Best Virtual Machine (VM) Software for Mac – Expert Buying Advice

There are plenty of options available for people who need to run Windows software or games on their Macs. In this article we look at the best virtual machine and virtualisation software packages for the Mac.

Apple likes to do things its own way, and often annoys even its most loyal customers by doing daft things – like ditching the traditional headphone socket when it launched the iPhone 7 a few years ago.

But even Apple recognises that we live in a world – and particularly the corporate, business world – that is dominated by PCs running Microsoft Windows. And, unfortunately, there are a number of important programs and apps used in many industries that will only run on Windows.

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.

But, thankfully, there are ways of running Windows on your Mac that will provide access to Access, so to speak, along with all those other professional software tools and terrific Windows games. Just remember that most of these solutions do still require you to buy a full, licensed copy of Windows as well.

What is Boot Camp?

Apple’s solution to the Windows-compatibility conundrum is Boot Camp, which you can use by launching the Boot Camp Assistant app, located in the Utilities folder within your main Applications folder.

The Boot Camp Assistant sets aside a chunk of your Mac’s internal hard drive (or solid-state drive) so that you can install Windows on the drive alongside macOS itself. When you turn on your Mac you can then choose whether you want the Mac to start up – or ‘boot’ – with the normal macOS, or to boot into Windows instead – a process known as ‘dual-booting’.

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. That’s the best solution for running games or professional graphics apps that need a lot of power.

But Boot Camp has some disadvantages too – not least of which is the fact that some iMac models won’t actually allow you to upgrade to macOS Mojave if you already have Boot Camp set up on that machine (see this support page for more details).

Apple is also reluctant to support older versions of Windows – in fact, its support pages for Boot Camp now seem to focus just on Windows 10, so if you want to install Windows 7 or Windows 8 then you may need to stick with macOS High Sierra, and then hunt around on Apple’s website to find the graphics drivers and other software that you need to run those versions of Windows.

If you do decide to install Windows using Boot Camp then the important thing to remember is that you lose access to the Mac side of things while Windows is running. So if you use Apple Mail for your emails, and your collection of selfies is stored in Photos, then you’ll have to shut down Windows and reboot the Mac into macOS again in order to use those programs once more.

But, of course, switching back to the macOS means that you lose your Windows apps again, and constantly switching between macOS and Windows can quickly become a real chore if you have to do it several times a day.

What is Virtualisation?

There’s another option available, called ‘virtualisation’, that allows you to run Windows, and Windows apps, from right within the macOS itself. In effect, this means that you’re running both operating systems at the same time, and can run your Windows apps on the Mac desktop right alongside all your normal Mac apps.

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.

The virtual machine runs in its own window on the Mac desktop, and can then run your Windows apps on screen at the same time as conventional ‘native’ Mac apps, such as Apple Mail and Safari.

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 no longer have to switch back and forth between the macOS and Windows. However, virtualisation does have some drawbacks.

Your 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 for the virtual machine.

Multi-processor Macs with at least two cores are better for running virtual machines – and quad-cores or more are best, as you can devote one or more processor cores to give all their power to running Windows. It will also help if you can devote 4GB of memory or more to each virtual machine (some people like to run multiple virtual machines with different versions of Windows, which really needs stacks of memory and processor power).

Even then, your virtual machine won’t be as fast as an actual physical PC that has its own built-in processor and memory, which means that Boot Camp is still the best option for running high-end graphics software on Windows, or the latest 3D games.

However, most Macs released in the last few years can still use virtualisation to run many business and productivity apps that don’t need high-end graphics horsepower, such as Microsoft Office, and the specialised apps and databases that many companies develop for their own internal use.

1. Parallels Desktop 14

Parallels Desktop 14 for Mac

2. VMWare Fusion 11

VMware Fusion 11

3. Apple Boot Camp

Apple Boot Camp

4. VirtualBox 5.2

VirtualBox 5.2

5. Wine 2.0

Wine 2.0

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