First Look Review - Life With Microsoft Vista in Parallels Desktop 4

by , 3:45 PM EST, November 18th, 2008

Recently, Parallels released Desktop 4, the latest version of their virtualization software for Macs. TMO installed Microsoft's Vista (SP1) and started living in it to get a feel for life with Vista in this first look review.

There are many steps required to get up an running with Vista within Desktop 4 and then within Vista itself. It's not a complicated affair, but it does require some time and patience.

Vista Home Premium

The combo was reviewed on a unibody MacBook Pro (2.4 GHz) with 4 GB of RAM. That 4 GB turned out to be especially handy because the review process went on concurrently with normal editing and software tools loaded, such as Vienna (RSS), OmniWeb, Path Finder, BBEdit and many other applications used for daily article creation. The baseline system easily expands beyond 2 GB, and Vista, unlike Windows XP which can live in 512 MB, really needs a gigabyte of RAM in which to breathe easily, and that's the Desktop 4 default RAM allocation.

Step 1 - Installation of Desktop and Vista

Upgrading to Desktop 4 is an easy process. However, because Parallels has changed the file format for virtual machines, Desktop 3 and Desktop 4 cannot coexist on the same computer. The Desktop 4 installer recognizes that and presents an option to archive the old VMs in case you'd like to move Desktop 3 and its old-format VMs to another Intel Mac.

Parallels Desktop 4

Once the installer upgrades to Desktop 4 and updates the VM file formats, all that's required is to launch it. In Desktop 4, there is a handy splash screen that presents some typical options and helps the user focus on the possible tasks.

Desktop 4 Splash Screen

One of the strengths of Desktop 4 is the ease with which it handles the installation of Windows. Basically, after selecting the Windows install option and inserting the installer DVD, Desktop 4 figures out what to do next, figures out which version of Windows is on the DVD, sets the proper default values for disk space, RAM, video RAM, network, and installs Windows. When it's done, Windows, in this case, Vista launches, and one is ready to check for updates.

OS Detection

Here was my time line for the Vista install.

Vista Install

The very next thing to to, highly recommended, is to use the Desktop 4 snapshot feature (Virtual Machine -> Take Snapshot) to preserve this initial install in case something goes wrong later. The snapshot didn't take long, perhaps 2 minutes to complete.

Step 2 - Configuring Vista

Like Mac OS X, Vista installs assuming that the human is the Administrator. The very welcome Vista Welcome Center (found under the Start button) helps the new user get a handle on the customization tasks. For starters, most people would want to change the desktop, set a password for the administrator, and create a new, unprivileged user, and that's what I did.

After that, I tested Internet Explorer 7. Like a good citizen, it asks if you want to make it the default browser. I said no, and went to to download Firefox. That installation was painless, and a shortcut to Firefox 3.0.4 was placed on my Vista Desktop. I was pleased with how the two work together and Vista allows the user to easily set a default preference. [Of course, most people are familiar with the history of why Microsoft is so amicable in this regard.]

I have a 23-inch Apple Cinema Display attached to the MBP. One of the things that I noticed was that Vista is able to run in its own Leopard "space," full screen, without a problem. There was plenty of room to go wrong here, and I'm happy to report that nothing did. (Exit full screen mode with OPT + RETURN.)

Vista Desktop with Desktop 4 Controls at Top

Step 3 - Starting Life

Step 3? There is no step 3, as Jeff Goldblum would say. I decided that a good initial test would be to combine the installation of some software, Internet access, and a stress test of video streaming, all within the virtualization. So I decided to use the Netflix "Watch Instantly" feature -- which would entail downloading and installing Microsoft's Silverlight.

Here is where I started to notice that things didn't quite go as fast as on the Native Mac OS X. During the download of Silverlight and the install, sometimes new windows would overwrite old windows, and there would be some temporary cosmetic problems. However, it wasn't as annoying as it could have been. Perhaps the 2.53 GHz MBP with larger cache would have done better -- or maybe it's a graphics issue. Desktop 4 allocated 128 MB of VRAM to Vista, and Direct9 X is supported. In any case, I didn't find it the slight slowdown objectionable, and everything cleared up quickly.

Ready for Silverlight Install

When the Internet plug-in was installed, Netflix recognized its availability without the need to refresh the screen, my movie started buffering, and I was watching 2010: The Year We Make Contact, with Roy Scheider, the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey without any stutters or hiccups.

Watching a streamed movie

My First Date

Vista put on its makeup and presented itself beautifully on this first blush review (date) of life inside Desktop 4. While I didn't have a single problem, that's to be expected. It's only when an OS is hard pressed in corporate use, folded, spindled, and mutilated (or even just rudely poked) that an OS starts to show its warts. Mac OS X has been known to do that too, even as we all admit, including the distinguished Walt Mossberg, that Mac OS X is a superior OS overall. In any case, it's not my intention to ignore the case history of all OS problems, rather, to provide an initial glimpse for those who'd like to start down this particular road.

Accordingly, I didn't, in this first look review, try to install print drivers, access peripherals, and so on. That's another article.

However, for those who believe that the mere act of installing, touching, and configuring Vista will somehow become an unholy, wretched ordeal, that's just not true. If there's an executive summary to be had here, it's that one who is not a Windows expert can install Vista, make good use of it, and make it part of one's arsenal of software tools, all within virtualization with Parallels Desktop 4, without a lot of grief.

That's good news for Parallels and Microsoft and all Macintosh customers who want to go down that road and use these valuable tools.

Windows Home Premium requires a 1 GHz 32-bit CPU, 1 GB of system RAM and 15 GB of available disk space. Direct9 X support requires 128 MB of VRAM and Pixel Shader 2.0. It is priced at US$259.95.

Parallels Desktop 4 requires an Intel Mac running at 1.66 GHz or faster and 1 GB of RAM. 2 GB of RAM is recommended. A Core 2 Duo or better processor is required to run 64-bit OSes. Each VM requires about 15 GB of disk space. Mac OS X 10.4.11 or later is required. It is priced at US$79.99.


Note: for those who are just a little mystified by the Vista packaging, one needs to peel off the round sticker on the top of the box, and then pull out at the top. (There may be a red plastic tab.) The plastic box is hinged on the bottom.