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 then 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 looking at alternative options, including Apple's own Boot Camp and emulators that let you run Windows apps on a Mac without even installing Windows!
There's another important new option that's now available too, in the form of Microsoft's Windows 365 service. This gives you access to a Cloud PC - a kind of virtual machine up in the cloud that allows you to run Windows on any Mac or other device that has a fast Internet connection. So read on to discover the best options for running Windows, and Windows apps, on your Mac.
You may also like to read our guide to How to install Windows and run Windows apps on a Mac.
Can I run Windows on a Mac?
When Apple moved to Intel processors back in 2006-2007, it also brought the ability to run Windows to the Mac because the macOS and Windows OS suddenly spoke the same language (the x86 instruction set used in Intel processors). This was a benefit to Apple because it took away one of the biggest concerns of Windows users when considering a move to the Mac - it meant they could bring Windows and their Windows software with them.
And, in true Apple style, it came up with an elegant solution, known as Boot Camp. This is a utility that allows you to partition your Mac's hard drive or SSD - effectively splitting it in two - leaving the main macOS on one partition, and then allowing you to install Windows on the new partition. You can then dual boot your Mac, starting it up by running either the macOS or Windows.
The only problem here is that Boot Camp forces you to make a choice - either you run the macOS or you run Windows. However, many people find it inconvenient to constantly switch back and forth between the macOS and Windows, so there's another option called virtualisation that gives you the best of both worlds.
(There's another issue with Boot Camp, which we will discuss below, but in a nutshell - it isn't a feature of M1 Macs).
What is a Virtual Machine?
Virtualisation programs such as Parallels Desktop and VMWare Fusion run on the macOS, but allow you to create a Virtual Machine - or VM - that mimics the hardware of a Windows PC. So you can create a VM on your Mac and then install Windows - or other operating systems, such as Linux - on the VM. This is a great solution as it allows you to run the Windows apps that you need right alongside your main Mac apps as well. The only disadvantage is that you need a pretty fast Mac with plenty of memory and storage to run Windows as a VM, since it means that your Mac is effectively running two operating systems at the same time.
Visualization and M1 Macs
There are millions of Intel-based Macs still in use all around the world that can still use either Boot Camp or virtualisation to run Windows. However, in 2020 Apple announced that it would be moving away from using Intel processors to its own Apple Silicon processors and this transition began with the arrival of the ARM-based M1 Chip in November 2020. Rather than the x86 architecture used by Intel processors, the Apple's M1 processors use a different architecture, known as ARM (named after Arm Ltd, the British company that originally designed the chips).
This means that new Macs that are based on the M1 chip - or any of its future variants, such as the rumoured M1X - no long offer Boot Camp because the M1 processor is not compatible with the with the x86 version of Windows. Virtualisation is also more complicated, as Apple's ARM chips can't easily create virtual machines that mimic Intel's x86 chips.
However, Microsoft is currently developing a new version of Windows that is also designed to run on ARM chips, generally referred to as Windows On ARM. The recently released Parallels Desktop 17 does allow M1 Macs to create virtual machines that run Windows On ARM, although it's a tricky process as this new version of Windows is still in development and is only available to people who have registered for Microsoft's Insider testing program.
Further complicating matters, Microsoft announced that Windows 11 will arrive later on 6 October 2021. While there will apparently be an ARM version of Windows 11 (eventually) it is still possible that it will not run on Macs whether they have an Intel or an Apple processor. This is because Microsoft requires a security chip called the TPM module - and Macs don't have this chip. Read: Will Windows 11 run on Mac? for more information. Also read: Windows 11 vs macOS and what Apple should copy.
To cut a long story short, the bottom line is that it's business as usual for Intel Macs, as those Mac models can still use either Boot Camp or virtualisation technology in order to run Windows. However newer M1 Macs can only use virtualisation to run Windows, and even then you have to jump through a few hoops in order to obtain the new version of Windows On ARM. Read more about running Windows on the M1 Mac here: Will Windows run on Apple Silicon?
The emulation alternative
Finally, there's one other option - known as emulation - a process that attempts to run individual Windows apps on your Mac without the need to actually install the Windows operating system itself. To be honest, emulation tools such as Wine and CrossOver are something of a niche product for technically experienced users who don't mind rolling up their sleeves and doing some of the work for themselves. However, emulation programs tend to be fairly inexpensive - or even free - so we'll cover some of the main emulation options here so that you can try them out if you want.
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.
Parallels Desktop 17
Parallels always times its updates for Parallels Desktop to coincide with Apple's own updates for the macOS, but this year there's a major new version of Windows coming from Microsoft too, so the first order of business for Parallels Desktop 17 is to provide compatibility with both macOS Monterey and Windows 11.
It's also possible to run Monterey as both the host - the primary operating system on your Mac - and as a guest virtual machine (VM), which means that you can test Monterey as a VM before deciding whether to fully install it onto your Mac.
Windows 11 has quite high system requirements - including the need for a special security chip known as TPM 2.0 - but Parallels 17 includes a virtual TPM chip that will work with Windows 11 and its BitLocker data encryption features.
Good performance is vital when running Windows or Linux in a VM on your Mac, so Parallels Desktop 17 includes a new display driver that improves 2D graphics performance by around 25%, providing smoother graphics for the Windows interface in a VM, as well as better performance when playing video or 2D games (so you can play all those Windows-only platform games and rogue-likes that are all the rage at the moment).
Macs equipped with Apple's home-grown M1 processors also provide 28% faster 3D graphics when using Microsoft's DirectX 11 software.
There are, however, some limitations for new M1 Macs. You can only run Parallels on an M1 Mac that has Monterey or Big Sur as its primary (host) operating system, and you can only run guest virtual machines that run the Insider Preview of the new Windows On ARM.
Other improvements for both Intel and M1 Macs include the ability to copy text and graphics from Windows applications into the new Quick Notes that are part of Monterey. There's also a new Automatic Resource Manager that can monitor your VMs in order to determine how much memory and processor power is required for the apps that you're running, and then automatically allocate the required resources for you.
The pricing situation is a little complicated, though. You can buy the standard edition of Parallels Desktop with a perpetual license - which requires a flat fee of £79.99, although you will need pay for any future upgrades that you require.
Alternatively, you can subscribe to the standard edition for £69.99 per year, and that price includes all future upgrades. There's also a Pro Edition for developers and more experienced users, and a Business Edition for larger organisations, but these are only available as annual subscriptions, costing £79.99 per year.
Even so, Parallels Desktop is still considerably less expensive than Microsoft's new Windows 365 cloud PC service, and its pattern of regular annual updates and support for the new M1 Macs ensure that it remains the leader in Mac virtualization for another year.
For more information read our full Parallels Desktop 17 review.
VMWare Fusion 12
For many years, VMWare Fusion was in lock-step with Parallels Desktop, with the two rivals releasing regular updates and competing for the top spot in the Mac virtualization market. In recent years, though, VMWare seems to have taken its foot off the pedal and has allowed Fusion to fall behind a bit (in fact, you actually have to dig around quite a bit simply to find Fusion on VMWare's web site these days).
The last major update for Fusion was version 12.0 in September 2020. But, of course, quite a lot has happened in the Mac world since then - including macOS Monterey, and the little matter of an entirely new generation of M1 Macs that use Apple Silicon rather than Intel processors.
We contacted VMWare for an update on Fusion, but the company merely directed us to its blog pages - which only seem to be updated every few months, and the latest blog entry actually announced that there wouldn't be an upgrade to Fusion this year.
There was some good news, though, as the company also announced the release of a 'Public Tech Preview' of a new version of Fusion designed to run on the new M1 Macs with Apple Silicon. This Preview is available free of charge although, of course, you have to be careful when running any preview or beta software and relying on it for important work projects. And, like Parallels Desktop running on M1 Macs, this M1 version of Fusion can only run the ARM version of Windows - which itself is still in its preview phase.
In other words, Fusion is slightly in limbo at the moment, although the current Fusion 12 is still a good option for owners of Intel Macs that need to run the standard (Intel) version of Windows.
You can download the update for free here. However, it's not a simple case of installing the update and running Windows on an M1 Mac due to licensing issues, as we explain here: VMware releases Fusion for M1 Macs (sort of).
That's bad news for owners of M1 Macs - but there's actually some good news for owners of existing Macs that have Intel processors.
Fusion 12 added support for 3D graphics using both DirectX 11 and OpenGL, giving Fusion users access to a wider range of Windows games, as well as many professional graphics and design applications. We were also pleased to see that Fusion 12 added support for eGPUs - external GPUs - that can be used to boost graphics performance in your VMs, leaving your Mac's main GPU free to concentrate just on the macOS.
Fusion 12 also included a number of technical improvements designed to improve compatibility with VMWare's corporate products and solutions. That corporate emphasis probably explains why the company has slowed down development of Fusion - which tends to be more of a personal product for individual users. It also means that VMWare's web site and Help pages tend to be awash in techno-babble that isn't very user-friendly for newcomers.
However, this shift in focus does have one welcome benefit. At the same time as launching Fusion 12, VMWare also announced that it would release a free version of the program - called Fusion Player - for personal use only, for home users and students. You'll need to register for a VMWare account, but Fusion Player is free to download here.
There's also a version called Fusion Pro, which is designed for IT managers in larger corporations. So while Fusion hasn't kept up to date with the latest developments in Mac hardware and software, the availability of the free Fusion Player still makes it a great option for home users and students that occasionally need to run Windows apps or games on their existing Intel Macs.
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.
Windows 365 (which launched in July 2021) has the potential to really challenge traditional virtualization programs such as Parallels Desktop and VMware Fusion. However, at the moment, Windows 365 is still pretty expensive and is very much aimed at large corporate users, rather than the individuals and smaller businesses that tend to use Parallels and Fusion.
Microsoft describes Windows 365 as a Cloud PC, but its technical notes make it clear that Windows 365 is a form of virtual machine. The difference is that Parallels and Fusion create virtual machines that are stored locally on your Mac itself, and these virtual machines rely on your Mac's own processor power, memory and storage to run Windows and Windows apps.
In contrast, Windows 365 creates a virtual machine that is stored up in the cloud, and runs on Microsoft's own servers. The video image for the Windows desktop on your cloud PC is then streamed to your Mac - or any other device, such as an iPad or even another Windows PC - via your broadband connection.
This form of virtual machine can work well, as long as you have a fast enough - and always on - Internet connection. But, as mentioned, Windows 365 is quite expensive, with prices ranging from £31.68 - £67.44 per month. That's compared to £69.99 for a full year for the home user version of Parallels Desktop, while Fusion even has a completely free version for home users and students.
Windows 365 certainly has appeal to larger businesses that want to provide a standardized cloud PC that their staff can connect to from any location that has an Internet connection - it's ideal for hybrid working and the 'new normal'. However, it's too expensive for ordinary home users, students and smaller businesses, so existing users of Parallels and Fusion will probably want to stick with those apps for the time being.
Read more here: How to use Windows 365 on Mac, iPad and iPhone.
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...
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.
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.