A gamer's look at Parallels 3

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Parallels 3 is here—the first version of this popular virtualization software for Intel-based Macs that’s suited to gaming. That’s because Parallels 3 incorporates hardware-based 3-D graphics acceleration. It provides Mac gamers with a degree of utility they didn’t have before. Even with these improvements, though, gamers looking for maximum performance and compatibility are still best served by Boot Camp, Apple’s Windows-on-Macs offering.

Some Parallels background

Parallels Desktop for Mac launched in 2006, only months after the Intel-based Macs first debuted. If you’re unfamiliar with it, first of all, welcome back to Earth. Parallels Desktop enables you to run Windows on an Intel-based Mac without having to reboot—your Windows-based virtual machine appears as a separate window running alongside your Mac applications. In contrast, Apple’s Boot Camp requires you to reboot your system—you either run Mac OS X or Windows, but never both simultaneously.

The advantage that Boot Camp offers is that when your Mac is working in Boot Camp, it is, for all intents and purposes, a Windows XP (or Vista)-equipped PC. There are drivers installed for everything, from your Mac’s video chip to the iSight camera. The downside is that you have to go through the process of shutting down and restarting your Mac each time you want to run Mac OS X or Windows—that can take minutes, and those minutes add up if they happen several times a day.

Parallels Desktop for Mac provides an awesome alternative—running Windows directly from within Mac OS X. The developers have tried to create as seamless an experience as possible, incorporating features like Coherence, which let you open a Windows application from the Mac OS X Dock, and SmartSelect, which lets you open Mac documents with Windows applications (and vice versa).

But for gamers, the biggest advantage Parallels Desktop 3.0 offers is the ability to run games. Almost all games in the PC space require 3-D graphics acceleration, even the casual ones, and up to now, Parallels has not had any 3-D graphics acceleration at all.

A new dimension

To that end, Parallels 3 is a good first step. The software enables Mac users to run some Windows games that require DirectX 8.1 or lower. DirectX is a Microsoft-made graphics Application Programming Interface (API) that many game developers prefer to use instead of OpenGL.

The system requirements of DirectX 8.1 or lower excludes many newer 3-D titles which prefer DirectX 9. It also means that the “Aero” graphics effects of Vista (which use DirectX 10) aren’t supported. All told, it’s fairly similar in depth and breadth to the preliminary 3-D graphics acceleration offered in Parallels Desktop for Mac’s primary competition—VMware’s Fusion software, currently available as a beta.

This is a big adjustment for gamers who already have Boot Camp installed. With the latest build of Boot Camp, Apple provides fairly up-to-date driver support for the 3-D graphics chips included on its Intel Macs, which means that those Boot Camp Windows systems know about the 3-D hardware and know how to use it.

Parallels provides a dramatically different system profile, and doesn’t rely on all your Mac’s RAM or your Mac’s own graphics hardware configuration in order to operate. So when you run Parallels, even if you’re using your Boot Camp partition to do so, Windows recognizes it as a very differently configured computer, as it does when Boot Camp is operating.

This relegates Parallels 3 mainly to running older Windows games, which it does fairly well, though it’s hit or miss as to what games work and what games don’t. Parallels has provided, in the documentation that accompanies Parallels Desktop 3, a short list of games that it has found to be compatible. (You can also find the list on Parallels’ Web site.)

My test drive

To give Parallels 3 a try, I opted for some of the titles Parallels recommended. I tried Dungeon Siege 2 and Max Payne 2, two older Direct3D-based games, and they both worked fine. So did OpenGL-based games like Quake 3 Arena, Unreal Tournament 2004 and Far Cry. Generally, the more complex you’d set the graphics options and the higher the resolution, the more the performance differences between Parallels 3 and Boot Camp became apparent.

Where the software ran into show-stopping trouble was with games that require DirectX 9.0-based graphics, such as The Sims 2 ( also available for the Mac natively) and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Those games won’t work at all; for that, you need Boot Camp.

The Parallels Support Forums is one of the best places to get information about how Parallels 3.0 works with games, by the way. Checking the Mac forum for Windows and entering “games” in the search field will yield hundreds of messages from Parallels users who have traded tales of getting games to work and provided some estimate of performance. Some have even developed elaborate workarounds to get some newer games working.

Games that rely on OpenGL directly, instead—including recent games based on the Doom 3 engine—have an easier time running. My colleague Rob Griffiths and I were both surprised to see Prey, the first person shooter, running pretty well inside of Parallels. But the game uses a modified version of Id Software’s Doom 3 engine, so we shouldn’t have been that surprised.

Compared to running in Boot Camp, you will notice a difference in speed—how much will be determined by how fast your Mac is and how you’ve set up Parallels Desktop (with RAM and so on). Macworld Lab is busy crunching the numbers for the final review.

So is Parallels Desktop for Mac 3 worth it, purely from a gamer’s perspective? No. The penalty in performance and the lack of compatibility with any DirectX 9-compatible games really hurts Parallels’ usefulness for gamers. But if you have modest gaming needs that can be served by older titles, and you have a need to use Parallels for other things besides gaming, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

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