Run Any Mac or PC App Remotely on Your iPad with Parallels Access

| In-Depth Review

Parallels, famous for its virtualization software, has launched a new product for the iPad called Parallels Access. It allows you to remotely operate and fully control any OS X or Windows app residing on your computer right from your iPad. It does this by translating traditional mouse controls into familiar iPad gestures. You can even run Windows apps, like MS Word, that reside on your Mac in a virtual machine file.

The Concept

The iPad has, by virtue of its OS, limitations on the kinds of apps that can run compared to, say, the Mac. While the Mac and PCs have full featured control, mice, and apps that can access the entire machine, the iPad has been more modest in its capabilities. That's why we have traditionally thought of the iPad as a content consumption device, even though some apps push that limit into the realm of content creation.

That has meant that iPad users on the move have had to live with limits on what kind of work they can do, but wouldn't it be nice if one could connect to a Mac or a PC and actually operate a powerful app remotely? Of course, the problem is that the app on the Mac or PC demands a mouse and mouse-like actions.

All your favorite Mac apps available on the iPad.

Parallels has solved that problem and has figured out a way to operate any native app on a Mac or PC from an iPad by translating mouse actions into iPad gesture. That includes the Mac's Finder. And they've done it so that there are no limitations or awkward half-measures. Amazingly, you can even operate Windows apps like PowerPoint, Word and Excel that reside in your Parallels virtual machine (VM) file (for Windows) on your Mac. Or you can operate sophisticated, native Mac apps like Photoshop, Xcode or Illustrator. These apps are instantly accessible on the iPad side. Just tap to launch.

Registration and Setup

There are two components to this system. There is an iPad app, the App Launcher, that manages the network access to the Mac as well as the various apps that have been launched. (For simplicity, I'll drop the dual references from now on to PCs.)

There is also a companion app, Parallels Access.app, that runs on the Mac side. That app must be running and access authorized. There's a clear indicator, faux-LED, light in the app that glows green when access is permitted as well as an indicator in the Menu Bar. Note, this Mac app is a Menu Bar app, so you'll use the drop down menu to quit, shown below.

You'll have no trouble knowing that access to the Mac has been granted thanks to the indicators.

Interface app on the Mac side. Easy & informative.

Security

Access to the Mac is simplified by having each device log on to the user's Parallels account. Once both devices are registered, they can see each other. The data is transferred using SSL with AES 256-bit encryption. Even though there there is a mutual login for authentication, Parallels has designed the system to that there should be no concern about the privacy of the data.

I asked John Uppendahl, the Parallels Senior Director of Global Communications to explain. "Parallels Access client establishes a direct connection to an agent on Windows or Mac if possible. If each of them is behind a firewall a direct connection might not be possible. It that case they use Parallels Access Cloud Infrastructure as a proxy to deliver the information. The whole traffic is encrypted on the agent and client while the proxy just blindly copies bits from one connection to another. So, effectively no data is known to or reside anywhere on our servers in the Parallels Access Cloud."

For high speed communications, the following ports are used.

443     TCP
19302   UDP
19294   TCP+UDP
19295   TCP+UDP

For additional security and verification, "...whenever a new user, new computer, or new iPad is registered with Parallels Access, a confirmation letter is sent to the account owner."

In addition, you can opt to lock out the display of the Mac so that while accessing remotely, no one can monitor your activity on the Mac's display.  Also, Parallels Access can be configured to always require a login. (See below.)

Most Parallels Desktop customers will already have a Parallels account, but ownership of Parallels Desktop is not required, and one can create an account independently of that. The installation process assists with setting up an account.

Because I roam widely on the Internet, I am particularly sensitive to security issues and usually find some fault with apps that haven't thought through all the issues. My observation here is that Parallels has done a masterful job of attending to the security aspects of this app. Without it, of course, the whole package would be called into question and would fail in the market. It appears to me that every concern has been carefully addressed.

How Parallels Access Works

Parallels has paid a lot of attention to translating mouse actions into iPad gestures. When you first launch the iPad app, a quick tutorial takes you through four pages of mapping hints, shown below. While anything you can do with a mouse has been mapped, and that can entail some memorization and practice, to first order, the kinds of things you'd normally do are intuitively mapped. As a result, it's amazingly easy to get started and expand your repertoire as you go. 

On the iPad side, the App Launcher displays all the apps that are, by default, available to you. It's easy to add or delete favorite apps with the edit button on the upper right. (You can only use the iPad app in landscape mode; that makes sense.)

On a Mac, Windows apps that happen to reside in a VM are marked with the two red, vertical parallel bars. The Parallels technology, Coherence, that allows those Windows apps to be placed in the Mac's dock and made available is used here. However, Parallels Desktop must be running and the Windows (7 or later) VM already launched. If not, you'll have to wait over on the iPad side for the process to complete, and that can take awhile depending on the speed of your Mac.

View of apps on a PC from Parellels Access

Note that if you only want to run native apps on a Mac or PC, there is no need for Parallels Desktop. If you, for example, do use it to run Windows apps on your Mac, you'll need at least Parallels 8.

The iPad's App Switcher allows you to switch between running apps. That's necessary because the iPad's display is smaller than most Mac displays, and so every app must run full screen on the iPad. An iPad 3 or later with a Retina display would be a good idea.

App Switcher is trivial to use.

There's a lot to cover when it comes to the manipulation of a complex app like MS Word. For example, Smart Tap uses a proximity technology to disambiguate which of the app's function buttons you tapped on the iPad side. The magnifying glass you see is actually an artificially created instrument that connects the two devices so that you can, say, select text. (You'll realize that when you see the subtle, blue ring finish circling the magnifying glass.)

The upshot is that you'll see a familiar environment when you cut and paste, edit, save, etc. text in an editor.

MS Word editing.

User Interface & Performance

I can try to describe a lot of these features, but what you probably want to know is, how does it work? What were my experiences? How fast is it?

First of all the setup and registration process are exemplary. Parallels has made this part intuitive and hassle-free with great graphics, visual cues, step-by-step tutorials and supporting documents and an introductory video.

Next, once connected, I observed my iMac's display while I was scrolling through a Firefox page on the iPad, and it seemed instantaneous as I swiped on the iPad. (Full Disclosure: I have a particularly fast Comcast connection, greater than 40 Mbps.)

However, one of the things that Parallels pointed out is that this technology has been optimized to work over slower, cellular (3G) connections. That's in recognition that you may not have a Wi-Fi connection handy and are using the cellular data capability of an iPad. I tried that mode by turning off Wi-Fi on my iPad 3 and turning on cellular data, but my Verizon connection where I live is too poor, one bar, to test that mode.

In the process, I discovered that there is no on-screen way to cancel a poor cellular data connection attempt from the iPad. Just quit the app. But then, when I turned on Wi-Fi again, the connection was established, and that interrupted my work on the iMac without notice. In time, I was told, this will get some attention from Parallels.

As noted above, if you want to run Windows apps via Coherence, its probably a good idea to have Parallels Desktop and Windows already running. Otherwise, you'll wait for a bit for those items to launch.

Firefox in Windows 7 in Parallels 8 on iMac viewed from iPad & Parallels Access.
Got that?

Documentation

The Mac side interface app is really easy to use and has familiar preferences.  After you set that up, it's either on or off.  The iPad app has a lot of on-screen hints and prompts. And as I mentioned above, there's a good introductory video.  My feeling is that if this system had needed a formal manual, it would have been a product design failure.  I don't think many will have trouble learning to use this duo after viewing the video.

There is a very visible letter icon at the top of the iPad app that triggers an email so that you can send feedback to the developers.  A log file is automatically included as an attachment for debugging. I liked that a lot.  Some developers, it seems, want to hide from you.

System Requirements

  • iPad 2 or greater. Not compatible with any iPhone.
  • iPad: iOS 6 or later.
  • On PC, Windows 7 or 8.x.
  • On Mac, Mac OS X 10.7 "Lion" or later, including 10.9 "Mavericks."
  • Optionally: running Windows apps on the Mac via Parallels Desktop requires Parallels Desktop 8.

At introduction, the English and German languages are supported. That will be followed later by French, Italian, Japanese and Chinese (Traditional and Simplified).

Pricing

First, there is a 14-day free trial. Next, while the apps are free, the operation of the app duo is priced as a service. An annual subscription is priced at US$79.99, and that makes good sense for a service like this.

Because of all the different PC hardware configurations, Parallels says that "Parallels Access for the Windows PC platform will launch as free beta, then become a subscription service with free trial."

Final Words

My feeling is that many mobile customers on the move with their iPads will find this pair of apps the perfect duo to help them get some serious content creation done. Plus, if the output file format is compatible with an iPad app, the resulting product, created on the Mac, could actually be moved to Dropbox and then imported as native data residing on the iPad.

We've entered a new era of mobile content creation on the iPad with magical help from Parallels. I can think of one spectacular usage example, amongst many. Business people on commercial flights with Wi-Fi support for their iPads will be immensely pleased.

More time and more use will be required to wring out Parallels Access 1.0. For now, it earns a first-blush "Great" rating.

Product: Parallels Access

Company: Parallels

List Price: US$79.99 (annual subscription)

Pros:

Easy to installon both Mac (or PC) and iPad.  Serious, thorough attention to security and privacy of data. Full support for the operation of any Mac or PC app. Optimized for lower speed 3G connections. Good video introduction. 14-day free trial.

Cons:

None noted.

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Comments

SkeeterHarris

A great article you can see my video review here - http://youtu.be/G4xFG5Xfzzg

iJack

I saved this article to my Pocket app. Very, very interesting.

And Skeeter, thanks for the video. There is nothing like actually seeing it in action.

qb

Okay - this was sounding nice until the $80 per year service plan. While Parallels Access might be a bit slicker of an interface I don’t see where it beats the VALUE of something like Remotix (which I’ve used for a year) or Connect My Mac or PocketCloud. I know Remotix has no annual fee, was super easy to setup and fast to connect/use.

I am not in any way related to the vendors of any mentioned software.

Aftermac

I agree, this sounded pretty slick until I saw that it was an $80 yearly subscription. I’d be willing to buy an app (maybe for $20-$30), but I don’t want to rely on a service or have a yearly fee hanging over my head.

Rick Allen

I have Jump Desktop App, and as a complete Remote Desktop client it does all of this for a one time App purchase price.  Working in a Windows environment at work has made Jump Desktop app a must.

Gridmaster

Would not be surprised if this feature becomes standard on tablets, cf. the way ‘terminals’/simple desktops work on local networks with programmes and files on the server - fast Wifi will would make options possible.
Just standard ‘remote desktop client’ app in iOS as in OSX, with the paid pro-version ‘Apple Remote Desktop’, or even simply ‘screensharing’ on/with iOs.
Did not know about Jump Desktop App - see previous post.

FlipFriddle

Must try this with Aperture when I get home…

mvallance

Will this work with Second Life; that is, can I control my avatar and have my avatar click virtual objects on my iMac from my iPad ?

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