At this year’s WWDC, the Mac took a giant step closer to iOS in terms of hardware. The announcement of a transition to ARM-based Apple silicon over the next two years sent a chill down the spine of everyone running Windows via Boot Camp, since there’s no indication at this writing such a feature will remain feasible without Intel inside.
This potential roadblock applies equally to virtual machines, and despite the virtualization experts at Parallels successfully demonstrating Linux running on ARM, the company remains tight-lipped about the fate of Windows. In the meantime, they’ve released the latest annual upgrade to its flagship Mac software, which once again arrives with plenty of welcome improvements and—for the moment at least—one unfortunate limitation.
According to the developer, Parallels Desktop 16 for Mac is the result of a “25-man-year effort” to ditch traditional virtualization kernel extensions (“kexts” in code-speak), the stuff which allows this software to efficiently run other operating systems in tandem with macOS in the first place. This enormous effort was necessary because Apple is kicking third-party kexts to the curb once and for all when macOS Big Sur arrives this fall.
In its place, Apple incorporated new macOS frameworks for developers to tap into. The immediate result is that PD16 now launches up to twice as fast as last year’s impressive version 15, as well as being 20 percent faster at resuming a Windows virtual machine (VM) or when using software which takes advantage of DirectX.
For those who frequently print documents from Windows, there’s more good news. PD16 now supports everything available on shared printers connected to a host Mac, enabling welcome features like the ability to use envelopers or change paper sizes as well as duplex printing. Last but not least, the new “Reclaim disk space on shutdown” option now makes the process of recovering storage temporarily consumed by a guest OS effortless. Check a box, and PD16 takes care of this housekeeping automatically, every time you shut down that VM.
Although many survived the rocky transition to macOS Catalina relatively unscathed, the move prompted us to rely more heavily on virtualization. Rather than occasional use with Windows or to dabble in other operating systems, Parallels Desktop became a lifeline for running 32-bit Mac applications effectively abandoned after last year’s “app-ocalypse.”
One rationale for clinging to old software was venerable accounting software AccountEdge Pro (formerly MYOB). Developer Acclivity cowardly backpedaled on 64-bit Catalina support earlier this year, claiming its 30-year-old codebase “proved too outdated” for engineers to make work.
The solution was to install macOS Mojave as a Parallels virtual machine to run AccountEdge and other 32-bit refugees like a Primera Bravo SE disc printer. One nagging downside to this otherwise flawless plan was lack of support for the Caps Lock key, which has never properly worked in Parallels within Mac guests.
Imagine the surprise after booting up Mojave for the first time in Parallels Desktop 16 to discover the host software finally—finally!—recognizes the Caps Lock key with a Mac guest. Admittedly, this is a small improvement—one the company doesn’t even mention in release notes!—but the convenience makes a huge difference in everyday use, so we consider this is a must-have upgrade for fellow keyboard jockeys.
For several years now, new editions of Parallels Desktop remained in lock step with Apple’s annual software releases. This year is no exception, and I’m happy to report that installing the macOS Big Sur public beta as a PD16 virtual machine was effortless. After downloading the installer from Apple, all that’s required are a few clicks of the mouse. thanks to the Installation Assistant.
Unfortunately, the under-the-hood changes required to embrace Apple’s new frameworks in Parallels Desktop 16 have created a temporary setback for current macOS users. Those hoping to test drive Big Sur as a virtual machine running on a Catalina host will experience reduced graphics performance, with a screen resolution restricted to 1024x768. That means no Retina Display support or Coherence view, which hides the guest desktop so virtualized apps run alongside those in the host OS.
Parallels blames this limitation on native 3D graphics implementation in Apple’s beta OS, a situation which should be resolved around the time Big Sur is released. For the time being, the recommended method to run a Big Sur VM is from a Big Sur host—an option which works quite well, but defeats a key advantage of using virtualization software in the first place.
Even with this workaround, some issues remain. Using the latest Big Sur Beta 5 as a host, you’ll need to tweak the Hardware configuration for each VM, selecting Apple as the hypervisor instead of Parallels to avoid a kernel panic when booting a guest OS. Those jumping back and forth between hosts should consider installing separate Big Sur VMs for the time being. On Catalina, I was unable to boot past the Apple logo after reinstalling Parallels Tools inside a Big Sur VM.
Parallels Desktop 16 for Mac is another solid upgrade solidifying the company’s tradition of continued improvements, but the lack of native Big Sur graphics support on Catalina—which the company hasn’t been very transparent about—is a bummer for those wanting to test drive the latest macOS.