed by this:

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Hooray! Or something.

Note that the OS X dock is visible at the bottom of the screen, and the Mac menu bar at the top. That's 'cause I was using Grab on the Mac to take these screenshots. You can enter full-screen mode (thus hiding all the Mac stuff) by pressing the ALT and ENTER keys at the same time, while the VM has control of the keyboard. The same key combo is used to exit full-screen mode and return the VM to running inside a smaller window. Note that as far as Windows is concerned, it knows nothing about the Mac "matrix" that it's running inside. Say it with me... "There is no spoon. There is no spoon."

I was quite impressed to learn that when I had an external monitor connected to my MacBook, entering full-screen took over only the screen that the VM was on, while leaving the other one as a Mac screen. Best of both worlds, IMHO.

I took the screenshot above after I'd installed some of the software discussed below (primarily because I forgot to take it before :-). However, your first and most important mission at this point is to run Windows Update. Don't install any other software, and especially don't browse the web with Internet Explorer before you do this. You can find Windows Update in the Start Menu. Microsoft will probably make you go through an intrusive registration process before the update will run properly, but you absolutely must update your system or it'll be hacked, cracked, virus-infected, 0\/\/n3d, and botted before you know what happened. I recommend that you set Windows Update to run automatically, so you don't forget. Run Windows Update repeatedly, until it tells you there are no more "critical updates" to install (Windows is famous for making your reboot and update several times before everything gets properly installed).

Next, you should install anti-virus software:

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and anti-spyware software:

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These are sad facts of life in the Windows world. Install them now, or pay the price later. :-)

The next thing I did was install Firefox, removing the temptation to check out "just one thing" using Internet Explorer. I recommend that you install Firefox and set it to be your default browser (it will ask if you want to do this the first time it starts). Internet Explorer will still be there if you really need it, but I hope you won't.

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Here we see Microsoft Word running inside Parallels. It works fine!

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Next, I wanted to see how good Parallels was at talking to hardware other than the mouse, keyboard, and screen. I installed Audacity (Free Software for editing audio files), plugged in a mic, and captured some of my babbling. It works great. This is pretty amusing, since the genuine OS X version of Audacity doesn't seem to work well on Intel Macs just yet. :-)

And finally, for a real workout of the peripherals I installed a trial version of Adobe/Macromedia Captivate. This software captures your screen, mouse motion/clicks, audio, and other things and will export them as a Flash movie (it's used to produce software training "films" and other educational content). It worked like a charm. Even toggling to the Mac then back into Windows while Captivate was capturing didn't appear to faze it (unfortunately the resultant movie is too large to link here).

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Finally, I went to the Start Menu and shut down Windows. All seems to be well, or as good as Windows gets, anyway. :--)

Next post: installing Ubuntu Linux, and the death-defying feat of having all three operating systems running at the same time.