Unlike the old days when virtual machines were the only option, you can use different ways to run Windows apps on a Mac. It is convenient for people who do not want the complexities of managing an entire virtual machine on their device, especially for those who have a lightweight setup. However, at times, you may need the maximum power of Apple Silicon chips on your Mac.
Parallels Desktop and CrossOver for Mac are two options you may have heard of. Even though both software let you run Windows apps on macOS, they do not work the same way. For instance, choosing CrossOver over Parallels Desktop may not always work, and vice versa. Instead, you must understand what these tools are made for, their advantages, and limitations.
However, you do not have to worry if you cannot make a quick decision. In this comparison guide, we have discussed the different aspects of Parallels Desktop and CrossOver for Mac. Instead of simply talking about the features of both apps, a personal approach has been used to help you understand which of these tools works the best when you need to efficiently run Windows apps.
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Parallels vs. CrossOver: the Basics
Parallels Desktop for Mac is a desktop virtualization software available for macOS. Though it can run different operating systems like Linux and macOS, Parallels Desktop is optimized to offer a better Windows experience on Mac. Most importantly, Parallels Desktop lets you use Windows applications on your Mac computer with no need to reboot the device or keep a virtual machine running in the foreground. It also means you can use Parallels Desktop to do (almost) everything you can do with a Windows PC.
CrossOver for Mac, officially called CrossOver Mac, is a Windows compatibility layer available for macOS. An improved version of WineHQ, CrossOver works in a way different from a virtual machine. The compatibility layer is designed to translate commands designed for Windows into commands that macOS can understand, but this process works faster than you imagine. So, you can use CrossOver for Mac to run Windows apps and games. However, there are limitations that you should know about.
As you can guess, the way Parallels Desktop and CrossOver for Mac work makes a huge difference.
Parallels vs. CrossOver: the Workflow
We will quickly explore how Parallels Desktop for Mac and CrossOver for Mac work!
- Parallels Desktop for Mac
As we said, Parallels Desktop for Mac is a virtual machine software for macOS. It works by creating a virtual device within your Mac, where you can install and run different Operating Systems. For instance, if you want to install a Linux distribution like Ubuntu on your Mac, Parallels Desktop is a great option. However, the USP of Parallels Desktop for Mac deals with how the virtual machine software deals with the Windows OS.
Parallels Desktop packs numerous features that make it easy to run Windows apps on macOS. For instance, you do not have to keep the virtual machine running in the background, thanks to Coherence Mode. As a result, you can launch Windows-only apps right from the macOS dock. Similarly, you can expect maximum speed from a Parallels virtual machine when running the ARM version of Windows 11 on M1/M2 Macs.
You will need more than a few minutes to set up and get started with Parallels Desktop for Mac. First, you’ve to download Parallels Desktop for Mac from the official website and install it. After the installation, you can run the setup wizard and install the Operating System of your choice.
However, you will find it easy to install Windows 11, thanks to the one-click installer. Once Parallels Desktop has installed the operating system, you can use the virtual machine like you open another app. In the case of Windows, additional features such as Coherence Mode and Gaming Mode will be available.
CrossOver for Mac is a compatibility layer that works as a translator between Windows apps and macOS. To give the basic idea, Windows applications are designed to communicate with the Windows OS, whereas Mac apps, with macOS. CrossOver for Mac bridges these differences by translating the commands from Windows apps to something that macOS can understand. This way, apps designed for Windows can run on your Mac.
Like we mentioned, CrossOver is an improved and more frequently maintained version of WineHQ. For the same reason, you can expect better compatibility and stability from CrossOver for Mac. It is important to note that CrossOver for Mac does not work like an emulator. It does not install Windows on your Mac, either. However, it still lets you run Windows apps on macOS.
Compared to the setup process of Parallels Desktop, setting up CrossOver for Mac is easier. You can directly download the installation file from the CrossOver website and complete the setup in a few seconds. Then, you can use the built-in app database to install your favorite Windows-only apps.
As you can guess, there is no need to download or install a version of the Windows OS. It is because the app has built-in code to easily shift between Windows and macOS commands. Post installation, you can install individual apps or create bottles to run the apps you desire.
So, while the setup process for both apps is simple, you may need more time to get started with the Parallels Desktop for Mac app running Windows.
Parallels vs. CrossOver: the Performance
Performance is something that essentially defines your Windows experience on Mac. Fortunately, you get a few options with Parallels Desktop and CrossOver.
Parallels Desktop for Mac is, as we said, optimized for running Windows 11 apps. More importantly, the app has been optimized for Apple Silicon Mac devices, including the ones using the M2 lineup chips. So, when it comes to running an ARM version of Windows, you can expect the maximum performance from your M1/M2 Mac. In our experience, moving between macOS and Windows felt like we were simply switching apps. Of course, it is also thanks to the optimized resource consumption algorithms from Parallels. In general, you get a minimum guarantee of performance while using Parallels Desktop for Mac (read our full Parallels review here).
When it comes to CrossOver for Mac, things are a little different. For one, because the app does not require an entire OS on your system, you do not have to worry about the software footprint. However, because of the same reason, you cannot expect the best performance for many apps. Even some apps that work great on Windows PCs struggled after the translation process from CrossOver. Therefore, we were not the biggest fans of the performance from using CrossOver to run Windows apps on macOS. It would make a significant change while trying to play games or use something like Visual Studio.
So, if you prioritize maximum performance over everything else, you should choose Parallels Desktop instead of CrossOver for Mac.
Parallels vs. CrossOver: the Compatibility
Compatibility is another area where the differences between Parallels Desktop and CrossOver for Mac turn starker. Depending on the type and number of apps you want to run, you will have to decide over the other.
Staying true to its claims, Parallels Desktop for Mac offers the best experience in terms of compatibility. You can use a Windows virtual machine on Parallels Desktop to run more than 200,000 Windows apps without installing anything additional. Things get better if you would like to use the virtual machine in the full-screen mode. In this case, you can install almost any app/game that you may install on a physical Windows PC.
And, regardless of the Windows 11 build—ARM or something conventional—, you can install system-level apps and utilities as well. For instance, if your favorite Windows-only games are available through Steam, you can install the Steam client for Windows 11 and engage in gameplay. Overall, we can confirm that Parallels Desktop for Mac offers the best level of compatibility from virtual machine.
On its website, CrossOver for Mac claims that it works with all kinds of software, including productivity tools, utilities, and games. However, during our testing, we found it may not be 100% accurate. It should be noted that CrossOver for Mac does not install the Windows OS on your Mac, but instead relies on the translation process. As a result, CrossOver for Mac may be unable to efficiently translate the commands for some apps.
In our experience, we had trouble installing even some of the most popular apps and games. In most cases, CrossOver said that the app could not be installed or will not run properly. However, since we tested these apps on an M2 MacBook Air, there was no shortage of resources. Therefore, it is wise to assume that things could not go smoothly due to the lack of optimization.
Overall, we have to choose Parallels Desktop for Mac over CrossOver when looking for top compatibility. It seems to be a better option for games, numerous utilities, and other apps you may want to test.
Parallels vs. CrossOver: the Experience
Here are a few takeaways from using Parallels Desktop and CrossOver for different use-case scenarios.
We found that Parallels Desktop for Mac and CrossOver for Mac work fine while dealing with everyday apps like Microsoft Office or Adobe Acrobat Reader. Therefore, if you simply want to run one of the popular non-heavy-duty Windows apps on your Mac, you can select one based on other factors like price.
When it comes to heavy-duty Windows apps, Parallels Desktop for Mac is certainly the superior choice. Since you install the Windows OS on the virtual machine, you can expect the maximum performance from your Mac hardware. On the other hand, CrossOver for Mac does not quite cut it in this aspect.
Like heavy-duty apps, popular Windows-based games also require many resources. Therefore, you would find that Parallels Desktop for Mac is the better option. We also noticed that you need Steam to install most games via CrossOver. This multi-layer setup does not offer the best speeds in real life, either.
If you believe these differences in performance and speed do not make a difference, you can pick an option based on the budget.
Parallels vs. CrossOver: the Pricing
We would like to provide a comprehensive idea about the pricing structure of both the solutions.
- Costs of Using Parallels Desktop to Run Windows Apps
Parallels Desktop for Mac offers its licenses starting at $99.99 per year, which gives you the standard edition. However, if you want advanced features, you can go for Pro and Enterprise editions, which would set you back at $119.99 and $149.99, respectively. You can choose between one-time payment and a subscription model, depending on whether you require features like enterprise tech support and remote access.
In addition to the cost of the software, you need to spend on a Windows 11 license as well. You may be able to transfer an existing Windows license to the virtual machine, but it is not sure. So, you should be ready to spend some more amount if you want to use Parallels Desktop to run Windows apps on your Mac. But we are confident that this is a worthy investment.
- Costs of Using CrossOver Mac to Run Windows Apps
CrossOver for Mac puts forward a better proposition in terms of pricing. For one, you do not have to worry about Windows licenses, as CrossOver is not an emulator. Instead, you can pay a one-time charge of $24.00 to purchase a license of CrossOver for Mac. This license should be sufficient to help you run all Windows apps compatible with CrossOver.
However, this pricing structure has some limitations, as you may have guessed. For instance, when you spend only a fraction of what Parallels Desktop costs, you lose out on the opportunity to have a virtual Windows machine on your Mac. Therefore, if your work wants you to access Windows elements at times, you should think twice before going for this less expensive option.
Pros and Cons of Parallels Desktop
- It gives you a complete virtual Windows PC
- You can enjoy almost-native app compatibility
- It offers incredible performance on M1/M2 Macs
- You get better integration between Windows and macOS
- The software can be expensive for some
- You have to pay extra for the Windows license
Pros and Cons of CrossOver Mac
- You do not have to maintain a virtual machine
- CrossOver for Mac has a minimal software footprint
- You do not need a Windows license, thus saving money
- The pricing is reasonable and affordable for most
- Compatibility with apps needs a lot of improvement
- You cannot access Windows-based elements
After testing Parallels Desktop for Mac and CrossOver for Mac and comparing the experience, we have found the following points.
You should go for Parallels Desktop for Mac if you want to run Windows apps on your Mac while also getting access to a virtual Windows PC. While this option requires a hefty upfront investment, you get best-in-class performance and speed for your activity. Moreover, Parallels Desktop for Mac is the most efficient way to ensure maximum compatibility with Windows-only apps and games. Even if you want to play games through Steam or other launchers, you can easily do it.
However, CrossOver for Mac may be a better choice if you have a restricted budget. More importantly, you should have a limited objective of running lightweight apps like utilities or writing tools. It is a great choice if you want access to a single Windows-only app without the hassle of setting up and maintaining a virtual machine on macOS. However, the lack of a Windows installation causes issues with compatibility, especially with complex applications and games. On the bright side, CrossOver does not consume many resources.