For many generations now, Macs have been more than powerful enough to run Windows effectively in a virtual machine. I bought my first Mac to run Windows, although at the time I used Apple's dual-booting Boot Camp. Then I switched to Parallels Desktop 7 and things got a lot easier.
Now Parallels is better than ever. The latest version, Parallels Desktop 8, lets Microsoft's Windows 8 run side-by-side with OS X 10.8 (Mountain Lion). Let's take a look at this popular virtualization environment and see if it's right for you.
Minimum requirements for Parallels Desktop 8 are the Mac OS X 10.6.8 (Snow Leopard) or later, an Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 4 GB of RAM, and 15 GB of disk space for each virtual machine.
Installing Parallels Desktop 8 is easy enough; it runs like any other Mac installation routine. There are a couple of things you need to be aware of, though.
The software does not technically upgrade. Software upgrades usually copy new, updated components on top of existing, installed components. If you are upgrading from any other version of Parallels Desktop for Mac, the installation routine for Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac removes any previously installed version, registered or not. It should retain all of your configuration and VM preferences and the VMs themselves once the installation of the new version is completed.
Installing the Parallels Tools update is tricky. After the software is installed and you run a VM for the first time under Parallels Desktop 8, it wants to install an updated version of Parallels Tools. Parallels Tools lets you share your Mac's hardware such as USB ports, wired and wireless network adapters, and sound card with Windows. The utilities also map specific Windows libraries and drives with your Mac equivalents.
Parallels also enables Coherence Mode, which is what lets you run Windows apps side-by-side with Mac apps. You can share the clipboard between OS X and Windows and the Mac keyboard shortcuts will work in either OS. Although you could do all of these things in Parallels Desktop 7, it feels really solid and more natural in Parallels Desktop 8.
Now for the tricky part. Installing the utilities sends an "unmounts" notification to the Notification Center in Mountain Lion indicating that your VM's C drive has been unmounted. It seems it doesn't actually unmount, as Windows and the install routine continue to run. It also finds "new" hardware components and installs some drivers that appear to interrupt the installation of Parallels Tools. Then it tells you to restart Windows.
Whatever you do, don't restart Windows.
Here's what you do instead. When presented with Restart Now and Restart Later buttons, click Restart Later. The installation of Parallels Tools is still running, despite the fact that the installation dialog and progress bar have disappeared. If you wait a few minutes, it will reappear, and continue where it left off.
What has happened is that the Windows video drivers are busy updating, and the screen flashes while all of this is going on. You are led to believe that you need to restart, but you don't have to. If you do restart, you'll run into some very serious problems.
If you interrupt the Parallels Tools installation by clicking Restart Now, you'll completely bork the installation of the utilities. Parallels does provide a menu option to reinstall Parallels Utilities and even includes instructions to manually kick it off, should it not restart automatically when you restart the VM. However, neither the menu option nor the manual instructions for getting Parallels Tools to install work. If the installation of the utilities gets interrupted, you'll have to restore your VM file from a backup taken prior to the installation of Parallels Desktop 8 in order to get the environment to kick off the installation of the utilities.
So this time, when the new device drivers are installed while Parallels Tools installs comes up, click Restart Later.
This whole fiasco with Parallels Tools was annoying and it's not the first time I've bumped into the problem, either. Installing Parallels Tools is supposed to be easy--you click a couple of menu options in the Parallels Desktop Menu (when not in Coherence Mode) and the installation is supposed to start.
It's never worked for me. The process is supposed to insert a Parallels Tools Install ISO into a virtual CD drive and then mount the CD drive and kick off the installation. Instead, the process inserts the ISO into the virtual drive, but never mounts the image, so the installation never happens.
I'm not certain if this is because my VM is a Parallels Desktop 7 for Mac carry-over or because of some other issue, but it happened to me in Parallels Desktop 7 too. Thankfully, a Time Machine backup of my VM resolved the issue.
Whatever is behind the problems I had, they might not affect you, or by the time you read this, Parallels might have fixed them. But be alert.
Setting Up A New VM
Using the Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac Wizard to set up a new VM is fairly simple. When you start Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac and choose File-New from the menu bar, the New Virtual Machine Wizard starts, as it did in Desktop 7. By selecting New, you have official support for Windows 8.