- Not as stable as VMware Fusion
- Potentially confusing integrations between Windows guest and Mac host
The Standard version supports virtual machines with 8GB of RAM and four virtual CPUs; the Pro version upgrades those specs to 128GB of RAM and 32 CPUs. If you’re using graphic- or math-intensive Windows software, you’ll need the Pro version. A Business version, priced identically to the Pro version and with the same support for RAM and CPUs, offers centralized management and a single volume license for multiple machines.
VMware Fusion is pricier than Parallels Desktop. It charges $149 for the standard Player edition and $199 for the Pro version. Upgrades to the latest version of the Player edition for current users cost $79, while upgrades for Pro users to the latest Pro version cost $99. Notably, VMware offers a free version that lets you run existing emulated systems, but not create new ones.
If price is what matters most, you can use the free VirtualBox or UTM solutions, but I think you’re better off spending money for VMware or Parallels rather than struggling with the free apps. Check out our article on how to run Windows apps on your Mac for additional free options.
What Platforms Does Parallels Desktop Support?
On an M1 Mac, Parallels lets you run the freely available and ARM-based developer beta versions of Windows 10 or Windows 11. You can also run ARM-based versions of Linux—Parallels has a menu that lets you download and install ARM-based Debian, Fedora, Kali Linux, or Ubuntu. Those who have installed the Monterey beta (or, presumably, the release version when it arrives this fall), can even run a special version of it virtually. However, at the time of my testing, this special version didn’t support any of the tight host-guest integration features that Parallels offers to those running macOS guest systems on Intel machines.
On a Mac with an Intel CPU, you can create virtual systems that run any Intel-based Windows or Linux versions, plus any recent Intel-based versions of macOS from your recovery partition. On these devices, the download menu includes multiple flavors of Android, Linux, and Windows.
You can also install any supported system from a disk image or DVD, as well as import an existing Windows system over a network after installing Parallels’ transfer software on the original machine. Keep in mind that you need to buy a license for any virtual Windows systems, except those running developer betas.
Unlike with VMware Fusion, you can’t download a version of Parallels Desktop that lets you run emulated systems on Windows or Linux platforms. That means, with Parallels, you are restricted to running your virtual machines on a Mac. VMware doesn’t yet officially support Apple Silicon devices, but it recently announced a private tech preview of an M1-compatible version and an upcoming public preview.
For gaming and graphics-intensive apps, Parallels Desktop, like VMware Fusion, supports DirectX 11 graphics, but not DirectX 12. VirtualBox works with up to DirectX 9. The only way to get DirectX 12 graphics on a Mac is to install Windows via a Boot Camp partition on an Intel-based Mac. Unless you’re a serious Windows gamer or run high-powered Windows scientific and graphic apps, DirectX 11 support is likely sufficient.
Recent versions of macOS won’t let you run older 32-bit apps, but Parallels, like VMware Fusion, lets you run older macOS versions (Mojave and earlier) that support these apps on virtual machines. Our story on how to run 32-bit apps in macOS Catalina has all the details.
Getting Started With Parallels Desktop
When you install Parallels Desktop, the app walks you through the process of setting up the permissions it needs instead of sending you to your Mac’s System Preferences to sort them out on your own. I wish more vendors took the trouble to make this process as smooth as Parallels does.
If you’re installing Parallels on an M1-based Mac, you first need to follow the app’s instructions for downloading the preview version of Windows 10 for ARM machines. Next, you encounter the Create New menu that lets you configure a Windows system from the disk image you downloaded in the previous step or download a few prebuilt Linux systems. As with VMware Fusion and VirtualBox, Parallels lists all your virtual systems in a single window, which it calls the Control Center.
The easiest way to install the ARM-based preview version of Windows 10 is from a disk image. If you aren’t already a member of Microsoft’s Insider Preview program, follow the instructions that Parallels provides and then drag the disk image you download from Microsoft into Parallels’ window. Parallels then gives you a choice of configuring your system for productivity or only full-screen games. In testing, Parallels created and started the Windows guest system in less than a minute. Windows then installed itself in less than five minutes—not much slower than the process would take on real hardware.
Host and Guest Integrations
Like VMware Fusion and VirtualBox, Parallels offers tight integrations between the macOS host and the virtual guest systems that it manages. For instance, you can drag and drop files between your Mac host and your Windows or Linux host, and, for Intel Macs only, your macOS guest system. You can also share the clipboard between the two operating systems, and, optionally, launch applications on your Windows system to open files on your host Mac and vice versa.
By default, when Windows starts up under Parallels, the folders on your Mac’s desktop also appear on your Windows desktop. The same setting is now the default in VMware Fusion. For me, this configuration is a bad idea because I keep some Mac apps on my Mac desktop. Mac apps are technically folders (called application bundles) that the Mac displays as if they were individual files.
Windows can’t handle application bundles correctly and simply displays them as folders on your desktop. You can easily mess up your Mac apps if you start exploring these folders on your Windows machine. I always turn off the option to share the desktop between my Mac and any guest system. Even if you do, however, Parallels still has a convenient Mac Files shortcut on the Windows desktop that lets you access any of your Mac folders on your virtual Windows system.
Run Windows in three ways
Parallels, like VMware Fusion and VirtualBox, lets you run Windows in three ways: with the Windows desktop running in a window on your macOS desktop, in a full-screen mode, or via what Parallels calls Coherence mode. In Coherence mode, Parallels shows only a single Windows app on your Mac desktop in its own window and hides the rest of the Windows desktop. As I discuss in a later section, Parallels Desktop switches in and out of these modes quickly and seamlessly.
Other aspects of day-to-day computing work as expected. For example, the same printers installed on your Mac appear in the print dialog in your Windows apps. When you attach a USB peripheral, a clear menu pops up to let you choose whether the device will be accessible in your Windows or Mac systems. You can send Windows-only keystrokes like Break or PrintScreen via a menu on your Mac. All these features are also available in VMware Fusion (for Intel Macs only at the moment), but Parallels does a better job of implementing them, with more lucid dialogs and better-organized menus.
Additional Features and Customizations
One major advantage of Parallels Desktop for Pro subscribers is the ability to start a virtual machine in Rollback mode. In this mode, you can run a guest Windows, Mac, or Linux system like a kiosk. In other words, every time you reboot the machine, it returns to its original state. This is a useful capability for those who like to experiment with software without making any permanent changes to the system. All the other emulation apps support snapshots that let you preserve the current state of a guest system, but Parallels is the only one with this invaluable kiosk-style mode.