Now that VMware Fusion 2 has had a couple of months in the limelight (see "VMware Fusion 2.0 Released," 2008-09-16), Parallels has stepped back onto the stage with the release of Parallels Desktop version 4.0. The new version adds a boatload of features, improves performance, and generally makes it harder than ever for consumers to choose between the two leading options for running Windows on an Intel-based Mac.
The new version of Parallels claims higher performance than version 3.0, while using less of your Mac's CPU power and increasing battery life on Mac notebooks. In part, the performance improvements come from an Adaptive Hypervisor, which improves the way Parallels balances its own needs against those of Mac OS X. If you have lots of RAM or CPU cores in your Mac, you can now assign up to 8 cores and 8 GB of RAM to each virtual machine. Parallels Desktop 4 also has improved 3D graphics, including 256 MB of video RAM and support for DirectX 9, DirectX Pixel Shader 2.0, and OpenGL 2.0.
Parallels Desktop 4 includes support for Intel's VT-x2 virtualization technology, which Parallels says increases the software's performance up to 50 percent. However, no currently shipping Mac model has a CPU that supports VT-x2 - it's a technology available only in Intel's Nehalem processors, which are expected to begin appearing in consumer-grade computers in mid-to-late 2009. So it may take some time (and a new Mac) before you can realize this promised speed improvement. (Support for VT-x2 is also built into VMware Fusion 2, by the way.)
Apart from performance improvements, Parallels 4 offers numerous new usability features. For example, in addition to single-window, full-screen, and Coherence modes (the latter of which interleaves windows from Windows applications with those from Mac OS X), Parallels now has a Modality view, in which your entire Windows desktop is scaled down to the size of your choice - but remains live and responsive to mouse and keyboard input. This lets you keep an eye on activity in a background virtual machine without switching windows or views. A new Clips tool lets you easily capture portions of your Windows screen and send the screenshots directly to your Mac OS X clipboard. SmartMount lets external hard drives and other removable storage devices appear in both Mac OS X and Windows at the same time, while SmartConnect lets you specify which operating system should take control of various USB devices when they're attached.
Parallels now supports 64-bit guest operating systems, assuming your Mac has a 64-bit processor (that is, a Core 2 Duo or Xeon). The new version also offers a feature previously available in Parallels Server (which starts at $1,248.75): the capability to run Mac OS X Server as a guest operating system. (VMware Fusion 2 also has this feature.) The more-expensive server product does offer more power and flexibility for running Mac OS X Server, but at least the basic capability is now available to any Parallels Desktop user.
Included with Parallels Desktop 4 is a Parallels-branded version of Kaspersky Internet Security, now with a 12-month subscription (version 3 included only a 6-month subscription), plus full versions of Acronis True Image 11 Home (a backup utility) and Acronis Disk Director Suite 10 (a tool for partitioning Windows disks); together, these three programs retail for $177. Astute observers may notice that these are the same three programs previously bundled with the now-discontinued Parallels Desktop Premium Edition package, which sold for $99.99.
The features mentioned here are only a few of those that have been added to Parallels 4; for a complete list, see the Parallels Web site.
The retail price of Parallels Desktop remains $79.99. Registered users of earlier versions can upgrade for $39.99; those who purchased Parallels Desktop 3.0 since 01-Sep-08 get a free upgrade. A free trial version is also available. Parallels Desktop 4 is a 172 MB download.