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Some Intel apps may not be compatible with Windows on Arm
Parallels Desktop has long been the leading virtualisation tool for Apple customers who need to run Windows or Linux as a virtual machine (VM) on their Macs. However, it faced something of a challenge in 2020 when Apple announced its plan to transition the entire Mac platform to its home-grown Apple Silicon.
The Arm-based M1 and M2 chips used in the latest Mac models can no longer run the Intel x86 version of Windows, so those Macs had to rely on the Arm version of Windows -- which itself has had something of a bumpy ride over the last few years. Also, along with various performance and compatibility issues faced when attempting to run existing Intel-based apps and software, Windows on Arm (WoA) is primarily licensed to OEM PC manufacturers, which meant that Parallels' core business -- running Windows on Mac -- was starting to look like something of a dead end.
However, Apple Silicon and Windows On Arm have both made strong progress in the last couple of years, and the new Parallels Desktop 18 is now looking at a much brighter future. In fact, Parallels has worked with Microsoft to allow owners of M1 or M2 Macs to download and buy the Arm version of Windows 11 directly from within Parallels Desktop 18 -- "Microsoft doesn't have any issues with that", a Parallels spokesperson told us.
The company also offers "kudos to Microsoft" for achieving compatibility for what it says is '99.99%' of existing Intel software when running on Windows on Arm. Of course, compatibility alone isn't enough if your key Intel apps run too slowly to be of any practical use. However, Parallels has now had two years to fine-tune the performance of virtual machines running on Apple Silicon and, with high-end processors such as the M1 Ultra, Parallels Desktop 18 now allows you to assign up to 62GB of RAM and 18 CPU cores to your virtual machines. Parallels claims that this provides up to 96% performance increase over the previous version of Parallels Desktop. And, as always, Parallels Desktop also allows you to create virtual machines running Arm versions of Linux, such as Ubuntu, Fedora and Debian, as well as maintaining its longstanding compatibility with older Mac systems -- such as my aging office iMac -- that still run on Intel processors.
Other new features include support for the forthcoming MacOS Ventura -- both as host OS and 'guest' virtual machine -- as well as support for Apple's 120Hz ProMotion displays, and improved USB support for Windows-based audio and video capture and streaming devices.
For developers, the Pro Edition of Parallels Desktop 18 provides improved networking controls -- known as the 'network conditioner' -- that were previously only available for Intel-based Macs. You can isolate VMs for improved security by preventing them from sharing applications or folders with the host Mac, and there's a new command-line interface for developers who need to automate testing on their virtual machines. The Business Edition for enterprise users now provides SSO/SAML authentication to sign in using a corporate account, and improved features for deploying VMs to multiple users across the organisation.
Pricing for Parallels Desktop 18 is slightly higher than previous versions, starting at $99.99/£89.99 per year for the standard, single-user edition. It's also possible to buy the standard edition as a one-time 'perpetual license' for $129.99/£104.99, although this version requires you to pay for future upgrades separately. There are also discounts for educational users also available. The Pro version costs $119.99/£99.99 per year, while the Business edition for enterprise users is $149.99/£119.99.
There's also a free 14-day trial version of Parallels Desktop available, so Mac users with both Arm and Intel Macs can get an idea of how well it performs with their key apps and software.
Alternatives to consider
The main alternative to Parallels Desktop has long been Vmware Fusion, which has recently gained support for Windows 11 virtual machines on Apple Silicon as well as Intel Macs. However, this is currently only available as a (free) technical preview.