If you are as old as I am, you probably remember the halcyon days of computing before browsing the World Wide Web became as ubiquitous as it is today. Magazines such as PC Pro or Amiga Format could be purchased from newsagents with discs taped to their front covers, which contained demos of the latest software and a whole bunch of utilities or, in one memorable month, Sheryl Crow’s debut album thanks to an error at the distributors. Imagine the horror of popping a CD into a PC and instead of getting an update to WinZIP, hearing the dulcet tones of Ms. Crow describing ‘All I Wanna Do’ (spoilers: she wanted to have some fun and watch the sun come up over Santa Monica Boulevard).
In many ways, Parallels Toolbox for Windows goes some way to recreating those days (without Sheryl Crow) by bundling together a number of useful utilities, accessed through a convenient and easy to use interface, thus saving a user having to scour the web for them.
I took a look at the Mac version earlier this year here. The Windows version has some marked differences, starting with the Toolbox palette itself, which mimics the Windows 10 Action Centre and is normally accessed by clicking on the Toolbox icon placed in the notification area following a successful install.
There are pros and cons to copying the look of the Action Center. A benefit is familiarity, but the slight differences in appearance can be jarring and occasionally it can be confusing as the Toolbox and Action Center fight for supremacy. Additionally, with the changes coming to the Action Center in the next version of Windows 10, the appearance of the Toolbox will start to seem a bit of a throwback. Overall, it might have been better for Parallels to go their own way rather than mimic Microsoft.
As with the Mac version, there is a library of tools. Some tools are grouped into functions (such as archiving, camera functions, screen recording and screenshots). Selecting a group shows the linked functions (for example, the screenshot functions in the screenshot above). The other functions are laid out below. If there are only one or two functions needed, it is possible to bypass the Toolbox completely, and simply drag the required tools directly to the desktop or taskbar for quick access.
Where a tool requires user input (for example, selecting files to compress or entering links to download video) a dialog is shown, often with some additional settings (see below for an example of the Download Video tool).
In the sections below I’ll take a look at the tools themselves.
There are several video related tools in the Toolbox. Download Video allows for video to be downloaded from streaming sites. Parallels is a little vague on which sites are supported, and I only managed to make it work with YouTube. Vimeo and Facebook seemed to be more reluctant about providing a URL that the Download Video tool could use and subscription sites such as Netflix or Amazon Prime do not work at all (which, to be fair, is to be expected).
Tools also exist to take a photo or video through the webcam and block your PC’s webcam completely, but for me as a reviewer, the most useful tools are the Screen Record and Screen Capture tools. These allow the entire screen, a window or a selection on the screen to be captured as video or taken as still screen-shots. The tool could almost have been designed for me, or any user with a need to capture what is on their screen.
Finally, a basic conversion tool exists to convert most popular formats of video to a size and format suitable for a mobile device such as an iPhone or iPad.
Archiving, Audio and Notifications
Audio may be recorded from any of the available sources on the system. This could be a microphone or from the system itself – for example, the audio stream from a web site such as iPlayer Radio. In addition, the system microphone can also be quickly muted.
Password protected archives can be quickly created simply be dragging files onto the Archive tool, with files extracted in a similar way.
Finally, it is possible to override system functions such as preventing the system from going to sleep or displaying notifications (very useful in presentations), quickly hiding the desktop or locking the screen and ejecting USB devices.
To be clear, there is nothing in the Parallels Toolbox that one cannot do by either knowing where to find Windows settings (for example, to stop notifications or sleeping) or sourcing any number of free utilities on the web (for example, video conversion or capture). However, where Parallels Toolbox scores is by bringing them into one place and, most importantly, giving them a consistent and simple user interface. That level of convenience may be worth a £7.99 annual fee to many people.