When I last looked at a Parallels solution for Windows systems, the product in question was just a pale imitation of its better-known sibling, Parallels Desktop for Mac. Parallels Workstation for Windows, as it was called back then, delivered good basic desktop virtualization but lacked critical functionality like USB device support and bridged networking.

Locked in a death struggle with VMware on the Macintosh platform, Parallels allowed its Windows version to languish for nearly two years while it focused on defending its Mac OS X flagship. Then, this past summer, Parallels surprised everyone by bringing forth Parallels Desktop 4 for Windows, a product that was on par functionally with Parallels Desktop for Mac, at least for a time.

Parallels Desktop 4 for Windows and Linux lets you assign up to 8GB of RAM to each VM and sports the same user-friendly interface as its Mac cousin.

The subsequent availability of Parallels Desktop 5 for Mac once again puts the Windows version behind its favored sibling in terms of functionality. For example, while the Mac version supports popular features such as Windows Aero Glass, the Windows version is still stuck running the Aero Basic theme, which puts it at a competitive disadvantage to VMware Workstation 7.

Fortunately, Parallels 4 still has enough redeeming features to stand on its own. For example, you can now create virtual machines with up to 8 virtual CPUs and 8GB of RAM. Automated installation scripts (similar to VMware's Easy Install mechanism) now take the pain out of installing and configuring new Windows-based VMs. And an improved snapshot feature makes it possible to set up timed snapshots of a VM's state, useful for rolling back changes or repairing a VM after a crash or malware incident.

Another useful feature is the ability to save a cloned image of a VM as a template that can be reused as the basis for new VMs. This is handy when you need to create a number of VMs with similar baseline configurations and want to avoid the repetitive installation steps common to each VM.

Based on the nature of these new features, it seems clear that Parallels was targeting VMware Workstation for Windows with this new release. The Easy Install clone, timed snapshots and templates are all responses to features that are present in VMware Workstation. And while they serve to bring Parallels closer to parity with previous versions of Workstation, the reality is that VMware Workstation is itself a moving target.

Yes, Parallels Desktop for Windows now supports more virtual CPUs per VM than VMware Workstation, but it makes no distinction between discrete processors or cores, and Parallels also requires a system with hardware virtualisation support in order to run its VMs. (VMware and VirtualBox support both hardware virtualisation and legacy binary translation, allowing them to run on systems lacking Intel or AMD hardware-assisted virtualisation technology.) And while Parallels Desktop now has a timed snapshot feature, it's not as granular or as sophisticated as VMware's pioneering Replay function, which has been a staple of Workstation since version 6.

Randall Kennedy was an experienced US-based reviewer whose association with IDG, the publisher of Techworld, was ended when it was revealed that he also ran a test and research company under a pseudonym. We have deleted news and features articles containing references to that company, Devil Mountain from the Techworld site.

Kennedy also contributed a number of reviews to IDG publications. Having re-examined these reviews, we consider them genuine assessments of the products being considered. Some readers will, quite rightly, be sceptical of Kennedy’s conclusions. However, we have left these articles on our database as we think that readers will able to make up their own minds as to whether they provide valuable information.

OUR VERDICT

Overall, Parallels Desktop 4.0 for Windows and Linux is a solid product for customers in need of a traditional desktop virtualisation solution. It's fast, easy to use, and great for those who need to run multiple operating systems. The problem is, almost nobody is looking for such a solution anymore, at least not on the Windows platform. Unlike with the Mac, where virtualisation is essentially a lifeline technology, on Windows it's more of a niche application, a stopgap measure for legacy compatibility. So while VMware focuses its energies on lucrative vertical markets, Parallels seems stuck looking at the world through the prism of Mac OS X. And as with most things hailing from within the Apple Reality Distortion Field (RDF), Parallels' perception of what Windows users want (and are willing to pay for) is clouded by too much fruit in the diet.