You can use virtual machines to run different operating systems within Windows, macOS, or Linux. There’s no need to reboot to switch OS, and some solutions even support 3D acceleration, which makes it possible to play games too. Here are some of our favorites.
Best for: Mac users looking to run Windows.
- ✓ Runs Windows 11 (among others) on any Mac
- ✓ Effortless setup but still customizable
- ✓ Integrates tightly with macOS
- ✗ Mac-only
- ✗ Not cheap (start with the free trial)
- ✗ Doesn’t come with a Windows license
There’s no easier way for Mac users to run Windows than using Parallels Desktop. The app is designed to make it easy to run Windows on both Intel and Apple Silicon Mac models, with support for standard x86 Windows on Intel models or Windows on ARM on the M1 or later.
Parallels Desktop is one of the easiest virtual machine apps you could hope to use. Setup includes the ability to automatically download, install, and set up supported operating systems including Windows 11, Ubuntu, FedoraDebian, or even a separate macOS install. You can make changes to your virtual machine after creating it, with one-click profiles that optimize the VM for requirements like gaming or power efficiency.
On top of this, you can run Windows in coherence mode which hides the desktop entirely, so your Windows apps appear alongside your macOS ones as if they were running natively. Automatically share files between the two platforms, scale disk space intelligently, and suspend your Windows VM so you can return to it later.
Parallels Desktop is a premium app that costs $99.99 for the standalone Standard Edition. This allows for up to 8GB RAM and 4 virtual CPUs for each virtual machine. For the more capable Pro Edition, you’ll need to pay $119.99 per year. Students and those upgrading from older editions are eligible for a discount, and there’s a free trial available so you can try the app out for yourself before you buy.
Run Windows on Your Mac
Parallels Desktop 18
Run Windows, Linux, and guest macOS installs on your Intel or Apple Silicon Mac with Parallels Desktop.
Best for: Windows and Linux users who value 3D acceleration.
- ✓ Probably the best all-around VM for Windows and Linux users
- ✓ Run a vast range of operating systems
- ✓ Configure powerful virtual machines
- ✗ Workstation 16 lacks support for 32-bit guest operating systems
- ✗ May require some tinkering to get things working
VMware Workstation Player is the free version of VMware’s premium tool for Windows and Linux users. There’s no Mac version of Workstation available since VMware has a separate product for that. Despite being a free tool, Player is surprisingly feature-rich, sharing many features with the paid version. This means you can configure powerful VMs (up to 32 virtual CPU cores, 128GB of RAM) with the free version.
VMware works on Windows 8 or later plus Linux operating systems like UbuntuCentOS, openSUSE, and others. There’s no longer any support for 32-bit hosts, which means you can’t run VMware Workstation Player or Pro 16 on Windows 7. You can use the app to create VMs to run Windows XP through to 11 and Linux distros, Solaris, and FreeBSD.
It supports vTPM which emulates the Trusted Platform Module required by Windows 11, plus UEFI boot (but not Secure Boot, which is included in the Pro version).
VMware Workstation runs as a hypervisor, where native performance is passed on to the VM, assuming you satisfy the basic requirements (visible on the product page). This includes support for DirectX 11 and OpenGL 4.1 3D-accelerated graphics, plus Linux Vulkan support which makes Workstation a viable choice for gaming.
Best for: Mac users who don’t want to pay for Parallels Desktop.
- ✓ Run Windows 11 on a Mac for free
- ✓ Works with other operating systems too
- ✓ Create powerful virtual machines
- ✗ Windows 11 setup is complicated on Apple Silicon
- ✗ Doesn’t hold your hand like some of the alternatives
- ✗ No graphics acceleration
VMware Fusion is the answer to VMware Workstation for Mac users, with Player being a free version of the more powerful Pro release. The app includes support for both Intel and Apple Silicon Mac hosts, allowing you to run x86 and ARM-based operating systems at near-native speed.
Like Workstation, VMware Fusion Player has a generous free offering including the ability to create large VMs with 32 virtual CPU cores and 128GB of RAM. It includes many of the features you’d see in paid apps like Parallels Desktop like file sharing between the two operating systems, different view modes, plus DirectX 11 and OpenGL 4.3 support (on Intel models at least).
Apple Silicon support is there but still rudimentary. There’s no support for hardware acceleration on Apple Silicon hosts, which means you won’t be doing much 3D accelerated gaming in Windows. In addition to Windows, Fusion Player can be used to run Linux, FreeBSD, Solaris, and other operating systems plus macOS guest installs (but only on Intel models).
If you have a new Apple Silicon Mac you may be a little disappointed by the limitations, but things are bound to improve in time. For a free app, VMware Fusion Player is worth exploring if you’re a Mac user who is dipping their toes into virtualization for the first time.
Best for: Mac and Linux users who value a free open-source VM with older OS support.
- ✓ A completely free and open-source virtual machine app
- ✓ Well established with plenty of guides and documentation to help you out
- ✓ Broad compatibility in terms of host and guest operating systems
- ✗ Apple Silicon support in the experimental phase
- ✗ Only includes limited support for older operating systems
VirtualBox is a completely free virtual machine app that works on a huge range of host platforms. This includes Windows, macOS, Linux, and Solaris machines. Though it’s primarily aimed at x86 hosts (which is where the platform excels), VirtualBox has started including experimental support for ARM-based Apple Silicon Mac models in the developer preview edition too.
The VM app includes full support for Windows 8 through to 11, Solaris 10 and 11, and Linux distributions like Ubuntu, Oracle, and SUSE Linux Enterprise. On top of this, there is limited support for older versions of Windows including 7, Vista, and XP, plus older Ubuntu releases, and OS/2 Warp 4.5. VirtualBox lets you set up your VMs however you like them, with some easy preset choices to help you along.
VirtualBox is well-established and very popular, so there’s a lot of documentation available including guides, message boards, and a large online following. Though support is limited, it’s also a solid choice if you want to run older operating systems.
We’d recommend Apple Silicon users steer clear until support is improved and added to the main macOS release for now. For everyone else, VirtualBox is the go-to VM app.
Best for: Experienced users and those who want to emulate obscure hardware.
- ✓ Powerful and endlessly customizable
- ✓ Emulate a broad range of hardware
- ✓ Free and open-source
- ✗ Complex nature may put many users off
- ✗ Requires command-line install or building from source
QEMU is a full system emulator that allows you to emulate hardware or virtualize existing hardware. When emulating hardware you can run operating systems designed for one type of processor (for example, ARM) on non-native hardware (like an x86 processor). When virtualizing existing hardware, QEMU provides near-native performance.
The app is available for all major operating systems including Windows, Linux, and macOS. The source code is also available for building QEMU yourself. To install QEMU, you’ll need to do so using the command line using MSYS2 on Windows, MacPorts or Homebrew on macOSor your package manager of choice on Linux.
QEMU is powerful but complex, which makes it best suited to experienced users who are prepared to learn and troubleshoot along the way. You may find some much-needed support on the QEMU wiki.
Best for: Mac users who want a simpler version of QEMU.
- ✓ QEMU but simplified
- ✓ Gallery lets you download ready-made virtual machines
- ✓ iPhone version available too
- ✗ Mac and iOS only at the moment
- ✗ No 3D acceleration support in Windows means no gaming
- ✗ Free version must be updated manually
UTM is a simplified version of QEMU for Apple devices. UTM has a Mac version which you can download like any other app and an iOS version which you’ll need to compile and install yourself. The iOS version allows you to run other operating systems on your iPhone, if that’s what you want to do. The Mac version is arguably the more useful of the two, and that’s why it’s included here.
Like QEMU, UTM allows you to emulate any processor, though you’ll get the best performance by running native operating systems. For example, running Windows for ARM on an ARM-based Apple Silicon processor will work a lot better than trying to run an x86 version of Windows 10.
One of the best things about UTM is the Gallery, which allows you to download ready-made virtual machines. Unfortunately, UTM doesn’t support GPU virtualization in Windows so gaming won’t work outside of older games that are rendered in software.
Run Operating Systems Natively for Best Results
Though many of the solutions above offer near-native performance, you can’t beat running an operating system natively if speed and stability are your top priority. This might mean you’re better off building your own gaming PC on a budget to save some money, or investing in a mini PC for your next Linux-powered project.