5 top ways to run Windows on a Mac

With options ranging from Boot Camp to Parallels to VirtualBox and others, the big question is which one makes it easy to manage Windows-running Macs within your enterprise IT infrastructure.

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A Windows VM can be built from an ISO file (pre-existing or downloaded as needed), imported from a connected PC or external drive, or converted from an existing Boot Camp instance. I tried to get the Boot Camp import/conversion to work, but Parallels 13 didn’t recognize my Boot Camp partition, perhaps because I had installed mine on a PCI-based SSD. This seems to be a known uncommon issue and will hopefully be fixed in an upcoming patch. Despite this reminder that Parallels 13 is a very newly released product, it seemed generally reliable and stable during testing. The support forums are active, which is always good to see.

One nice feature of the VM Installation Assistant carried over from version 12 is the ability to quickly install and purchase Windows (7, 8.1 or 10) directly, while also allowing installation of un-activated copies. This allows a developer, for example, to quickly create clean development sandboxes that can be used without having to deal with license activation and that can be activated later if needed without having to rebuild the VM.

Coherence Mode, a feature Parallels added to Parallels Desktop 2.5 back in 2007, has evolved, much like VMware’s Unity Mode or the VirtualBox Seamless Mode, to allow Windows and Mac apps to run side by side seamlessly without displaying the Windows interface. This is certainly of use for Mac users who are not familiar with Windows. Parallels does a nice job of making the application menus looks and feel more Mac-like, and it includes an option that allows the user to switch back out of Coherence mode easily and quickly.

In keeping with Parallels’ focus on usability, there’s a long list of convenience features baked into Desktop 13, including cross-platform TouchID and Touch Bar support for the new MacBook Pros (allowing the creation of custom Touch Bars for Windows apps), 30-plus useful one-click productivity tools for both Windows and Mac bundled as “Parallel Tools,” Mac integration of the Windows People Bar (from the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update), and the ability to access Windows 10’s Cortana from your Mac even if the Parallels VM is not visible. These kinds of things are not by any means must-haves, but taken collectively, they illustrate the care for detail and relative polish of the environment.

What is potentially a bigger deal, however, are the enterprise Mac management and integration tools Parallels has created, including the current version of its extension for Microsoft’s SCCM systems management tool, which significantly expands SCCM’s Mac management capabilities. Plain-vanilla SCCM handles Macs in a somewhat limited form, but Parallels has a plugin that extends those management capabilities in dozens of significant ways, from automated discovery and enrollment to patch management, remote login for technical support, remote wipes and more.

The new Single Application Mode in Desktop for Mac Business Edition allows deployment of Windows apps that hide both Parallels Desktop and the Windows Desktop entirely — kind of like a super-Coherence Mode — enabling deployment of “stealth apps” to end users on Macs without them necessarily aware of Windows at all. There is also a new mass deployment package for large-scale provisioning. Taken as a whole, the management features Parallels offers add significant value to its product line.

The basic Parallels 13 Desktop product (listed as “for home and student use”) retails for $79.99. The Pro product is $99/user/year, on a subscription model (including free upgrades), and adds a number of useful features for developers, plus the ability to scale past 8GB vRAM up to 128GB, and to go from 4 to 32 vCPUs. Parallels 13 Desktop Business Edition is currently the same price as the Pro package and includes everything it does, plus some business-oriented features for administration and management, such as mass deployment options and volume license keys.

VMware Fusion (8.5.8)

VMware’s Fusion is another product with a long history in the Mac virtualization space, but for VMware, Macs are one small part of a much larger enterprise picture. VMware was the first company to successfully create products offering x86 virtualization, and literally (and virtually) sets the standards in many cases for hypervisor architectures and virtualization technology.

fusion Richard Hoffman/IDG

Fusion first appeared on the market 10 years ago, and since then, Fusion and Parallels have tended to leapfrog each other with new releases. At the time of publication, VMware has announced, but not yet released, its new version, 10. For this review, we looked at the current version, 8 (VMware is skipping version 9), but we’ll soon have a follow-up review of Fusion 10, which looks to have a number of very solid enhancements for the enterprise market.

The list of available supported VMs for Fusion goes far beyond Windows and includes 95 different OS options (the full list can be found here). For running Windows on Mac, your options under VMware Fusion go all the way back to Windows 3.1 and right up to Windows Server 2016 and Windows 10. VMware Fusion has full compatibility with VMs created with the other VMware products as well; there can be significant systems management benefits to using Fusion in conjunction with other VMware products already in use.

In the lab, the “easy install” option for Windows 10 worked without a hitch — quick and simple, installing from a Windows 10 x64 ISO file saved locally on my Mac (though a DVD or USB-drive ISO work just as well). Cloning my existing Boot Camp partition into a new VM also seemed to work, and did in fact boot up easily, but there was a persistent driver-incompatibility error preventing network connectivity that I did not have time to resolve. It’s an area I’ll investigate further, but in general, you’re probably better off starting with a clean install of Windows and/or developing standardized Windows VMs to distribute.

The Unity option is similar to Parallels’ Coherence view, where a Windows app can be presented inside the macOS desktop as what appears to be a stand-alone application, side by side with macOS app windows. One small but interesting difference is that with Coherence, moving virtualized windows is fairly smooth and seamless, but Unity windows were sometimes visually jerky and at times briefly showed fragments of the Windows desktop around the edges as it moved. Functionally, both are totally usable, but it is one of the areas where Parallels seems to have a bit of an edge on polish.

The current shipping price for Fusion 8.5 (including free upgrade to Fusion 10) is $79.99 per Standard and $159.99 per Pro license, the latter of which includes 18 months of email support. Volume purchases (10-plus licenses) have other support options (business hours and 24/7) available for additional purchase.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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