What is the best Windows emulator for Mac?

No matter how much you love your Mac, there are times when we all need to occasionally run Windows. And to do that, you have a couple of choices. You can keep a Windows PC handy for the occasions when you need to access Windows. Or you can run Windows on your Mac using a tool, like BootCamp.

Some people need Windows for gaming or they need a specific professional app that is old and runs only on PC. Thanks to some neat software tools, you can run Windows on your Mac and there are several different options for doing it. We’ll cover the best of them here.

What is a Windows emulator?

The term emulation goes back to the days before the Mac started using Intel processors. In those days, because of the Mac’s PowerPC hardware, running Windows was much more complicated than it is now. Software had to emulate the Intel hardware in a PC in order to install the software.

Now that the Mac is based on Intel hardware (at least until the whole range moves to Apple Silicon), it’s much less of a challenge to run Windows. Software that allows you to install Windows is now more accurately referred to as virtualization software rather than emulation. But that’s a technical distinction we don’t need to worry about too much. For our purposes, emulation and virtualisation amount to the same thing.

Tip:

Windows virtualization tools, or emulators will create a special partition on your drive. They need enough room for themselves, as well as space for the Windows installation and the Windows applications you want to use. Before you go down that road, free up some space with this tool — CleanMyMac X by MacPaw. It’s a good junk cleaner that really focuses on storage.  

CleanMyMac X app

1. Download the free edition and install CleanMyMac X if you don’t already have it. 

2. From the menu on the left, choose Smart Scan. 

3. Press Scan. 

4. When it’s finished, press Run to remove the files it has found and perform the task it has identified to speed up your Mac. Alternatively, press Review Details to examine what CleanMyMac X has found and choose what to remove.



Best Mac Windows emulators

Boot Camp

If you need a solution that doesn’t cost anything other than the license for Windows, this is it. Every Intel Mac ships with Boot Camp which allows you to partition your startup disk and install Windows on the Boot Camp partition.

Boot Camp’s main advantage, other than cost, is speed. In Boot Camp, you don’t run Windows on top of macOS, so it uses less RAM and fewer processor cycles than other solutions. However, you need to reboot your Mac every time you want to switch between Mac and Windows.

Reason to use: It’s pre-installed on your Mac.

Parallels Desktop

This is one of the most popular ways to run Windows on a Mac. And like the other tools here, you can install not just Windows, but almost any OS you like. Its main benefit is that it is easy to set up and use and allows you to easily share files and hardware resources like a printer between Mac and Windows.

Parallels is updated every year and the current update runs on Big Sur, even though Apple has made lots of changes under the hood on Big Sur to support Apple Silicon-based Macs. It’s also available in several different versions which support different numbers of users.

Reason to use: Works fast, no need to reboot.

VMWare Fusion

VMWare Fusion doesn’t get updated as often as Parallels Desktop. However, it shares many of its features. You can run it full-screen, so that your Mac looks like a Windows PC. Or you can run it in a window, so that the whole Windows interface runs like a Mac app. The third option, which Parallels Desktop also shares, allows you to run individual Windows apps alongside Mac apps, while keeping Windows itself hidden.

The latest version of Fusion supports Dark Mode and Sidecar, as well as the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar.

Reason to use: You can run more types of operating systems other than Windows.

Virtual Box

Virtual Box is an open source tool. That means it's free to use for individuals, but it also means that it’s much less polished than either Parallels Desktop or VMWare Fusion. You also don’t get the kind of support or help during set-up that you do with those apps.

If you’re comfortable setting it up yourself and don’t need help, and you’re not bothered about features like Sidecar support or other extras, then Virtual Box could be a good choice for you.

Reason to use: It’s free.

Wine

The first thing to say about Wine is that if you’re running macOS Catalina or later, forget about it. The official version of Wine won’t run on Catalina as it’s not a 64-bit app. There are unofficial ‘forks’ of Wine that allow you to run 64-bit Windows apps on Catalina and later, but nothing official.

The second thing to say is that Wine is an acronym for ‘Wine is not an emulator’. So why include it here? Because it does much the same thing as an emulator. It allows you to run Windows apps on your Mac. However, it doesn’t run Windows itself, so you don’t need a Windows license to use it or install Windows on it. Like Virtual Box, Wine is open source and free to download and use. But you’ll need to do your own research to find any help or support you need.

Reasons to use: When you need a particular Windows app.

Crossover for Mac

CrossOver is a version, or fork, of Wine made by CodeWeavers. It’s not free, but it has been tested to ensure compatibility with a wide range of Windows apps. There is also a version available that comes with telephone support.

Reasons to use: Supports Many popular apps and games.

There are lots of different options for running Windows applications on your Mac, from Boot Camp, which almost turns your Mac into a PC, to Wine which doesn’t even need a copy of Windows.

Tip:

Running Windows apps eats up a lot of memory. So when your Mac slows down (which it will eventually), use this tool in CleanMyMac X to speed it up.

The best solution for you depends on how much money you want to spend and how confident you are in setting up and running emulation or virtualization software. Whichever tool you choose, you should give your Mac a clean up first, to make plenty of room for Windows and the applications you want to use.

Laptop with CleanMyMac
CleanMyMac X

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