What if I said that I was writing this post in Microsoft Word … on an iPad? No, it’s not Microsoft’s native iOS app for Office 365 subscribers, and not a third-party workalike that’s been stripped of features, either. It’s the same application that I use on my Mac — in fact, it’s literally the same Word I have on my Mac.
I’m using a new service and app combo released today by virtualization vendor Parallels, but I’m not running a VM on my iPad. Parallels Access (subscription, $79.99 per year) that gives iPad users total access to any application on their desktop Macs or Windows PCs. Parallels Access makes using those applications more touchscreen-friendly than what you usually encounter while using remote control apps like LogMeIn Ignition, iTeleport, Mocha VNC, Splashtop, Air Login or Desktop Connect.
Parallels Access is incredibly easy to set up. You’ll need a free Parallels account, which you can sign up for when you begin to use Parallels Access on your iPad or Mac; you may already have an account if you use Parallels Desktop. If it takes you more than two minutes to get Parallels Access up and running, you’re doing something wrong.
There are two components to Parallels Access: an iPad app and an application (called an “agent”) that is installed on the Mac or Windows machine of your choice. That $80 annual subscription fee applies to each Mac that you’re sharing — the Windows desktop app is currently a free beta but will eventually go to the same subscription rate when it goes live. Install the iPad app on your second- through fourth-generation iPad or iPad mini and log into the Parallels account. Next, download the Mac or Windows agent and install it on the desktop machine. Once again, log in with the Parallels account.
As soon as the Mac or Windows machine is logged in, it appears in the iPad app. Tap on the name of the machine, and you’re greeted with an App Launcher displaying all of the major and frequently-used apps on your desktop machine. Tap one of the app icons, and it immediately appears on your iPad screen. When I say “immediately”, I’m not kidding. The apps start up as quickly as they would on your Mac or PC when you’re on a fast Wi-Fi connection. Even over an LTE cellular data connection, it’s very usable.
The user experience is completely different from using a screen sharing, VNC or remote control app. Instead of focusing on squeezing your entire Mac or PC screen into the screen real estate available on an iPad, Parallels Access concentrates on putting only one app at a time front and center on your iPad. Parallels refers to this as “applifying” your desktop applications by enabling native iPad tap and swipe gestures for those desktop apps.
The result is that a desktop app — whether it’s Microsoft Word, Excel, or PowerPoint, AutoCAD, or any other desktop app — dominates the iPad screen and is simple to navigate and control with standard iPad gestures. The app menu, sans the Apple menu, appears at the top of the screen. I installed the iPad app on both my third-generation iPad and iPad mini, and it’s just as easy to use on both devices.
Parallels Access helps to speed control of the desktop apps by taking “near misses” on taps and applying them to the nearest button, icon, or menu item. This ability is known as SmartTap and works very well. If you need even more precision in grabbing a selection handle or something similar, holding down a finger for a moment displays a magnifying glass tool that enables the accuracy you need for either selecting text or using a navigation element.
If you currently use Parallels Desktop 8 on a Mac to run a Windows virtual machine, you’re going to get an extra added bonus. All of the Windows apps that you have installed on the virtual machine are accessible from the App Launcher as well. Switching between desktop applications in Parallels Access is also a piece of cake — tap on the App Switcher icon on the floating tool palette that shows up on the side of the iPad screen, and then tap on the other app you wish to use. Two taps and you’ve switched to the other desktop app.
Selecting words and graphics in an “applified” Mac or Windows app is done with one finger. You can drag and drop those elements, or select them and then paste into an iPad app or another desktop app — even onto another desktop if you have access to it.
One thing I found extremely useful while I was using Parallels Access on the iPad mini is that Siri dictation is fully supported. I was able to “type” into Microsoft Word for Mac using dictation, helpful instead of stumbling with the smaller virtual keyboard of the mini.
During my testing of a pre-release version of Parallels Access, I found it to be extremely stable and fast. The only time I ran into an issue was when I tried to run desktop apps on my office iMac over a bad data connection that kept wavering between LTE and 3G at about one or two bars of signal strength. Running those same apps on my local Wi-Fi network and from a remote Wi-Fi network, I found the speed of operation to be almost as fast as if the desktop apps were native to my iPad.
So what happens on the desktop computer while you’re running those apps from your iPad? Well, the screen resolution changes, and you see your computer being used — no surprise there. If you’re in an office environment and/or would rather not have someone watching what you’re doing remotely, there are settings for the desktop app that let you lock the computer when you’re working remotely and after you’re done with your remote session.
The connection between your iPad and the desktop machine is secured using SSL and 256-AES. One feature that I liked was receiving a confirmation email from Parallels Access any time that a new iPad was registered. These confirmation emails are also sent when a new user or computer is registered, so that you’re always aware of who is accessing your machines.
Is there any feature I’d like to see added to Parallels Access? Sure — it would be really cool if someone could be working on the desktop machine in one account and using Parallels Access in a different account. That way, for example, if I had kids they could be using the Mac for “educational purposes” while I’m doing work. But I’m probably dreaming…
Are there other similar solutions or close competitors? As noted earlier in this review, VNC-type apps provide a way to run applications on a remote PC or Mac from an iPad or iPhone. However, they don’t offer the same tablet-friendly transformation of desktop apps that you get with Parallels Access. I’ve personally tried at least six different VNC solutions and found them all lacking in controllability of the desktop apps; Parallels Access is a whole different experience.
Readers who are looking for a way to run only Microsoft Office on a tablet have several solutions available. CloudOn (free, or CloudOn Pro is $29.99) gives iPad users access to a cloud version of the Windows Office suite, meaning that the desktop computers aren’t tied up during tablet sessions. OnLive Desktop (free app, service levels from free to $9.99 per month) does pretty much the same thing, with the higher service levels allowing customization of the PC apps it can run. However, in both cases, the services are slow if you’re not on Wi-Fi and you’re not connected to your personal desktop machine — it’s a generic desktop computer instead. And once again, Parallels Access makes using your regular desktop apps from an iPad so much easier than any of these alternative solutions.
If I were Steve Ballmer, one of my final acts before retiring from Microsoft would be to kill the Windows Surface tablet products. With Parallels Access and an iPad, there’s really no need for a Windows tablet if you already have a home or office PC.
Note: Due to an editorial error, this post was originally published at 9:05 AM on August 27th rather than the planned 9:05 PM timing for the same day, which was agreed upon between TUAW and Parallels along with other media outlets. We apologize to Parallels for any inconvenience that this may have caused.