Despite Apple's plans to move the Mac to Apple Silicon processors, there are still plenty of options available for people who need to run Windows software or games on their Macs. In this article we look at the best virtual machine and virtualisation software packages for the Mac.
Even the most loyal Mac users recognise that Windows still rules the roost in the world of desktop and laptop computers, and there are many important apps that only run on Windows.
For example, the Windows version of Microsoft Office includes the Access database that has never been available for the Mac, and there are many professional graphics and video tools that are Windows-only. And, of course, there are all those A-List games that have never even glanced in the direction of us poor, forgotten Mac gamers.
Luckily there are options available for Mac users who need to run Windows and Windows apps on a Mac. There are two main approaches available for the current generation of Macs that still use Intel processors.
Apple's own solution is called dual-booting, using its own Boot Camp software to switch (boot) back and forth between the macOS and Windows.
The other option is called virtualisation, and is available from several software programs, such as the popular Parallels Desktop and VMWare Fusion.
Things will change in coming years, as Apple's plan to abandon Intel processors and create a new generation of Macs that use Apple Silicon means that Boot Camp will no longer work on Macs that use Apple's new chips.
But, for now, the entire Mac range is still based on Intel processors, so here's our guide to the best options currently available for running Windows on your (Intel) Mac. Just remember that most of these solutions do still require you to own a full, licensed copy of Windows as well.
What is Boot Camp?
Apple's solution to the Windows-compatibility conundrum is Boot Camp, which you can use by launching the Boot Camp Assistant app, located in the Utilities folder within your main Applications folder.
The Boot Camp Assistant sets aside a chunk of your Mac's internal hard drive (or solid-state drive) so that you can install Windows on the drive alongside macOS itself. When you turn on your Mac you can then choose whether you want the Mac to start up - or 'boot' - with the normal macOS, or to boot into Windows instead - a process known as dual-booting.
Boot Camp will allow you to run Windows and Windows apps at full speed, using all the processor power and memory built into your Mac. That's the best solution for running games or professional graphics apps that need a lot of power, and you can find detailed information on using Boot Camp to install Windows 10 on Apple's web site or in our article about installing Windows on a Mac.
If you do decide to install Windows using Boot Camp then the important thing to remember is that you lose access to the Mac side of things while Windows is running. So if you use Apple Mail for your emails, and your collection of selfies is stored in Photos, then you’ll have to shut down Windows and reboot your Mac into the macOS again in order to use Mail and Photos once more.
Switching back to the macOS means that you lose your Windows apps again, and constantly switching between macOS and Windows can quickly become a real chore if you have to do it several times a day.
Plus, as we said above, Boot Camp will soon be no more: when Apple introduces its new Apple Silicon powered Macs they will not support Boot Camp.
Which is where the alternatives to Boot Camp come in...
What is Virtualisation?
There's another option available, called 'virtualisation', that allows you to run Windows, and Windows apps, from right within macOS itself. In effect, this means that you're running both operating systems at the same time, and can run your Windows apps on the Mac desktop right alongside all your normal Mac apps.
Programs such as Parallels Desktop, VMWare Fusion and VirtualBox allow you to create a virtual machine (VM), that runs on your Mac just like any other Mac app. The virtual machine uses software to mimic the workings of a conventional PC, and this allows you to install Windows on your virtual machine and then install any Windows apps that you want to use on the virtual machine too.
The virtual machine runs in its own window on the Mac desktop, and can then run your Windows apps on screen at the same time as conventional 'native' Mac apps, such as Apple Mail and Safari.
The ability to run native Mac apps and virtualised Windows apps at the same time is a lot more convenient than dual-booting with Boot Camp, as you no longer have to switch back and forth between macOS and Windows. However, virtualisation does have some drawbacks.
Your virtual machine is running a full version of the Windows operating system on top of the main macOS on your Mac, so your Mac is going to need plenty of memory and processor power in order to provide decent performance for the virtual machine.
Multi-processor Macs with at least two cores are better for running virtual machines - and quad-cores or more are best, as you can devote one or more processor cores to give all their power to running Windows. It will also help if you can devote 4GB of memory or more to each virtual machine (some people like to run multiple virtual machines with different versions of Windows, which really needs stacks of memory and processor power).
Even then, your virtual machine won't be as fast as an actual physical PC that has its own built-in processor and memory, which means that Boot Camp is still the best option for running high-end graphics software on Windows, or the latest 3D games.
However, most Macs released in the last few years can still use virtualisation to run many business and productivity apps that don't need high-end graphics horsepower, such as Microsoft Office, and the specialised apps and databases that many companies develop for their own internal use.
1. Parallels Desktop 16
Parallels Desktop always tends to get an update every year, to coincide with the latest versions of the macOS. However, the release of Big Sur represents the biggest update to the macOS in years - paving the way for a future generation of Macs that use Apple Silicon chips - which means that Parallels Desktop 16 gets a particularly big upgrade this year.
There are the expected performance improvements in version 16: launching and quitting virtual machines more quickly, and boosting performance for Windows apps that use DirectX graphics by around 20%. As well as DirectX, Parallels Desktop 16 also supports the OpenGL 3.2 graphics software, which provides compatibility with an even wider range of Windows software.
Ironically, though, the most important changes to Parallels Desktop 16 won’t be visible to the naked eye. Apple has made some big changes to the way that Big Sur works, so Parallels has had to do a major programming rewrite for version 16 simply to ensure that this new version will still run on Big Sur.
We were also pleased to find that Parallels Desktop 16 allowed us to create a virtual machine that was able to run the beta version of Big Sur, so that we could test Big Sur on our office Macs that were still running older versions of macOS.
And, crucially for future Mac models, Apple has already demonstrated prototype Apple Silicon Macs using Parallels Desktop to run a number of Windows apps and games.
This update therefore ensures that Parallels Desktop is well placed to hold its leading position in the virtualization market. The only difficult choice is deciding which version of Parallels Desktop you need to buy.
There are several versions available, starting with the Standard Edition for home users and students, which requires an annual subscription of £69.99. There’s a Pro Edition with additional tools for developers, and Business Edition for larger organisations, with both of those costing £79.99 per year.
2. VMWare Fusion 11.5
Fusion hasn’t always kept up with Parallels Desktop’s regular cycle of updates and new features, but VMWare recently announced that it is working on a new version of Fusion that will adopt the new technologies used in Big Sur - and, hopefully, allow it to run on new Macs that use Apple Silicon as well. more information about the new VMware Fusion here.
Fusion takes the same basic approach to virtualisation technology as Parallels Desktop, allowing you to create a 'virtual machine' (VM) that uses software to simulate the hardware of a conventional Windows PC.
The virtual machine runs on your Mac, just like any other Mac app, and allows you to install your copy of Windows - that you do have to provide yourself - and any other Windows programs and apps that you want to use. The virtual machine can then run alongside your normal Mac apps, such as Apple Mail and Safari, allowing you to run Windows and Mac apps on the Mac desktop at the same time.
You can run your virtual machine in a window on the desktop, or expand Windows to full-screen mode if you prefer (while still leaving your Mac apps open and running in the background). You can also use Fusion's 'unity' mode to hide the Windows desktop so that individual Windows apps, such as the Windows File Browser, can run right on the Mac desktop as though they were ordinary Mac apps. Like Parallels, Fusion allows you to create virtual machines that run macOS and many versions of Linux, as well as Windows.
The latest version is VMware Fusion 11.5. It launched in September 2019 and is a free update to Fusion 11 users. If you have an older version of WMware you might be eligible for a discount - see this page.
New features in VMware Fusion 11.5 include Dark Mode and Sidecar - which means you can drive a VM completely from your iPad.
Some people experienced problems running VMware Fusion 11 after installing Catalina but updating to 11.5 solved those problems. Lucky it’s a free update!
Fusion 11, which came out in September 2018 supports the use of multiple processor cores when running VMs on recent iMac Pro and MacBook Pro models, and Apple's Metal graphics system. You can also use the Touch Bar on your MacBook Pro to control Windows apps.
Fusion's interface has never been quite as slick and streamlined as that of Parallels Desktop, but version 11 does include an Application Menu that makes it quicker and easier to manage your virtual machines. The Application Menu sits in the main menu bar at the top of your Mac screen and allows you to quickly launch, pause or shut down all your virtual machines. You can also select and launch individual Windows apps from this menu, rather than having to first launch the virtual machine and then locate the app that you want.
There are two versions of Fusion currently available, and we're pleased to see that VMware still allows you to buy a straightforward licence for the software as a one-time purchase, rather than (pretty much) requiring a subscription as Parallels Desktop now does.
The standard Fusion 11.5 will be the best option for most people, costing £71/$80 for a single-user licence. There's also Fusion Pro, which costs a hefty £141/$160, but includes many additional features for larger corporate users, such as the ability to work with VMWare's vSphere software for managing virtual servers.
The company also makes a Windows counterpart to Fusion, called Workstation Pro, that allows business users to share their virtual machines on both Macs and Windows PCs. That focus on corporate users might deter some people, but Fusion is still a worthy rival for Parallels Desktop, and there's a 30-day trial available so that you can check it out before making your mind up.
3. Apple Boot Camp
Using 'dual-boot' rather than virtualisation technology, Boot Camp provides the best performance for Macs that need to run Windows.
It's important to make a distinction between Boot Camp and the 'virtualisation' programs that we look at here, such as Parallels Desktop, VMWare Fusion and VirtualBox.
Instead of creating a 'virtual machine' that allows you to run Mac and Windows apps together at the same time, Boot Camp is a 'dual-boot' system that simply allows you to 'boot' (start) your Mac using either the native macOS or Windows (but not both at the same time).
When you run the Boot Camp Assistant on your Mac, it divides your Mac's hard disk or solid-state drive into two sections, called 'partitions'. These partitions can vary in size, as required, and you leave the existing macOS on one partition, and then install Windows on the new partition (and you'll have to provide the copy of Windows yourself, of course).
In effect, your Mac can then act as a straightforward Windows PC, and devote all its processor power and memory to running Windows and your Windows apps. And, crucially, if your Mac has a decent graphics card, it can use the full power of the graphics card to help run your Windows software. That's definitely the best option for people who need to run high-end graphics software or 3D games, as you get much better performance than when running Windows in a virtual machine. (Destiny 2, here I come…)
The disadvantage of using Boot Camp this way is that you lose access to all your Mac apps while you're running Windows. If you use Apple Mail for your emails then you'll need to shut down Windows and Boot Camp, and switch back to macOS every time you want to send or receive an email. And, if truth be told, the current version of BootCamp 6.1 isn't quite as straightforward to set up as it used to be.
Previous versions of Boot Camp did all the work for you - they would partition your hard drive, install Windows from a normal installer disk, and also install any driver software that you needed so that components such as your graphics card, keyboard and mouse all worked properly within Windows.
Boot Camp 6.1 can now only be used to install Windows 7, Windows 8.1 or Windows 10. But not all Macs will work with all three versions of Windows, so before you even start to run the Boot Camp Assistant you'll need to check the compatibility tables on Apple's website to see which version of Windows will work on your Mac.
You can't install Windows from an old installer disk any more either, so you'll either have to download a disk image file for Windows - called an ISO file - from Microsoft's own website, or use your Windows disk to create one. BootCamp includes driver software for setting up Windows 8 and Windows 10, but if you're a fan of Windows 7 (which some people prefer for gaming) then you'll have to hunt around on Apple's web site for the drivers you need and make sure you follow the correct procedure when copying them on to your Boot Camp partition.
Still, if you persevere with all that, you will eventually have Windows running at full speed on your Mac, giving you access to a wide range of Windows software and games that require more power and speed than you can get from using virtual machine technology.
4. VirtualBox 6.1
This open-source virtualisation program is free for personal use - but more at home in a corporate environment.
VirtualBox is a bit of a mixed bag. Like Parallels Desktop and VMWare Fusion, it allows you to create a virtual machine that can run Windows and Windows apps from within macOS itself.
If you want it for personal or educational use then VirtualBox is free - it's actually been made available as an open-source program by Oracle, the big database company that owns the core code. There are Linux and Windows versions of VirtualBox too, which allows you to use your virtual machines on many different types of computer (although you'll still need to pay for your own Windows licence to get started).
The disadvantage of open-source software is that VirtualBox isn't as polished or easy to use as Parallels or Fusion. To be fair, version 6.0 update tidied up its interface to make the initial setup of your virtual machines a little easier. It has also improved its support for audio and 3D graphics in Windows games and apps.
As of December 2019 it's version 6.1, which the company describes as a major update.
VirtualBox still throws a lot of jargon at you and if you don't know the difference between a 'virtual hard disk' and a 'virtual machine disk' then you might find it a bit tricky to get started.
And, as the program is free, you don't get any technical support - although there is a busy user forum where you can ask a few questions when you need to.
To be honest, Oracle is really aiming VirtualBox at large corporations who have a proper IT department to help them out. However, business users do need to pay £40/$50 for the VirtualBox Enterprise edition, and you may need to commit to buying 100 licences at a time, which pretty much rules it out for all but the largest businesses, or educational users who are prepared to tackle the free version.
5. Wine 4.1
The third technology option - after Boot Camp and virtualisation - is Wine, which can run Windows apps without Windows itself. However, right now Wine is not compatible with macOS Catalina due to it's need for 32-bit support (which Catalina doesn't offer).
Assuming you aren't using Catalina (which doesn't support Wine right now) and if you don't mind rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands a bit dirty, then Wine is an unusual but feasible option for running Windows software on your Mac.
Like VirtualBox, Wine is an open-source program that you can download for free. However, it doesn't use conventional virtualisation technology to create a virtual machine for installing Windows - in fact, Wine is the only program in this group that doesn't even require a copy of Windows at all.
Instead, Wine acts as a kind of software middleman that translates the programming routines - called APIs - in Windows apps so that they can talk directly to macOS, without needing a full copy of Windows itself. And as you don't need a lot of extra memory or processor power in order to run Windows, you may find that Wine can actually provide better performance than using a virtual machine (especially for games and graphics apps).
Wine also gets very regular updates from a team of dedicated developers who provide the software for free, and this year's version 4.0 provides better support for Windows' Direct3D graphics, which should provide further improvements for running games and creative graphics apps.
The downside is that Wine can be spectacularly confusing for beginners - to the point where we can only really recommend it to hobbyists who like a bit of a challenge.
There is an alternative to Wine (but like Wine, it's not ready to run in Catalina yet).
A company called CodeWeavers makes a special version of Wine for the Mac, that it calls CrossOver for Mac, which is (a little) more straightforward to use. You have to pay £38/$50 for CrossOver - or £48/$63 with extra telephone technical support - but CodeWeavers does a lot of work testing the program to ensure compatibility with a wide range of Windows software.
Admittedly, CrossOver is still fairly complicated to use at first, but there's a 14-day trial version available so that you can try it out and see what sort of performance and compatibility it provides for your main Windows apps and games.