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.
If you need to run Windows software or games on your Macs this article will reveal the best way to do so. We'll run through the best virtual machines for Mac, including Parallels and VMware, as well as some alternative options, including Apple's own Boot Camp and emulators that let you run Windows apps on a Mac without even installing Windows!
So read on to find out what the best way to run Windows software on a Mac is. We'll compare Boot Camp, and the virtualisation and emulation options so we can find the best virtual machine and virtualisation software packages for Macs.
Can I run Windows on a Mac?
When Apple moved to Intel processors back in 2006-2007 it also brought Windows to the Mac because the macOS and Windows OS suddenly spoke the same language. This was a benefit to Apple because it took away one of the biggest concerns of Windows users considering a move to the Mac - it meant they could bring Windows and their Windows software with them.
However, this is set to change. In 2020 Apple announced that it would be moving away from Intel to its own Apple Silicon processors and this transition began with the arrival of the M1 Chip in November 2020. This lead to prophesies that the days of Windows on the Mac are numbered, although luckily this doesn't look to be the case, with Parallels already announcing a version of Parallels that runs the ARM version of Windows on the M1 Mac.
But getting hold of the ARM version of Windows is not straightforward, and it is possible that the apps you rely on will not run well on the ARM version of Windows. For that reason we won't be recommending running Windows on an M1 Mac just yet.
So, for now, we will focus on running Windows on an Intel Mac. You can run Windows on Intel Macs and there plenty of options available for people who want to (that we will cover below).
Read more about running Windows on the M1 Mac here: Will Windows run on Apple Silicon?
Best way to run Windows on the Mac
Luckily there are plenty of options available for Mac users who need to run Windows and Windows apps on a Mac. Before we run through them, there are three main approaches to running Windows on a Mac, which we will detail below:
Apple's own solution is dual-booting using its own Boot Camp software to switch (boot) back and forth between the macOS and Windows. 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.
Boot Camp is the best solution for running games or professional graphics apps that need a lot of power. However, Apple's decision to abandon Intel processors does mean that Boot Camp will not work on Macs that use Apple's new chips, so Boot Camp's days are numbered.
Another option for running Windows on a Mac is virtualisation. 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. You can run both operating systems at the same time and even run Windows apps alongside all your normal Mac apps.
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 don't have to switch back and forth between macOS and Windows.
However, virtualisation does have some drawbacks. The 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 - and the virtual machine won't be as fast as an actual physical PC that has its own built-in processor and memory. For this reason Boot Camp is still the best option for running high-end graphics software or the latest 3D games.
A third option - after Boot Camp and virtualisation - involves Wine, which allows you to run Windows apps without Windows itself. No we aren't suggesting you down a bottle and imagine you are running Windows apps - Wine is a free open-source program from Oracle.
Rather than using conventional virtualisation technology to run Windows you don't actually run Windows at all. Rather Wine translates the programming routines - called APIs - in Windows apps so that they can talk directly to macOS, without needing a copy of Windows.
CodeWeavers CrossOver for Mac is based on Wine and it is already running Windows apps on M1 Macs!
Both Boot Camp and the virtualisation options require you to own a full, licensed copy of Windows. One of the major benefits of options like Wine and CrossOver is that you don't need a copy of Windows.
If you are looking for a free way to run Windows on your Mac read this: How to run Windows 10 on a Mac for free.
So that explains the difference between the different solutions for running Windows on the Mac, but what is the best route? Below we will run through what we think are the best virtual machines for running Windows on the Mac, looking at the pros and cons of solutions like Parallels versus VMware and comparing them to other ways to run Windows on the Mac such as CodeWeavers CrossOver for Mac.
1. Parallels Desktop 16.5
Parallels Desktop tends to get an update every year, to coincide with the latest version of macOS. The release of Big Sur in 2021 represented one of the biggest update to the macOS in years - paving the way for a future generation of Macs that use Apple Silicon chips - which meant that Parallels Desktop 16 was a particularly big upgrade.
Parallels Desktop 16 bought the usual performance improvements: 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.
Some of the most important changes to Parallels Desktop 16 aren't visible to the naked eye though. Apple made some big changes to the way that Big Sur works, so Parallels had to do a major programming rewrite for version 16 simply to ensure that this new version would still run on Big Sur.
However, Parallels Desktop 16 wasn't ready for the M1 chip and there were big questions about whether there was even a future for Windows on the Mac with the arrival of the ARM-based Macs. Then came the arrival of Parallels Desktop 16.5 in April 2021, which brought support for M1 Macs and the ARM version of Windows. Read: New Parallels Desktop brings Windows to M1 Macs for more information.
Parallels Desktop 16.5 is a free update to anyone running Parallels 16. Other than adding support for the M1 Macs and ARM Windows it addresses some stability and security issues.
When we tested Parallels Desktop 16 we were pleased to find that it 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.
If you want to run the ARM version of Windows on Parallels Desktop 16.5 it is now possible, but it should be noted that it's not a simple project. You will need to obtain the ARM version of Windows, and to do that you currently need to sign up to Microsoft's Insider program. This update should pave the way for running Windows on M1 Macs in a future where the ARM version of Windows is properly up and running though.
This update 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 12
Fusion hasn’t always kept up with Parallels Desktop’s regular cycle of updates and new features, but VMWare Fusion 12 has closed many of the gaps, and there is also a free version for home use.
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 12. It launched in September 2020. New features in VMware Fusion 12 include long-overdue support for DirectX 11 and support for eGPUs. Additionally, the virtual USB controller has been updated to USB 3.1 and thus supports 10Gbps speed on Macs with USB-C connectors.
VMware is making VMware Fusion Player 12 - which was previously only available for Windows - available for Mac. You can use this version for free if you are not using it for commercial reasons - you will need a MyVMware account to register for a free version.
Previously the new feature added in VMware Fusion 11.5 (which launched in September 2019) included Dark Mode and Sidecar - which means you can drive a VM completely from your iPad. Fusion 11 came out in September 2018 and added support for 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 did add 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 12 Player will be the best option for most people, costing £149.99/$149.99 for a single-user licence. There's also Fusion Pro, which costs a hefty £199/$199, but includes many additional features for larger corporate users, such as the ability to work with VMWare's vSphere software for managing virtual servers.
There is also a free Fusion 12 Player version for home users. Register for your free 'personal use' license here.
Read our full review of WMware Fusion 12.
3. CrossOver 20
CodeWeavers CrossOver for Mac is based on Wine (mentioned in the introduction above) but is a little more straightforward to use than Wine.
You have to pay £32/$39 for CrossOver - or £48/$59 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.
And the really good news is that CrossOver 20, which launched in November 2020 has already brought Windows apps to M1 Macs. CrossOver emulates Intel Windows binaries via Rosetta 2 on the ARM Mac - the benefit of CrossOver is that a Windows installation is not necessary so it doesn't matter that ARM Windows isn't readily available.
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.
4. Apple Boot Camp
Using dual-boot rather than virtualisation technology, Boot Camp provides the best performance for Intel-based Macs that need to run Windows. (As we explained above, the M1-based Macs do not offer Boot Camp).
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).
Thanks to Boot Camp your Mac can 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.
The disadvantage of using Boot Camp 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. Boot Camp 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. Just as long as you don't have an M1 Mac...
5. 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 (Oracle also makes Wine available as an open-source program). You might think of Oracle as a big database company, but they basically own the core cod for these solutions.
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, the 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.
VirtualBox has been in version 6.1 - which the company describes as a major update - for some time. It doesn't yet support M1 Macs - unlike Parallels and VMware, Oracle has made no commitment as yet to getting the software running on an M1 Mac.
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.
6. Wine 5
As we mentioned above, the third technology option - after Boot Camp and virtualisation - is Wine, which allows you to run Windows apps without Windows itself.
Version 5 of Wine arrived in October 2020 and it can run on M1 Macs via via Rosetta 2.
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.
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.
CodeWeavers CrossOver for Mac is a little easier to use than Wine, despite being closely related to the software. But of course Wine is free, which is a big bonus.