Parallels Desktop 15 for Mac review: Metal support brings improved graphics performance

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  • Editors' rating
    9.0 Outstanding

Pros

  • Updated to support Sidecar in macOS Catalina
  • Now supports DirectX 11 in Windows apps
  • Allows Macs to run wide range of Windows software
  • Smooth integration between Mac and Windows apps

Cons

  • Pro and Business Editions require annual subscription
  • Requires lots of memory
  • Windows graphics software requires powerful GPU

It's part of the annual Apple lifecycle that the approaching Fall brings new iPhones and new versions of both iOS and macOS. The arrival of the new macOS -- version 10.15 this year, codenamed 'Catalina' -- is generally accompanied by a new version of Parallels Desktop, one of the leading virtualization tools that allows Macs to run Windows applications and software alongside native Mac apps.

This year is no exception, with Parallels Desktop 15 arriving on schedule, just ahead of Catalina itself. The list of new features in v15 isn't, perhaps, as long or impressive as it has been in recent years, but there are some important architectural changes to the software that are designed to keep Parallels Desktop aligned with changes to macOS itself, and which will particularly appeal to business and professional users who are keen to get the best performance from the Windows apps that they need to run on their Macs.

Behind the scenes

Perhaps the most dramatic developments with Parallels in recent months have been the unexpected change(s) of ownership, which may concern Mac users who have come to rely on this important software tool. Parallels was acquired by Corel at the end of 2018, and last month Corel -- previously owned by Vector Capital -- was bought by another private equity firm, KKR. The implications of these business developments remain unclear, but Parallels users will be hoping that the change of ownership doesn't compromise the company's commitment to the Mac platform.

SEE: Top 20 Apple keyboard shortcuts for business users (free PDF)

Pricing remains the same, though. Individual users can buy a single licence for Parallels desktop for £66.67 (ex. VAT, or £80/$80), which lasts forever but will require additional payments for future upgrades. Business and professional users can opt for either Parallels Desktop Pro, which includes additional features for developers, or Parallels Desktop Business Edition. The Business Edition provides controls for centralised deployment and administration for multiple users, as well as support for vTPM -- Virtual Trusted Platform Module -- which is a security requirement for many corporate users. The Pro and Business Edition have the same price, requiring an annual subscription of £66.67 (ex. VAT, or £80/$80), with future upgrades included as part of the subscription. 

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Parallels Desktop 15 will support macOS Catalina's Sidecar feature (although we were unable to successfully test this).

Image: Parallels

Mac/Windows integration

It's important for each new version of Parallels Desktop to support features in the macOS itself, and Parallels Desktop 15 will support features such as Sidecar, which will allow you to use an iPad as a second screen, as well as using an Apple Pencil with Windows apps. Unfortunately, the beta version of iOS that we recently downloaded turned our iPad Pro into an expensive paperweight, so we've been unable to test Sidecar even with Mac apps so far, let alone with Windows apps running under Parallels Desktop.

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Parallels Desktop now allows you to drag and drop screenshot previews into a Windows virtual machine. 

Image: Cliff Joseph/ZDNet

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One of Parallels' great strengths is the way that it integrates the Mac and Windows operating systems so that native and non-native apps work smoothly together, and that process continues with Parallels Desktop 15. The current Mojave version of macOS introduced a new method for creating screenshots, allowing you to view and annotate a preview of each screenshot before choosing to save or delete the screenshot file. Parallels Desktop now allows you to drag and drop those screenshot previews into a Windows virtual machine, and it's easier to drag and drop photos and image files from Mac apps, such as the Safari browser, into the Windows VM as well. 

Parallels has stated that many of its business customers use the Windows version of Outlook to handle their office email, so Parallels Desktop 15 now allows you to Ctrl-Click (or right-click) on a file on the Mac desktop, and will display a new option in the Share menu that opens your Windows email program and creates a new email with that file attached.  And when Catalina arrives you'll also be able to use the new 'Sign In With Apple' feature to sign in with various online services from within Windows.

Software support

Catalina's imminent arrival also marks a break with the past, as macOS will no longer support 32-bit apps. Parallels Desktop will also be moving forward, as v15 will only work with macOS Sierra (10.12) or later, and some key features -- such as the new support for DirectX 11 -- will only be available if your Mac is running the current macOS Mojave (10.14) or Catalina. However, you can use Parallels Desktop to create a virtual machine running older versions of macOS, which will allow you to continue using old 32-bit apps, such as MS Office 2011, and older versions of some apps from Adobe.

And, if you don't want to risk the beta version of Catalina on your Mac, it's also possible to create a virtual machine running the beta as well. But, in order to create a virtual machine running any version of macOS, you will need a copy of the installer program for that version, or be able to use the recovery partition from a Mac running that version.

Performance

Running Windows as a virtual machine within the macOS itself requires a lot of processor power and memory, so each new version of Parallels Desktop starts by flagging up performance improvements for business and professional users (as well as gamers enviously eyeing the A-list games that only run on Windows). And, true to form, Parallels Desktop 15 does claim to launch Microsoft Office apps as much as 80% quicker than previous versions. But, in truth, modern multi-core processors can now run mainstream productivity apps such as Microsoft Office perfectly well even using virtualization.

READ MORE: Parallels Desktop 15 for Mac is the best way to run Windows, Linux, and macOS on your Mac

The real challenge for Parallels Desktop -- and virtualization rivals such as VMware's Fusion -- now lies in the realm of graphics performance. This is where Parallels Desktop takes a big step forward, utilising Apple's Metal API to add support for DirectX 11 for Windows software and games. Not only does this help to improve performance for graphics-intensive software, but it also allows Parallels Desktop to run Windows apps, such as Autodesk 3DS Max and Lumion 9, which couldn't run on previous versions of Parallels Desktop (along with a number of Windows-only games as well). 

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The Unigine Valley GPU benchmark returned a score of 10fps under Windows 10/Parallels Desktop 15 on a 2019 15-inch MacBook Pro, compared to 34.5fps when running natively.

Image: Cliff Joseph/ZDNet

We've also found that the Unigine Valley graphics test wouldn't run properly on previous versions, as it didn't support the app's full range of graphics settings. But, with Parallels Desktop 15 running under macOS Mojave, Apple's top-of-the-range 15-inch MacBook Pro was able to run Valley's 'Extreme HD' tests and achieve a score of 10fps. Admittedly, that's not going to break any records (the 15-inch MacBook Pro scores 34.5fps when running the native Mac version of Valley), but at least the app now runs properly, and that performance will be strong enough to handle a wide range of graphics apps on a Windows virtual machine.

The Cinebench R15 rendering test performs better, with the Windows version of the app achieving a very respectable score of 85fps, compared to 145fps for the native Mac version. Parallels also informs us that support for Metal means that less powerful Mac models -- equipped with Thunderbolt 3 ports -- can also benefit from using an external GPU (eGPU) to accelerate the graphics performance of a Windows virtual machine, which could provide a cost-effective upgrade for both Mac and Windows apps for many Mac users.

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You can run powerful graphics software like Autodesk 3DS Max via Parallels Desktop 15, but it's probably best suited for more mainstream Windows apps.

Image: Parallels

Conclusions

Professional graphics apps such as Autodesk 3DS Max are, of course, extreme examples, and regular users of such apps will always be better off using conventional PC hardware for day-to-day work. But Parallels Desktop 15 supports a wider range of PC software than ever before, and for less demanding software -- such as Microsoft Office -- it's a genuine 'best of both worlds' option that allows Mac users to run key business apps in a corporate world that's still ruled by Windows.

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