(We’re offering a $10 discount/free Parallels MacBook Air contest this week)

If you are not new to Parallels, you will already be familiar with its ability to run Windows in a virtual machine within OS X. You might also be familiar with its Coherence view mode that allows you to run Windows and Mac OS applications side by side, rather than a full-blown Windows 7 in a separate window. However, Parallels Desktop 7 takes it to the next level with some of the deepest Windows/OS X integration yet.

The name of the game for the new Parallels Desktop 7 for Mac is definitely OS X Lion integration. Pretty much every new UI feature incorporated into Lion has been integrated into Parallels, and thus Windows 7. We put the new version to the test with both Windows 7 and Windows 8 developer preview on last year’s iMac with 4GB of RAM.

What’s New?

It is clear right from the top that version 7 is much faster than previous versions. Both booting up Windows and resuming Windows applications (more on that later) feels smoother.  Keep in mind that we first used the same Win 7 VM as we were using in previous versions. We also ran a fresh installation of Windows 7 and Windows 8 developer preview, which a slightly redesigned install wizard (above) made a little less frustrating than prior versions. The new installer wizard is a nice touch, letting you buy Windows right from within the app, grab a free copy of Chrome OS, or just go the usual route with your own disc or image.  You can also now install another instance of Mac OS X, which is -of course- a feature mainly devs will utilize.

Previous versions of Parallels would cause Snow Leopard to become quite sluggish when switching between OS X and Windows apps. That lag is noticeably reduced when testing Parallels 7 with Windows 7 and Windows 8 on Lion. You can now also assign up to 1GB of video memory to Windows if necessary; although, do not expect that to improve gaming significantly. The same previous issues will have you running back to Boot Camp if graphic intensive gaming is what you are after.

The Windows 8 developer preview was a little sketchy at times and does not support many of Parallels features, but that is to be expected with early prerelease builds. Parallels does not officially support Windows 8, but we got it up and running with no problems by simply selecting “Other Windows” during installation.

Lion integration 

Full-screen 

Most of the new UI features of Lion are available in Windows. This includes the new full-screen app mode that works when hitting the icon in the upper right corner of your virtual machine. Exiting full-screen is accessible through the top right corner of the auto-hidden OS X menu bar, again, just like any other native Lion app. We threw Windows 8 in full screen mode (required some manual resolution tweaking) in a separate desktop space through Mission Control. Switching from Windows back to a separate OS X desktop space with the two-finger swipe (or via Mission Control) is as smooth as you could ask for (same goes for Windows 7).

Mission Control

Mission Control seems to function just like you would expect when using Windows apps, especially in Coherence mode (more on coherence mode below). If you are using the standard window view, you will see your Windows 7 virtual machine in Mission Control. If you are using Coherence mode, the individual app windows will appear (above), allowing you to drag and drop them between desktop spaces just like native Lion apps. As long as you do not have a too many Windows apps running, interacting with them from within Mission Control is just as smooth as Lion apps.

Launchpad

Launchpad, the iOS-like app launcher introduced in Lion, has also been highly integrated into Parallels 7. On top of the “Windows 7 Applications” folder placed on your dock (and now in Launchpad), you can right-click a currently running Win 7 app in your dock followed by “Add to Launchpad” to add that individual Windows app. With Windows 8, opened apps do not appear in your Dock, so you will not be able to add them to Launchpad yet.

Coherence & Resume 

Coherence view mode that allows you access the Windows start menu from the Lion menu bar, and run Win apps as if they were native, seems to be a little bit better with Lion. Much like the rest of Parallels, it just seems less buggy than previous versions, especially when switching between Lion apps and Win apps frequently. After adding many your most used Windows apps to Launchpad, you can have them launch in Coherence mode and never have to deal with the Windows desktop or Start menu. There is no support for Coherence mode with Windows 8 when installing under the “Other Windows” option, unfortunately.

Parallels and Windows apps within a VM also take advantage of Lion’s Resume feature, allowing you to start where you left off in either Windows or just Windows apps in Coherence mode.

Windows 8 disclaimers 

Windows 8 is, at this point, just a developer preview and not officially supported by Parallels, so it has expected to have some issues. We ran into many of those issues, but for the most part everything on Parallel’s end worked fine. After booting Win 8 for the first time, most of the live tiles were not functioning; however, a reboot seemed to fix the issue. If you want to try Windows 8, you should not run into many problems installing it into Parallels 7.

Should you get it? 

Parallels Desktop 7 is a huge leap ahead from the last iteration and necessary for Lion users. That is… for Lion users that just want to run the odd Windows app, give Windows 8 a try, or devs that want to run another instance of OS X. The fact is, running several Windows 7 apps and Lion apps simultaneously leaves you with the same sluggish environment you are probably used to from previous versions.

Most of the improvements for speed are noticeable when booting up and switching between Windows and OS X apps. We had IE, Paint, and Windows Media Center open in Windows 7 using Coherence mode, Safari, and Text Edit open on Lion when things started to slow down. With those expected issues aside, it is a major update and certainly takes advantage of Lion to the fullest.

You can grab it for $79.99 ($49.99 upgrade) from Parallels.com or Apple stores now. You can also get a free trial from www.parallels.com/desktop

In addition, Amazon has Parallels 7 for $50 in the box…if you can wait for shipping.

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