Parallels Desktop 7 helps Windows and OS X co-exist

— -- For all of Apple's success persuading people to switch to Macintosh computers, it's still very much a Windows planet. PC buyers who have been reluctant to defect typically explain it this way: "I'd consider a Mac, but my job requires this Windows-only program," or "For better or worse, I'm just more comfortable with a PC."

Of course, it's been possible to run Microsoft Windows on Intel-based Macs for several years now, albeit with varying degrees of ease and performance. In my experience, the most convenient way is through third-party software called Parallels, which has just launched a fresh and improved version that seamlessly works with Apple's OS X Lion operating system. I've been running Windows 7 testing Parallels Desktop 7 for Macs on two machines: an iMac desktop and a MacBook Air notebook, neither the latest Apple model.

On an iPad, I've also been testing a newly upgraded companion version of Parallels called Parallels Mobile, eventually $20 but now at an introductory $5 price. It lets you remotely tap into Windows — or Lion — on your Mac from an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch and even run Flash videos (off your virtual Windows machine) that you can play back on those iOS devices.

Alas, I struggled a bit with the finger-gesture controls you use with Parallels Mobile and sometimes detected an annoying lag before the remote computer responded to my touch. Audio was delayed and hiccupped.

Parallels Desktop 7, on the other hand, was generally a pleasure to use with the Windows operating system, and various programs acted responsively and obediently — no snarky comments from Mac loyalists, please. I was able to run Internet Explorer, Quicken, Windows Media Player and other Windows software, mostly without a hitch.

The operating systems share resources on the computer. For example, you can share the iSight or FaceTime cameras on your Mac across OS X and Windows.

Parallels is based on what techies refer to as virtualization. Think: the ability to run Windows (or other "guest" operating systems such as Linux, Google Chrome or even a separate version of OS X) on virtual machines that largely behave as if they're stand-alone computers. You can run multiple operating systems simultaneously.

Indeed, Parallels (and rival Fusion software from VMware) claim a huge advantage over Apple's own Boot Camp program, which is part of OS X. Boot Camp only lets you boot up to one operating system at a time, whereas Parallels lets you run Windows at the same time as OS X. Using Parallels, you can drag-and-drop files or copy-and-paste between Windows and Mac programs.

But Boot Camp is free, while Parallels Desktop 7 fetches about $80 at retail or $50 for upgraders. A student edition brings the price down to $40.

In all instances you need to install your own full version of Windows, which starts at about $200. But you can purchase, download and install a new version of Windows from within Parallels, a handy new U.S.-only feature.

The new Lion-friendly Parallels also lets you run Windows programs full screen or open them from Launchpad, a view inside Lion that resembles the home screen on the iPad. You can also see Windows programs by peeking at Lion's bird's-eye Mission Control view.

It's worth noting that you can also employ Parallels Desktop 7 with older versions of OS X — Leopard and Snow Leopard — but you'll need a fairly robust computer with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor or higher. You'll also want at least 4 gigabytes of memory to handle Windows 7.

You have the option to run Parallels so that Windows programs mimic Mac programs, down to the red, green and yellow buttons in the title bar. Or you can make it so that your virtual Windows machine looks like any other Windows PC. If you plug in a new USB flash drive, you can choose whether it should be handled on the Mac or Windows side

There were snags: When I first installed Parallels on my iMac, the Windows side couldn't read disks I placed in the DVD player until I'd tweaked certain settings. Performance was a little sluggish when I played Windows Solitaire on the Air.

But, overall, I was impressed. And if you need to run Windows programs on a Mac, you'll appreciate the existence of this latest Parallels universe.

The bottom line about Parallels Desktop 7 for Mac

$80, $50 for upgraders, $40 for students;

•Pro: Run Windows software on Macs in virtual machine that makes nice with OS X Lion. Share webcam, files and other resources across OS X and Windows. Makes it easy to purchase Windows.

•Con: Minor snag recognizing DVD drive on one Mac. May not work well with graphics-heavy Windows programs. Companion $5 mobile program is a little hard to use.

•The tweet: Latest Parallels universe worth exploring for Mac fans who must do Windows.

E-mail: Follow @edbaig on Twitter.