Parallels Desktop 16 for Mac does way more than just let you run Windows on your Intel-based Mac (a version for the new M1-based Macs is in development). It gives Windows the latest Mac features. Along with the best of both operating systems, you also get a bunch of handy utilities in the included Parallels Toolbox, and remote access to Mac or Windows from mobile devices via Parallels Access. You can run current or earlier versions of Windows and macOS, and also Linux. Parallels Desktop 16 runs on Apple's latest macOS Big Sur, or if you are still on the earlier MacOS Catalina, you can load up Big Sur in Parallels to try it out before upgrading.
You can download Windows and various Linux distros from within Parallels and run them at the same time on your Mac.
Pedal to the Metal
Parallels gets updated every year to keep pace with Apple's major OS upgrades. This time around, it was a huge rewrite for the Parallels engineers. The big changes in the latest MacOS Big Sur meant putting in the equivalent of more than 25-man-years of engineer programming time deep "under the hood" at the kernel level. That was so Parallels could take advantage of all MacOS Big Sur's revamped features, plus add more than 30 new features.
The effort paid off, with Parallels claiming a world first for support for 3D apps using Apple's Metal graphics acceleration engine. This means that when running Big Sur in a virtual machine under Parallels on a macOS Big Sur host, you have support for 3D features in apps such as Apple Maps, Pages, Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere and more.
- Up to 2x faster app launching.
- Up to 100% faster Microsoft Office application startup.
- Up to 20% faster Windows resume and shutdown.
- Up to 20% faster DirectX 11 and improved OpenGL 3 graphics in Windows and Linux.
- 10% longer battery life when Windows runs in Travel Mode.
- Virtual machines (VMs) can be set to automatically reclaim disk space when shutting down.
- New smooth zoom and rotate trackpad multi-touch gestures in Windows apps.
- Windows apps get duplex (both sides) printing ability, plus more paper sizes, from envelope to A0 size.
- Linux distros can be downloaded with one click from within Parallels, including Ubuntu 20.04, CentOS 8, Fedora 32 and Debian 10.
Aside from the standard edition, Parallels Desktop 16 adds more features in the Pro Edition and Business Edition, but the last two are for administrators and Enterprise-level users. For most people, the standard version is fine. Parallels says its users can run more than 200,000 Windows apps.
Parallels Desktop evolves each year to bring the best Mac and Windows features together. Some of the notable features already in Parallels are:
This lets you use an iPad as a second screen and use an Apple Pencil With Windows apps. This means you can use your iPad as if it's a Surface Pro with Windows in tablet mode. And it works over Wi-Fi – no cable connection needed, if you have the right hardware.
It supports Windows Bluetooth-based accessories, including Xbox controllers for playing Xbox games on your Mac.
CHOICE tip: There's a version available for download in the Apple App Store. But it's a bit different due to Apple's App store limitations and most users will be better off downloading it directly from Parallels online. This is particularly the case if you're a current Parallels Desktop subscriber.
Parallels Toolbox has versions for Mac and Windows.
Tools and remote access
Parallels subscribers also get Parallels Toolbox and Parallels Access free, but they're each available for separate purchase.
Parallels Toolbox 4
The updated version of Parallels Toolbox has even more handy tools, including:
- Break Time (Windows and Mac) gives you a work timer and break reminder.
- Unit Converter (Windows and Mac) for easily converting measurements and global currencies.
- Enhanced Search (Windows and Mac) to help you quickly find the right tool. Window on Top (Windows) keeps your most-used app on top for instant access.
- Window Manager (Mac) for setting windows in a predefined size and position.
- Show Desktop (Mac) clears your workspace with a click, either hiding or closing apps (your choice).
- Close Apps (Windows) clears the desktop of all apps and windows with a click.
Parallels says the most popular Toolbox tools let you download videos, save energy, keep a history of your clipboard, clean up your drive, free up memory, do screen captures, open archives, show hidden files and uninstall apps.
They can be a real timesaver for tasks you do frequently. Of course, you can do most of these things manually, if you know how and have the right apps, but the Toolbox apps are a no-fuss shortcut.
Parallels Toolbox is included with Parallels Desktop or available for separate purchase for Mac or Windows for $27.99 a year.
Parallels Access lets you use your Mac and Windows app remotely from iOS and Android devices or a web browser.
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If you're away from your main machine, you can still get access to your files and even control it using Parallels Access. It lets you remotely access and work with up to five PC or Mac computers from an unlimited number of iOS and Android devices or HTML5 browsers.
It supports native touch gestures used in iOS, iPadOS and Android and includes support for Bluetooth mice, trackpads and gestures. Parallels Access can also be used to provide remote support for family or friends.
Parallels Toolbox has 40 Mac tools, including four new for Mac and three new for Windows. Toolbox, which is bundled with Parallels 15 and also available separately, collects a bundle of time-saving utilities you won't want to be without.
Use your default Windows email app directly from macOS.
If you want to keep Mac and Windows separate you can do so, or integrate them with Coherence Mode. This combines them so seamlessly that you don't have to worry about which OS an app is using – it just runs.
Having Mac and Windows work closely together means more timesaving convenience. For example, if you prefer to use the default Windows email app (Outlook or Windows Mail) you can do so directly from macOS using the Mac's ever-present Share Tool.
Easy Windows and Linux
You can buy or upgrade to Windows 10 directly from within Parallels, and likewise with a variety of popular Linux distributions.
CHOICE tip: If you're not a Parallels expert, for best performance leave it configured at the default settings it sets up at installation and see how it goes. It picks the best RAM settings based on your hardware and balancing the needs of both Windows and Mac.
The big question always asked of a virtualisation is – how fast is running Windows via Parallels compared with running Windows natively on Mac hardware (e.g. via Boot Camp)? The official Parallels answer is "measurable, but not noticeable". But if you want the best results, you should be using a solid-state drive (SSD) and plenty of RAM.
Each operating system under Parallels runs in a self-contained virtual machine (VM). The good news is that if you don't have a large enough SSD in your laptop, you can run all your VMs from an a portable SSD with USB connection. And with SSD prices falling, go for a decent size – say 1TB (terabytes) or even 2TB and you can fill it up with as many versions of macOS, Windows and Linux as you like.
How many VMs you can run at the same time is more dependent on your RAM. So if you can add more memory to your machine or you're looking to buy a new computer to run Parallels, go for 16GB (gigabytes) of RAM or more.
Keep Mac compatibility
Parallels can be helpful even if you don't want to run Windows or Linux. MacOS Big Sur is a huge upgrade and if you haven't yet decided to take the plunge, Parallels can let you try it out while keeping your existing macOS Catalina.
Conversely, you might want to upgrade but don't want to lose some older programs that may not be supported under Big Sur. You can also run older macOS versions in virtual machines under Parallels and use your old programs indefinitely.
There are a couple of free options for running Windows on a Mac, such as using the Mac's built-in Boot Camp installer, or using the free Oracle Virtual Box. Otherwise, you could use VMware Fusion ($199).
But for non-technical users, in particular, who simply want to use both Windows and Mac environments, Parallels shouldn't be overlooked. Whether running Windows in a separate window or screen on your Mac, or seamlessly integrated via Coherence mode, Parallels is a highly polished and super-convenient solution.