Software

New software lets Intel Macs run Windows sans rebooting

Dual-booting isn’t your only solution to run Windows on a Mac. On Thursday, Parallels announced the public beta release of Parallels Workstation for Intel Macs, their virtual machine technology. It’s available for free download now.

Already established on PCs, Parallels Workstation now lets Intel-based Mac users run multiple operating systems side-by-side, operating as “virtual machines” that function inside a window on the Mac OS X desktop. Each virtual machine runs as a standalone system, and can support almost any X86-based operating system, including flavors of Unix, Linux and Microsoft Windows.

On Wednesday, Apple released a public beta of its own, called Boot Camp — software that enable Intel-based Macs to run in a dual-boot configuration, operating either Mac OS X or Windows XP separately.

It’s Parallels Workstation’s ability to “virtualize” machine operations and run in a window that makes it fundamentally different — and therefore more appealing to certain users — than Apple’s offering, said Parallels Marketing Manager Benjamin Rudolph. Rudolph likened dual booting to hampering a Ferrari sports car with lower performance parts.

“Why would you want to turn your Mac into a PC, essentially, when you can get the same functionality while still running Mac OS X?” Rudolph asked. “Parallels Workstation enables you to continue to operate the software you need without disrupting your workflow.”

Rudolph calls virtualization systems like Parallels Workstation the “Holy Grail” of Mac users who need to run Windows or other operating systems but don’t want to be encumbered with having to reboot to do so, or keeping a separate computer on their desk.

Parallels plans a GA, or General Availability, release in the next several weeks. In the interim, they’re publicly beta testing Parallels Workstation 2.1 for the Macintosh and offering it as a free download. Once the software is released it’ll cost $49 to register. The cost of X86-based operating system software is separate.

Leverages Intel technology

Rudolph told Macworld that Parallels Workstation depends on Intel’s “Virtualization Technology” — a feature built into the new Core Duo chipset used by Apple’s current Intel-based offerings — in order to function. This technology is different from Rosetta, the Transitive-based technology that allows Intel-based Macs to run many software applications tooled for PowerPC microprocessors.

Virtualization Technology is part of a collection of hardware enhancements developed by Intel to help make it possible to run multiple operating systems on a single chip. The company has evangelized the technology to businesses and IT departments as a way of supporting legacy operating system software and application software on newer hardware. Virtualization Technology also has benefits for home users — dedicating resources to specific applications to help bolster defenses against viruses and other malware.

Virtualization versus Emulation

Running Windows in a window on the Mac OS X desktop sounds a lot like emulation, such as running Microsoft’s Virtual PC — which isn’t currently supported on Intel Macs — or an open source machine emulator, like Qemu or Bochs.

There’s a key difference between emulation and virtualization, however. Virtualization leverages the computer’s own hardware: It takes a computer’s processor and partitions its attention into multiple contexts — part of the time it’s paying attention to Mac OS X, part of the time it’s paying attention to Windows, Linux, or whatever other operating systems are running on the virtual machine. Emulation provides a software-based version of a full computer. And while that can be useful under certain circumstances, it’s also a lot slower.

There’s another practical upside to virtualization, as well — you can run multiple virtual machines simultaneously. So a developer who wants to debug his multi-platform software in Mac OS X, Linux and Windows can keep several virtual machines working at once, and hop from operating system to operating system as need be.

So how does the performance of Parallels Workstation compare? Dramatically better than emulation, according to Rudolph, but perhaps not quite as fast as a native Windows environment. “Close to near-native” is how Parallels describes performance in its press release.

Rudolph said any potential tradeoffs in performance will be worth it to many people, however, as they don’t have to reboot their Macs in order to get Windows or other operating systems working.

Parallels Workstation requires an Intel-based Mac running Mac OS X v10.4.4 or later. It does not support PowerPC-based systems. Parallels Workstation requires a free 30-day activation key to operate; the activation key can be retrieved by signing up on the Web site.

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