Parallels Desktop 11 lets Mac users say 'Hey Cortana'

Update to popular virtualization software brings support for Windows 10, OS X El Capitan and more

Mac users will soon be able to say "Hey Cortana" and have Microsoft's virtual assistant talk back to them from OS X, thanks to new functionality included in Paralells Desktop 11.

The new version of the popular virtualization software will support running Windows 10 in "Coherence" mode, which means that users can set up a virtual machine with Microsoft's new operating system and then run Windows applications alongside native Mac apps.

The update also works with OS X El Capitan, the next version of Apple's operating system that's slated for release later this year. Its marquee feature is support for using Cortana with Coherence mode, so the virtual assistant can pop up on the desktop in OS X to respond to users' queries.

parallelscortana Parallels

Microsoft's Cortana virtual assistant running on the OS X desktop

To make Cortana run continuously, users need to keep a Windows virtual machine running on their computer, which will put more of a performance load on the device. For people who have to run Windows applications all day anyway, it's a nice side benefit.

Parallels, which announced the software late Tuesday, said it has improved the performance of its virtual machines -- launching and shutting down Windows is up to 50 percent faster than the previous version, and file operations inside Windows are up to 20 percent speedier.

In addition to the Cortana features, the new version of Parallels also brings Apple's Quick Look feature to files in a Windows virtual machine. That means users can navigate to a file stored in Windows, press the spacebar and have OS X show them a preview of its contents. It's an easy way for people to figure out which file in a folder they're actually looking for without having to open them in an application.

travel mode setting in parallels desktop 11 Parallels

Travel Mode settings in Parallels desktop 11

Parallels Desktop 11 includes a new Travel Mode that can increase battery life up to 25 percent by turning off some energy-hungry features. Users can set Parallels up to automatically switch on Travel Mode when they drop below a certain battery charge, and then turn it back off when a computer is plugged in again.

There are a whole bunch more changes also included in the update, including support for providing location data to Windows 10 (though it's not required) and new notifications that let users set Windows apps as the default method of opening some files, even if they're stored in OS X. Users can also choose to sync volume settings between Windows and OS X, so they don't end up blowing out their eardrums with an overly loud virtual machine.

Developers and power users can also switch to a new Pro edition of Parallels Desktop, which carries the same benefits of the consumer version and additionally offers support for tools like Docker and Visual Studio. It also supports running nested virtual machines, so users can work with a Windows or Linux VM inside a client operating system that they're virtualizing on their Mac. Pro users who are packing some seriously hardcore hardware can also make use of up to 64GB of RAM and up to 16 virtual CPU cores.

windows and mac apps side by side in parallels desktop 11 Parallels

Windows and Mac apps running alongside one another in Parallels Desktop 11

To gain access to those features and more, Pro users will have to pay a $100 per year subscription if they want to stay current with the software, though people upgrading from Parallels Desktop 9 or 10 can upgrade for $50 a year. If they choose to do so, those users will lock in the $50 subscription rate for as long as they want to keep using Parallels Desktop Pro. Subscribers will get ongoing software updates to Parallels Desktop, including automatic upgrades to future major releases.

The consumer version of Parallels Desktop costs $80 and doesn't require a subscription. People who own a copy of Parallels Desktop 9 or 10 can upgrade to the new version for $50.

VMWare Fusion, the closest competitor to Parallels Desktop, is hot on its heels. The company is offering new users a 10 percent discount on licenses for Fusion 7, and promises a free upgrade to Fusion 8 when it's released later this summer.

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Blair Hanley Frank

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