Parallels Desktop for Mac 11: Tom's Mac Software Pick

Say Hello to Cortana

Parallels Desktop for Mac
Courtesy of Parallels

Parallels Desktop for Mac 11 from Parallels is virtualization software that allows you to run just about any x86-based operating system, including Windows, OS X, and many versions of Linux, directly on your Mac. Unlike Boot Camp, which allows you to install and run Windows as a separate operating system that you have to boot into, virtualization software like Parallels Desktop 11 allows your Mac and the guest operating system to run concurrently. This lets you use shared resources, such as a display, RAM, CPU, and storage space. With the proper settings, you can share files and even apps, in some cases. Even better, you can do all of this at the same time, without having to restart to boot into another operating system environment.


  • Full support for Windows 10.
  • Works with OS X El Capitan.
  • Travel Mode conserves battery life.
  • Automatic performance tuning.
  • Faster boot and shutdown speeds.
  • Share Cortana, Microsoft’s virtual assistant, with your Mac.


  • Reduced support for multiple CPUs.
  • Reduced support for maximum memory allocation.
  • Little, if any, improvement in graphics performance.

Cortana Beats Siri

I would never have expected it; Cortana, Microsoft’s virtual assistant, beat Siri to the Mac. Of course, it isn't Microsoft that brought Cortana to the Mac, but Parallels, which allows Microsoft applications to run alongside OS X native apps. Quite a few versions of Parallels Desktop for Mac have included Coherence, a view mode that lets you run Windows applications on a Mac as if they were native Mac apps, but Coherence now lets you use Cortana as your Mac’s virtual assistant and respond to your queries.

Thanks, Parallels, and shame on you, Apple, for dragging your feet on a Mac-based Siri app.

Coherence is a two-way street; while Cortana can suggest answers to your questions, OS X’s Quick Look feature can be used to examine Windows files without having to open them with an application.

Travel Mode

Virtualization apps, such as Parallels, have long had a reputation for being battery vampires, sucking the juice out of a Mac portable's battery, and reducing average runtime to abysmally low numbers.

This is especially true when we try to get the highest performance out of earlier versions of Parallels while running under battery power. The usual solution is to manually tune Parallels to lower performance levels, which allows our Mac’s batteries to last longer, but at the cost of slower overall performance in whatever operating system we're running in Parallels.

Parallels Desktop 11 tackles this problem with its new Travel Mode, which essentially adds some smarts to the performance-tuning problem. With Travel Mode, Parallels can reduce power utilization by up to 25% by disabling some power-hungry features. Even better, you can set a threshold based on remaining battery time for when Travel Mode will be enabled.

For example, want to run at full-out performance until you're halfway through available battery runtime? Just set Travel Mode to the 50% setting, and you can go as fast as you like, and then slow down precisely when you wish to. Travel Mode also knows when you're running on juice from an outlet, at which point it will turn off, allowing Parallels to return to optimum performance.

Guest OSes

Parallels is best known for allowing Mac users to run Windows on their Macs, but it can actually run a wide selection of operating systems. The only real limiting factor is that it must be an OS that runs on an Intel x86-based processor. This means that in addition to Windows, you can run MS-DOS, most Linux distributions, OS X, Solaris, BSD, Android, and even OS/2.

Parallels provides installation assistance for most of the popular operating systems, but you can also manually install an OS by setting up a virtual machine that mimics the type of hardware the OS needs, and then running the OS’s own installer.

Parallels supports OS installation from DVDs, USB devices, and image files. It doesn't provide licensed versions of the various supported OSes, although it can download and install certain free operating systems, such as Chrome, Ubuntu, and Android.

Using Parallels Desktop for Mac 11

Parallels 11 remains one of the easiest of the virtualization applications to use. If your intent is to run one of the common Windows, OS X, or Linux operating systems, chances are Parallels has an installation wizard ready to walk you through the process.

Once you've installed one or more operating systems, Parallels presents a list of installed systems, allowing you to select which one to run whenever you launch Parallels.

Parallels can run a guest operating system in various modes, including within a window, full-screen, Coherence, and Modality.  Coherence allows you to run Windows apps as if they were running natively on your Mac. It’s a bit of a sleight-of-hand trick; essentially, Parallels strips out the Windows desktop, opening apps and their windows overlaid on your Mac’s desktop. This allows Windows and Mac apps to seem to be commingling in a single environment, which can be very useful for Windows apps you need to use on a daily basis.

Modality mode opens the virtual machine running a guest OS in a transparent window, allowing you to see the part of your Mac desktop or apps that are behind the Parallels window.

Data Sharing

If you've gone to the effort of installing and setting up a virtualization app, then you'll likely want to share data between your Mac and the guest OS. For the most part, the sharing of data is transparent; you can easily drag and drop files between the two environments, and in some cases, you can simply open files in one app that are located on the other operating system's file system.

File sharing is easy, but it's just as easy to create a security wall between the two systems, ensuring that neither files nor anything else can be interchanged. The choice is yours.

Multiple Versions of Parallels

We looked specifically at Parallels Desktop for Mac 11, but two other versions are also available: Parallels Desktop for Mac Pro Edition and Parallels Desktop for Mac Business Edition. The Pro edition is available on a yearly subscription system, and provides a few extra capabilities, including additional networking tools and support for various development environments, such as Docker, Vagrant, Jenkins, and Chef.

The Business Edition adds centralized IT management capabilities, among other features.

What’s Wrong with Multiple Editions?

I don’t have anything against developers offering multiple versions of an application, except in this case. Parallels reduced the performance capabilities of the Parallels Desktop for Mac 11 edition by artificially limiting the amount of RAM that can be assigned to a virtual machine to 8 GBs, and the number of CPUs that can be assigned to a virtual machine to four. This is in contrast to the previous version of Parallels, which had no artificial limits on RAM or CPU assignment. If your Mac had an enormous amount of RAM, then you could assign what you wanted to Parallels; the same was true of CPUs.

Now if you want to assign more than 8 GB of RAM, or more than 4 CPUs, you have to step up to either the Pro Edition or the Business Edition.

In my opinion, Parallels artificially reduced the performance capabilities of Parallels Desktop for Mac 11 strictly to accommodate marketing of the other editions of the app. Sorry, Parallels; even though I like your app, I’m reducing the review rating by one star.

Wrap Up

Overall, I like Parallels Desktop for Mac 11; its interface remains easy to use, it brings official support for Windows 10 and OS X El Capitan, and it provides plenty of tools for customizing a guest OS.

If you use a Mac portable, you're really going to like the Travel Mode feature.

Parallels remains my go-to virtualization app. But I hope the developers will rethink the stripping out of performance options that used to be included, just to help justify a price difference between versions.

A demo of Parallels Desktop 11 is available.

See other software choices from Tom's Mac Software Picks