How to Improve Excel Performance in a VM

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Microsoft® Office for Windows® is the gold standard for a productivity suite, and the spreadsheet in that suite, Excel, is the gold standard of spreadsheet applications. So, it is not surprising that many Parallels Desktop users turn to Excel® for their spreadsheet needs, and getting the best performance out of Excel is important to them. Excel performance in a virtual machine involves tuning both the spreadsheet itself and tuning the VM. This blog post describes the second of these: tuning the VM for the best Excel performance. Tuning the spreadsheet itself is discussed here, here, here, and here, among many other places.

I have divided the tips in this blog post into three general categories: actions or setting changes that will almost always improve Excel performance, actions or setting changes that will usually have no effect on Excel performance, and actions or setting changes that will often decrease the performance of Excel.

Actions or setting changes that improve Excel performance

– Storing the VM on an SSD

This action is not specific to Excel but will improve the performance of everything in your VM. Performance of a VM is greatly influenced by the speed at which the VM can be accessed while the guest operating system is running. Moving to a faster hard drive is great, but moving your VM’s .pvm file to an SSD is best. Often, even moving the VM to an external Thunderbolt™ SSD will improve its performance.

– Using multiple cores for the VM

Unlike MacExcel, WinExcel can parallelize spreadsheet calculations on multiple cores. While Parallels Desktop now defaults to two processors for a new VM, if your VM was created before this setting change was the default, your VM might only be using one core. Change this setting to two or perhaps four cores to improve the performance of Excel. See Figure 1 for the details on how to do this.

excel performance

Figure 1: Setting the number of processors for a VM

Your mileage may vary. I have seen spreadsheets where changing from two cores to four cores increased performance by almost a factor of two, and spreadsheets where going from one core to two cores had a negligible effect on performance.

Whatever you do, don’t try to assign all the CPUs to the VM—there wouldn’t be any left for the macOS®!

– Moving to the latest version of Excel – Excel 2016

If you are using an older version of Microsoft Office, moving to the latest version running in the latest Windows will often improve the performance of Excel.

Actions or setting changes that have no effect on Excel performance

– Increasing the video memory of the VM

Excel can produce excellent looking charts and graphs, but these almost never really tax the graphics processor, so changing from the default setting for video memory will not improve Excel performance. (Actually, changing the video memory setting of a VM will very rarely improve any app’s performance, with the exception of a game that won’t even launch unless it detects a certain amount of video memory.) Figure 2 shows the video memory setting for a VM, and you probably want to leave this at its default setting.

excel performance

Figure 2: Setting the graphics memory for a VM

Actions or setting changes that decrease Excel performance

– Increasing the RAM for the VM

Although this is slightly counterintuitive, increasing the RAM setting for a VM will rarely improve the performance of the VM, and this change might even decrease performance. If your new RAM setting removes so much memory for the macOS to use that the macOS becomes starved for memory, the macOS will become slower. If the macOS is slowed, then everything running on the Mac® will become slower, and this includes Parallels Desktop and any VMs, and any apps inside those VMs. Figure 3 shows the RAM setting for the VM.

excel performance

Figure 3: Setting the amount of RAM for a VM

Unless you have extremely unusual needs, you will get the best performance if you leave this at the default setting for the particular Windows version you are running in your VM.

What is your experience with running excel in a VM? Share your opinion with us in a comment, or reach out to us on Facebook or Twitter.

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Kurt has been a Mac developer since before the Mac came out. Today he is the Senior Product Manager at Parallels where he works on both Parallels Desktop for Mac and Parallels Access. Prior to Parallels, he was the Senior Mac Evangelist in the Macintosh Business Unit (MacBU) at Microsoft Corp. Kurt is the author of three books and has lectured internationally on object-oriented programming, UI design, and virtualization. Kurt is also a Microsoft Office for Mac and iOS Accredited Support Professional for 2014 and 2015. Outside of work, Kurt has been a fencer for many years, has four times been a member of the US team at the world championships, and has also been the coach of the US team.