Images courtesy of Parallels or are the author's.
In the final part of our review of Parallels Desktop 10 for Mac, we look at how well it runs on a Mac mini.
One issue with running virtual machines is that they can put a drag on the performance of the computer they are hosted on. The host has to share its memory, disk space and processing capacity with the VM whenever the latter is running.
For this reason, you shouldn’t consider setting up a VM on an old computer with low RAM, a small hard drive or a slow processor unless you are prepared to replace one or more of these. Nor should you expect a VM—or the machine on which it’s running—to smoothly execute hardware-intensive tasks like video editing or gaming unless the host exceeds the specified system requirements for these activities.
To get a sense of Parallels Desktop 10’s performance on the nearest thing to a low end Mac, we installed it on a Late 2012 Mac mini with a 2.3GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor and the standard 4 GB of RAM. We then set up VMs hosting Windows 8.1 and a variety of Linux distros, including Ubuntu, Linux Mint and Deepin.
Thanks to contributions from Micron, we were able to compare the results from this base system with those produced when we increased the Mac mini’s RAM to the maximum 16GB (using Crucial's 16GB (2x8GB) DDR3 PC3 12800 SODIMM kit) and replaced the standard internal HDD with Crucial’s MX100 256GB 2.5" solid state drive (SSD).
When we ran just one VM on the base machine, Windows and all Linux distros booted and ran most tasks with little or no evidence that they were not running on standalone machines. The Memory Diag app we were using to monitor RAM did, however, give warnings of memory pressure when we launched Outlook 2013. Also, there was often a moment of hesitation before the Windows 8.1 Start Screen was displayed when it was accessed from the Parallels Desktop 10 menu.
Performance was less impressive when we tried to run two VMs simultaneously on the base system. Upon booting the second VM, Parallels Desktop gave us a warning that this could result in compromised performance. Accordingly, the response time of both VMs slowed down, mouse clicks often didn’t produce an immediate response and there were distinct delays in the rendering of some graphical elements.
In our basic speed tests, we found that swapping out the internal HDD for an SSD produced striking improvements in startup speed. On the basic system with the standard internal HDD and 4GB of RAM, Windows 8.1 booted to the desktop in Parallels Desktop’s Windowed mode in an average of 70.5 seconds. With OS X Yosemite, Parallels Desktop and the VMs all running from an SSD, that time was reduced by two-thirds with Windows 8.1 booting in an average of 28.6 seconds.
When we booted Windows 8.1 straight into Parallels Desktop’s more system resource-demanding Coherence mode, the difference was even more impressive: the HDD clocked in at 96.2 seconds from powering on to hitting the desktop. By comparison the SSD was a rocket, getting us to the desktop in 28.3 seconds.
Upping the RAM to 16GB without the SSD also added a performance boost such that booting Windows 8.1 took around half the time to reach the desktop that it took with only 4GB. Yet, additional RAM did not increase boot speed further when combined with the SSD over what we saw with just the latter. That is unsurprising, though, given that boot time is limited by disk speed, whereas increased RAM is more likely to have a noticeable effect on the speed and stability of running programs.
This was borne out with both 16GB of RAM installed and Yosemite, Parallels Desktop and the VMs running from the Crucial SSD. We got no memory warnings and had Windows 8.1 and Linux running together with no slowdowns, hangs or glitches. Furthermore, the Windows 8.1 Start Screen appeared and disappeared on command and Microsoft Office programs ran flawlessly as though they were native to OS X.
We also were also able to do video transcoding in Linux and Windows using Handbrake without putting any apparent pressure on the host system. Surprisingly, there was also less fan activity when Handbrake was running on Linux in a VM than when we had the native version running under OS X.
In summary, if you need Parallels Desktop and want to get the best performance from the VMs it manages, it's clearly a good idea to replace your hard drive with an SSD for overall speed improvements. The storage space on lower-priced SSDs like the Crucial MX100 can’t match that of similarly-priced HDDs but if you can work around that, an SSD is a worthwhile investment.
Moreover, if your system has only 4GB of RAM and you can afford to boost that as well, all the better for ensuring that the host and VM run without a hitch. As an aside, note that increasing the RAM is not possible in Late 2014 Mac minis so if you are considering buying one, look for a refurbished late 2013 model in Apple’s online store.
There is a lot you can do with free virtualization software programs like VirtualBox but none offers the degree of integration and the easy set up that you get with Parallels Desktop 10. Those benefits come at a cost, however, that might only be justifiable if you have a pressing need for software that doesn't work on OS X and you don't want to run more than one computer.
As with other virtualization programs, Parallels Desktop requires an up-to-date computer with decent specifications to run effectively. That might mean you also have to factor in the cost of an SSD and more RAM. Remember, though, that these will also improve the host system. Hence, if you want to take advantage of the best that different OS's have to offer and improve your day-to-day computing experience, the price of them would be well worth paying.
Parallels Desktop 10 has a free one-month trial option and if you decide to purchase a license, that comes with a one-month subscription to Parallels Access (left). That add-on service gives you access to software on your computer from a mobile device.