In 2005, Steve Jobs made a jaw-dropping announcement: that after 21 years of putting chips made by IBM or Motorola into Mac computers, Apple would switch to Intel processors.
The switchover made the Mac, in essence, a different computer. All Mac programs would had to be rewritten (or they would have to run in a special, awkward “Classic” window). The Mac operating system, OS X, would have to be rewritten, too. In fact, Apple had rewritten it, in secret.
But among techies, there was a gleeful realization: “Hey,” they said, “if a Mac has an Intel chip inside, we could hack it to run Windows!”
And who would want to do that? Really, four categories of people:
1. Fans of programs like Quicken, QuickBooks, and Microsoft Office, which are far more polished and rich in their Windows versions.
2. People who use programs that don’t exist at all in Mac versions, like Internet Explorer, AutoCAD, SAP (corporate resource planning), Epic (medical records), and custom corporate apps.
3. People who write webpages and software, so they can test their work in several operating systems on a single laptop.
4. People switching from Windows to Mac who want a safety net — the ability to hop back into Windows when necessary.
So sure enough: For about a month, instructions for installing Windows onto a Mac circulated online like a secret recipe. Then Apple introduced Boot Camp: an authorized way to install Windows on a Mac. Unfortunately, Boot Camp lets you run either Windows or Mac OS X, not both at the same time — and you have to restart the computer to go back and forth.
There was soon yet another option: virtualization programs, like Parallels Desktop or VMWare Fusion. These programs let you run Windows in a window, floating there on your Mac screen. You can run both operating systems simultaneously, and even copy and paste between them. Insane!
Incidentally, these programs don’t just let you run Windows on your Mac. They create “virtual machines” (software versions of entire computers) — and all operating systems are welcome. So you can have Windows 8.1, Windows 7, Linux, Google Chrome OS, and even another copy of Mac OS X, all in separate windows — all on top of OS X Mavericks (or whatever your Mac usually uses).
This week, Parallels Desktop 10 for Mac arrived ($80, or $50 to upgrade); it has come a long, long way. Not a long way since version 9 — the improvements, though welcome, aren’t brain-fryingly significant — but version 10 is infinitely easier to set up and use than the Parallels of old.
The biggest change is the look: Parallels has been remade to fit in well with OS X Yosemite, the Mac operating system version coming out this fall. Which itself looks like the latest iPhone operating system. Icons and graphics look “flat” and untextured.
Bring your own
Parallels and Fusion don’t include a copy of Windows, Linux, or OS X; you have to supply that yourself. But Parallels 10 makes it easier to get started.
As before, you can connect to an actual Windows PC and slurp in its copy of Windows. But you can now double-click an .ISO file (a disk image) of Windows to create your simulated PC. You can also, from within the setup screen, download a 90-day free trial of Windows, which is handy.
If your goal is to set up another Mac in a window, you can install OS X from the copy that’s nestled at this moment on every Mac’s secret recovery partition — a handy trick that spares you from having to download a 4-gigabyte file from Apple’s App Store.
Once you’re into your “Windows PC,” you discover that things like your time, date format, language, and other regional settings have been thoughtfully passed along to Windows.
If you’re using Parallels at all, then presumably you’re a Mac fan. On that premise, Parallels Inc. has designed version 10 to simulate and integrate with the Mac even more than ever.
Your various simulated computers, Mac, Windows, and others, show up as icons wherever fine Mac programs’ icons appear, like the Dock and the App Switcher — and so do the open apps in those virtual machines.
Windows apps show up in your Mac’s Launchpad, too.
The little red “unread mail” counter, usually seen only on Mac email programs’ icons, now appears on the icon of Outlook (for Windows).
And when you’re using a Windows program, you can even access the Mac’s Share menu, for easy sending of text or graphics by email, text message, AirDrop (wireless Mac-to-Mac sharing), and so on.
Online drives that you’ve signed up for using your Mac — Dropbox, Google Drive, and, soon, Apple’s own iCloud Drive — magically show up when you’re saving a file from within a Windows program, too.
If you upgrade your Mac to Yosemite this fall, you’ll find that Parallels has been waiting for the chance to participate. For example, you can right-click a phone number in Internet Explorer to place a call on your iPhone. And you’ll be able to add a Parallels panel to Yosemite’s new, expandable Notification panel.
These are all just grace notes, of course — nips and tucks that, alone, might not merit the $50 upgrade from version 9. But there’s another category of improvement to consider: speed.
It’s always been astonishing that it’s faster to start up a Parallels PC than a real one. On my MacBook Air, I’m up and running in Windows six seconds after I double-click the Parallels icon.
In Parallels 10, you can specify what you’re using Windows for — Productivity apps, Games, Design, or Software Development — and the program automatically adjusts its settings for maximum speed.
The company says Microsoft Office documents open in half the time now, that Parallels hits your laptop battery 30 percent less, and that each of your simulated computers eats up 10 percent less memory. All of that is hard to measure, but overall Parallels certainly feels snappy, especially once it’s running. However, if it’s a 3D Windows game you want to play, you’ll get a few more miles per hour restarting your Mac into Boot Camp.
Virtual machines eat up a lot of memory and disk space. If you have a limited-space drive (like the solid-state drives on Mac laptops), that’s a painful sacrifice. At the moment, my Windows 8.1 “PC” eats up 23 gigabytes, and my Yosemite Public Beta “Mac” consumes 20.
In Parallels 10, at least, the program is always on the alert for ways to return unused disk space to your Mac; that space reclamation is automatic, rather than a manual operation you have to remember to do.
The balance sheet
With version 10, Parallels leaps past its archrival, VMWare Fusion 6, especially in Yosemite features.
But Fusion is less expensive ($60 instead of $80), especially if you intend to install it on multiple Macs. You’re allowed to install Fusion on multiple Macs for the same price — but you have to buy another copy of Parallels for each Mac, although additional copies are discounted. (Two copies cost $120, for example.)
There is also, by the way, an Enterprise version of Parallels, with bulk discounts and a million special features for system administrators.
The software design of Parallels is terrific, with only one exception: When you click the name of a virtual machine at this screen —
— it should simply pop open. Instead, if you “suspended” (put to sleep) that operating system instead of shutting it down, you get an intermediary window that says “Click to resume.” Seems pretty clear that if you clicked the machine’s name, you intended to resume it.
Otherwise, though, Parallels 10 is smooth, solid, and surprisingly fast. If you can stomach the memory and disk space it eats up, you’ll be impressed at how well it works — and how liberating it can be to have a whole bunch of computers on your Mac.
You can email David Pogue here.