Best Virtual Machine Software for Mac (Incl. M1 M2 Macs)
Utilities • March 14, 2023
Unlike Windows PCs, Mac notebooks and desktops are not that flexible regarding other Operating Systems. Even though Boot Camp exists, setting up Windows or Linux in the dual-boot mode is challenging. It is one primary reason people go for Virtual Machine software.
Virtual Machine software, also known as VM software and desktop virtualization tools, makes it possible for you to run other operating systems within your Mac. Because these virtual desktops use virtual hardware, it is not necessary to reboot your Mac to run Windows or Linux. Instead, you can open the corresponding VM software and run the OS.
With the unleashed power of Apple Silicon chips, Macs have come a long way with virtualization. So, you get a lot of options when you need powerful virtual machine software for your MacBook, iMac, or Mac mini. It can be a little confusing, though.
To make sure you make an informed decision, check out our guide on the best virtual machine software for Mac. So, without further ado, let’s look at the top picks to run VMs on Mac.
Top picks to run virtual machines on your Mac
#1 Parallels Desktop
Parallels Desktop is currently the easiest and most efficient way to run Virtual Machines on your Mac. Even though it packs many more features than traditional virtual machine software, Parallels Desktop works just as efficiently when installing Windows, Linux, or Chrome OS on your MacBook or iMac. After using this tool for over a couple of years, we believe Parallels Desktop deserves the top position on this list.
After you have installed Parallels Desktop on your Mac, it takes only a few minutes to start using your first VM.
Parallels Desktop gives you two options to create a VM during the setup wizard. First, you can use one of the existing operating system ISO files from your storage. Or, you can directly download popular OSs like Linux or Windows from the official source. In the second method, the setup becomes super-quick because Parallels Desktop knows what you are downloading. As a result, you will have a ready-to-use virtual machine in a few minutes.
So, we’d say that it is effortless to get started with Parallels Desktop. This feature is helpful if you do not have experience with virtual machine software.
What We Loved
First and foremost, Parallels Desktop is incredibly easy to use. You do not need technical expertise from start to finish. But, if you have experience with virtualization and VMs, you can go all the way in. In addition, the app offers a significant level of customization options. In other words, it is safe to say that Parallels Desktop brings the best of both worlds.
But you should not judge Parallels Desktop based on ease of use. This virtual machine software does not hold back in terms of performance, especially if you have an Apple Silicon Mac. Regardless of the OS you are running; you can expect near-native performance on your Mac computer. It is almost like using the OS on a different device, but it is within your Mac.
Parallels Desktop also comes with a suite of utilities aptly named Parallels Toolbox. This collection contains many valuable apps you may need while dealing with multiple Operating Systems. For instance, you can use one of the utilities to set up alarms, record the screen content, and set up a world clock. Of course, these options are in addition to the standard customization options available for every virtual machine.
We should also remember that Parallels Desktop for Mac is primarily designed to run Windows on Mac. It does this job so well that you may not need to purchase a separate Windows PC in the first place. You also get several excellent features like Coherence Mode, using which you can launch Windows apps right from the macOS dock.
What Could Be Better
While Parallels Desktop offers a seamless experience of creating and managing virtual machines, the tool is not perfect. For instance, you may notice that Parallels Desktop does not provide many features when you set up a Linux virtual machine. You cannot use the Coherence Mode or use the power utilities. You may come across additional limitations based on the Linux distro you are running.
We also noticed that ultimate customization options on Parallels Desktop are only available in the Business or Pro editions. For instance, if you want to explore advanced virtual networking tools or Visual Studio plug-ins for development, you must pay an additional price. It may not be a great option if you have a limited budget.
Availability and Pricing
Parallels Desktop for Mac is available for Intel-based and Apple Silicon-based Mac notebooks and desktops. It works great with the latest M2 Pro processors as well. However, you should not expect the best speeds using Intel-based Macs.
The Standard Edition of Parallels Desktop is available for $89.99 as a one-time payment. However, if you like the Pro or Business editions, you have to pay $119.99 and $149.99 per year, respectively. The company has some exciting offers for students and educators.
Read our full Parallels Desktop review for more.
#2 VMware Fusion Player
VMware Fusion Player is another great virtual machine software for Mac, especially when you need better control over your VMs. As you may know, VMware is one of the trusted names in virtualization and related technologies. And VMware Fusion is currently the gold standard in the industry. However, VMware Fusion Player has been optimized for ease of use and better control without all the technical expertise.
Installing VMware Fusion Player on Mac is an easy task. You can download the installation file from VMware official website and finish the installation in a few minutes.
However, unlike Parallels Desktop, VMware Fusion Player does not offer many direct-installation options. It means you have to download the ISO file on your own and use the file to create the virtual machine. On the bright side, you can drag and drop the file into the VMware Fusion Player interface. Therefore, if you have some technical expertise with virtual machines, it may come in handy while dealing with this virtual machine software. Unfortunately, we also had to spend considerable time with this setup.
While we do not think the getting-started process is a dealbreaker, we would love to see something simpler, especially considering that VMware Fusion Player is made for a versatile audience.
What We Loved
One thing we love the most about VMware Fusion Player is the amount of control it offers. It does not matter which OS you virtualize; the app gives you great power. For instance, if you want to set up the virtual machine as an independent device in terms of the network. You also get better control over how the machine consumes resources. These features are helpful when running a virtual machine on your MacBook.
Compared to Parallels Desktop, VMware Fusion Player works great with a better variety of platforms. It is a great option to try little-known Linux distros or a fork of Chrome OS. Again, it is possible due to how much control a user gets in the process. When you start, VMware Fusion Player shows different options to create a custom virtual machine with the correct firmware, configuration, and other aspects.
For instance, if you want professional-level virtualization, you may want to install the Photon OS build from VMware. Fortunately, the app has a pre-built profile for these containers, making the whole ordeal much more effortless. Therefore, if you want to experiment with virtual machines and exclusive builds, we suggest you go with VMWare Fusion Player instead of other options.
We also loved that VMware Fusion Player remains easy to manage once you have set it up. For instance, it will automatically save the state of the virtual machine when you close the window. So you can resume the task you were doing. In addition, the ability to change almost every aspect of the VM, including network and removable media, is impressive.
What Could Be Better
We felt that VMware Fusion Player is not optimized for beginners. While we understand that the app has a professional design, it would not hurt the developer to include some direct-install options. It will help users get the latest OS version from the official source. In addition to saving time, such a feature can be a great path toward ensuring security.
Getting the maximum performance on Windows within Mac is also tricky when using VMware Fusion. We would love to see some optimization on this matter. In particular, saving and retrieving the status of the VM takes an extended amount of time compared to how Parallels Desktop does it. The previous problem, which puts the burden of finding the latest OS version on the user, does not help, either.
Availability and Pricing
VMware Fusion Player is available for macOS and Windows, among other platforms. You can download the app from the official website. As you can guess, this virtual machine software has complete support for M1 and M2 chips from the Apple Silicon series.
One great thing about VMware Fusion Player for Mac is its multiple licensing options. So, if you want to build a VM for non-commercial needs, you can get a free license from VMware, which also offers customer tech support. But if you want advanced features, premium plans start at $149.
Since its beginning, VirtualBox from Oracle has been a go-to virtual machine software for Mac. However, the app was a little late to bring native support for Apple Silicon chips. However, at the time of writing, VirtualBox works great with M1 and M2-powered MacBooks, iMacs, and Mac minis. So, we believe this free-to-use app should be one of the options worth your consideration.
Even though Oracle VirtualBox is not as advanced as other virtual machine software on this list, we found it incredibly easy to set up your virtual machine.
As it happens, VirtualBox does a great job assisting you in the process. For instance, when you click the New button and select the ISO file, VirtualBox will identify the OS and fill in some sections for you. This feature can make things easier if you do not know how to set up a custom virtual machine on your Mac. However, you should not expect it to work with not-so-known operating system images. Overall, we would not say the setup process is too complex.
Once you have set up your virtual machine, VirtualBox will show everything on a single dashboard. It seems more straightforward than the other options we have tried.
What We Loved
We should start with how lightweight VirtualBox is compared to other virtual machine software, such as VMware Fusion or Parallels Desktop. It also means you do not have to worry about the app taking up much storage space or system resources. Rest assured, it keeps all the Operating System images you’ve installed via VirtualBox.
Despite being simple and having a minimal software footprint, VirtualBox offers a lot of room for customizing the virtual machine. For instance, you can choose between an automated or manual installation. Naturally, you will find the second option more interesting if you want to customize how the virtual machine works. However, whenever there is an option for automated installation, VirtualBox will show the option.
Because it is designed for various users, VirtualBox offers additional controls from easy interfaces. So, if you want to send a keyboard command to the virtual machine, it will be easier. Of course, you might miss out on advanced features like the Coherence Mode in Parallels Desktop, but it is another story altogether. In short, for the most part, we loved how
What Could Be Better
Despite its simplicity, the UI of Oracle VirtualBox is old-school, to say the least. As a result, VirtualBox can be less intuitive than other apps for running virtual machines. Therefore, we think the app is due for a UI refresh shortly. We also noticed that the UI has been kept this way so people can manage multiple VMs from a single scene.
Performance boosting is also something we would like to see in VirtualBox. At this point, the app does not offer any option to improve the performance of the VMs. You should not expect any features like Coherence Mode or hybrid mode. In short, VirtualBox does not cut it if you want to create a VM that runs as well as the Mac or PC you are using.
Availability and Pricing
VirtualBox is available for the latest version of macOS, including Ventura. If you have an M1/M2 Mac, you need to download the beta build of VirtualBox. At the time of writing, the public build of VirtualBox does not have native support for Apple Silicon.
As far as pricing goes, Oracle VirtualBox is completely free to use. Therefore, you do not have to pay anything, even if you want to use the virtual machine software for commercial needs. However, despite being free, Oracle is known for on-time updates and community support.
Other apps to run Windows on Mac
We have already looked at the best virtual machine software for Mac. However, you can also use the apps below to run Windows on Mac in different ways.
CrossOver is an app that lets you run Windows apps on macOS without installing a Virtual Machine. It is an advantageous method when you do not want a complete system running inside your Mac. It is also available for Linux and ChromeOS. In case you are wondering, CrossOver works by creating a compatibility layer on top of macOS.
As you can guess, CrossOver works fine with Apple Silicon and Intel-based Macs. So, even if you have an old MacBook where you want to run Windows apps, there is a way. It is also impressive that the CrossOver package does not cost much compared to the other premium solutions. In short, if you need a way to run Windows without the complexities of emulators and licenses, you should check out CrossOver.
#5 Windows 365 Cloud PC
Windows 365 Cloud PC is one of the easier methods to run Windows on Mac. However, technically, you do not run a version of Windows on macOS. On the other hand, the system resources are on the cloud, and you basically stream the PC to your Mac. As you can guess, the biggest limitation of this method is that you always need a stable internet connection.
However, if you can manage a faster internet connection, you should try Microsoft 365 Cloud PC service. The service is from Microsoft, so you can avoid worries about compatibility issues. You can install almost anything on the cloud PC, browse the web, and even do software testing. However, this method is not cost-effective since you have to pay a monthly subscription fee.
WineHQ is another compatibility layer that helps you run Windows apps on macOS, Linux, and a few other platforms. Because it is designed to run apps primarily, you do not have to worry about running the VM in the first place. Even though the system is not perfect, you will not have trouble running popular Windows apps on your Mac.
On the bright side, WineHQ is not an abandoned project. It receives regular updates from developers, thanks to the powerful community behind it. Impressive enough, you can use WineHQ to play Windows-based games on your Mac. On top of all these, the app is completely free to use and open source. However, it may not be a suitable option for heavy-duty virtualization needs.
#7 Boot Camp
Boot Camp happens to be the last option that you should try for running Windows on Mac. As you may know, Boot Camp is designed to set up a dual-boot system of macOS and Windows. However, it means you have to restart your MacBook, iMac, or Mac mini to launch Windows. Therefore, it is not a convenient option if you need an integrated workflow.
The compatibility status of Boot Camp is also questionable to an extent. For instance, there is official support for installing Windows 10 via Boot Camp, but we are unsure of what happens with Windows 11. On the bright side, setting up Windows or Linux on your Mac using Boot Camp does not cause extra. You also get a few benefits because the system is made by Apple.
Is it legal to use a VM?
It is 100% legal to use a VM on your Mac. As we explained, a virtual machine on your Mac will use the system resources like an app. Therefore, it is like using any other app. However, you should think twice about legal aspects when it comes to owning the OS.
What is the best virtual machine to use on Mac?
Even though each virtual machine has its advantages and disadvantages, we believe Parallels Desktop is your best shot at running Windows or other operating systems on your Mac. It works spectacularly when you like to set up Windows in the most seamless way possible.
Which is better? VMware or VirtualBox for Mac?
Although an advanced comparison may say otherwise, we believe VMware Fusion Player is the better option if you want maximum control over the virtual machine. On the other hand, you should go with VirtualBox if you need basic options at no cost.
Wrapping up, we believe we have provided all the information you need about setting up a virtual machine on your Mac. We are sure the top three options we have picked are fabulous in every way possible. But you should also try the other options if you are more interested in running Windows apps on your Mac.