Using Vista and Linux on a Mac

Friday Nov 10th 2006 by John Welch
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The Parallels app allows Mac users to use other OSes on their machines, from Vista to Linux.

For the past few weeks, I've been working with Parallels Desktop for Mac OS X on my MacBook Pro, and I have to say, I'm impressed.

First, note that I said "working with" instead of my usual verb for testing software, "playing with." That's a deliberate choice, because I've been getting work done with Parallels from the start. Currently, I have two Virtual Machines for Windows, one running XP SP2, and the other running Vista RC 2. I'm in the process of creating a Linux VM running Ubuntu as I write this.

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While I did set up my MacBook for Boot Camp, and installed Vista on that partition as well, I've not had to reboot into that partition in weeks. Parallels has been useful enough to me that I haven't felt a reason to reboot just to test out Vista functionality, or things like IE 7 under Windows XP.

It's been as convenient as I'd hoped it would be, and with a couple of exceptions (like drag and drop of files to and from the VM and some other minor things), it's as nice to use as Virtual PC Mac ever was, and obviously much faster.

Installation is simple. Run the installer, reboot, and go. Creating VMs is pretty brainless. Select the type of VM you're creating, pick where you want the VM to live, choose some basic settings for max VM file size, max RAM usage, and then Parallels is ready to go.

If you want, you can set other parameters, like the source for a floppy drive, which drive or image to use for the CD/DVD drive, your shared folders, (shared folders don't work with Linux VMs, unfortunately) and other settings. Give the VM a name, and the setup is done.

Yes, there are a lot of tweaks you can do for the VMs. I haven't bothered with them, and I've yet to feel a need to bother with them. The default settings are good enough for my needs, and I certainly can find no fault with the simplicity of the setup.

From there, you just install the OS into the image as if it were a standard Intel machine, and you're off and running. One tip: Don't install from actual CD/DVD media. Make an Apple Disk Image, or an ISO image of the install media, and install from that. The speed difference on the install is like night and day, and it keeps your optical drive free. If you end up having to reinstall an OS into a VM, installing from a disk image will keep your sanity about you much better.

Running Parallels

Now, there are a couple of things to keep in mind when running Parallels. First, more is better.

More CPU, more RAM, more hard drive space. I'm running it on a maxed-out MacBook Pro, and I can really tell when Parallels is busy. It eats CPU like kids eat popcorn. Mercilessly. If you have a MacBook Pro, you'll really see it, especially when a VM is first firing up.

RAM is the other resource that Parallels always wants more of. I have my MacBook Pro maxed out at 2GB, and I really wish I could double that or more. To be fair, that's not all Parallels' fault. Rosetta, another necessity on Intel Macs, (at least for the near future) is another memory hog. Try running parts of Microsoft Office, maybe Photoshop and Acrobat, then firing up Parallels. You can get some interesting slowdowns. I'd imagine that the performance is much better on a Mac Pro with say, 4GB of RAM or more, and the dual dual-core Xeons it comes with, but then again, I'd expect it to be.

The Best $80 I’ve Spent

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Parallels is really quite usable on a MacBook Pro. I'd not want to run multiple VMs at once, at least not on a laptop, but it's not like you have to run Parallels by itself. Just be prepared for it to take a sizable bite out of your system resources.

In fact, Parallels runs really well even allowing for the limitations of a laptop, and the speed hit caused by storing all my VMs on an external drive. (If I want to run Boot Camp and multiple VMs, I kind of have to use an external drive. Laptops don't yet have the option of 250/500/750GB internal drives.)

It's perhaps not as fast as Boot Camp, but then again, Parallels doesn't make you reboot, so it's a more than fair tradeoff. It really is an IT person's best friend. Need to test something in a specific operating system? Does the OS run on modern Intel hardware, or something close to it? If the answer's yes, fire up Parallels and go to town. Need to keep two or three versions of the same OS around? Parallels is your friend.

The ease of testing Parallels has already paid off by making it easier for me to spot potential problems with IE 7, Vista, and Office 2007 – tons easier than trying to do it via different partitions on a dedicated system that's not with me all the time.

In short, it's probably the best eighty dollars I've spent since getting my MacBook Pro in August. If you have an Intel Mac, and need to run other OSes, regardless of reason, my advice is: run, don't walk, and get Parallels.

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