Rethinking virtualization

I must admit to being nonplussed by the hype surrounding virtualization—after all, I had seen the claims of Windows running seamlessly on a Mac many times over the years, and it just didn’t matter to me that much. However, my opinions on virtualization took a turn last week during Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference.

Several of my Macworld colleagues have tested Parallels Desktop, virtualization software that allows Intel-based Macs to run Windows without restarting their computers. That’s a huge plus over Apple’s Boot Camp, which requires a restart and therefore causes downtime. To date, everyone I’ve spoken with seems very happy with the results of Parallels, but it still didn’t seem like something I needed to use.

It’s not that I hate Microsoft (I actually think the company makes good Mac software), nor do I hate Windows—I just prefer the Macintosh. For me it just comes down to the fact that for years I haven’t had the need to use a Windows-based PC because I could do everything I needed to on Mac OS X.

However, last week a friend called and asked for my help designing a Web site. It turns out that Internet Explorer 6 for Windows does not handle PNG files correctly and puts a colored background in place of transparencies. Not having a PC handy, I was at a loss on how I could help because Safari does handle the files correctly—naturally.

After I hung up the phone, I thought I would give Parallels a try again—I had tried it when the beta was first released, but only for a short time. This time around, I installed the software on my MacBook, put on a copy of Windows XP and was up in running in no time.

After installing the 63 updates required by Windows, I was surfing the Internet and downloading e-mail without a hitch. I was —and still am—amazed at how fast Windows ran on my MacBook. Opening up applications couldn’t be any faster on a PC than it was using Parallels. (Yes, I do have a 3.2GHz PC at home for testing, so I do have some point of comparison.)

I put Parallels on its own virtual desktop and configured it to open full screen when launched. I then used key commands to move between my Mac desktop and Windows. It did seem to slow down the longer it stayed open, which seems to be a Parallels issue because restarting Windows didn’t help—restarting the computer did.

I used BBEdit on the Mac to add some IE 6-specific code to my friend’s Web site specific so it would treat the PNG transparencies properly. I then switched to the Windows desktop to reload Explorer to see how it looked.

It was one of those experiences you just needed to do for yourself in order to understand how convenient it is to have a copy of Windows a click away.

Having used Parallels in a real-world situation, I can see the hype is not just hype, but well founded for those people that need Windows once in a while. I even decided to write this blog post using Microsoft Word 2007 Beta running Windows XP in Parallels. Excuse me while I switch back to my Mac now.

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