Using a virtual machine is easily the best way to run Windows on a Mac so here we’ve looked at the best virtual machine of 2023 including for Apple Silicon M1/M2 Macs.
It’s important to be aware from the start that virtual machines aren’t the only way to use or access Windows on a Mac.
There are many ways to use Windows apps or games on a Mac but virtual machines are arguably the best way for most users that want a simple, convenient and easy way to access Windows on a Mac.
What Is A Virtual Machine?
Virtual Machines, also known as virtualization machines, virtual environments, hypervisors or simply VMs, allow you to run another operating system in macOS.
Most commonly they are used to run Windows on a Mac but they can also be used to run Linux and older versions of macOS too.
Although there are various ways to run Windows on a Mac, Virtual Machines are the most convenient because you don’t have to shut down your Mac to use them.
You can simply switch to Windows in macOS for example like you would with any other application on your Mac and start using it.
However, there are various Virtual Machines on the market and they all perform differently so we’ve taken a look at which VMs work best on a Mac in 2023.
In our extensive research, we found that Parallels is the best virtual machine for Mac making it easy to install Windows 11 on a Mac including M1/M2 Macs and switch between macOS and Windows seamlessly.
Why Use A Virtual Machine?
The most common reason to use a virtual machine on a Mac is in order to use Windows only applications or games.
Examples include Microsoft Visio, Publisher and Access all of which aren’t available for Mac.
Virtual machines can also be used to play Windows only games on a Mac although this doesn’t work for all games.
Games that require DirectX 12 or use anti-cheat software do not work in virtual machines.
Virtual machines are also popular with programmers and developers that need to test software in a certain operating system.
This is because one of the advantages of a virtual machine is that any viruses, bugs, or problems are isolated to the virtual machine itself instead of your Mac due to the way they “sandbox” the operating system on your Mac.
So if your copy of Windows running in a virtual machine becomes corrupted or damaged in some way, you can simply reinstall it in the virtual machine with no effect on your Mac.
In the case of malware, most can’t even run properly in a virtual environment meaning the virtual machine will simply shut down if it detects any.
Finally, virtual machines give you freedom by providing a real installation of Windows that you can do pretty much anything you like with.
Although there are other ways of accessing Windows on a Mac, they don’t allow you the full freedom of doing whatever you want in the operating system.
Best Virtual Machine For M1 & M2 Macs
When Apple first released the new Apple Silicon Macs with M1 and M2 chips such as the M1 MacBook Pro, most virtual machines didn’t work on them because they were designed for the Intel chip that Apple had previously been using.
However, Parallels was the first virtual machine to support the M1 chip and it’s now by far the best virtual machine for running Windows on M1 and M2 Macs such as the M2 MacBook Pro and M2 Mac Mini for running Windows programs and games.
Microsoft has even endorsed Parallels to run Windows on M-series chips and Parallels has continued to improve running Windows in its virtual machine on Apple Silicon chips.
There is one slight drawback to be aware of however running Windows on Apple Silicon M-series Macs.
The Apple Silicon M1 and M2 chips can only run Windows On ARM (WoA) which is different to the standard version of Windows 10 and Windows 11 that most people are familiar with.
Windows ARM is designed for the ARM architecture used in Apple Silicon chips and while it’s very similar to the standard versions of Windows, some programs, apps and games won’t work natively in it.
Windows ARM can however “translate” most software to work with it thanks to something called x86 emulation although this doesn’t always work for all apps and sometimes results in slower performance.
This is all obviously more complicated that running Windows on Intel Macs and it’s no surprise that free or open source virtual machines such as VirtualBox and UTM aren’t able to setup and run Windows on M1/M2 Macs well at all.
One thing that particularly stands out with Parallels is that it automatically downloads Windows ARM during the setup process making it easy enough for beginners to setup and run Windows on Apple Silicon M-series Macs.
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Best Virtual Machine For Mac
With this in mind here then are the best virtual machines for Mac in order of ranking.
Parallels has long been the best virtual machine for Macs thanks to the way it automatically installs Windows on a Mac and makes switching between macOS and Windows so easy.
Parallels has always been the first virtual machine to be updated to work with the latest versions of macOS and was also the first virtual machine to be updated to run Windows on Apple Silicon M1 chip Macs.
Parallels was also the first virtual machine to allow Mac users to install Windows 11 on a Mac as it was the first to be able to “emulate” the TPM 2.0 chip required to install Windows 11.
In fact, Parallels has now been endorsed by Microsoft to run Windows on a Mac, making it on the only method of running Windows on a Mac officially recommended by Microsoft.
In just a few clicks, Parallels automatically downloads and installs Windows 11 on Intel Macs and Windows On ARM on Apple Silicon Macs.
Windows On ARM is a slightly different to the Intel version of Windows most of us are familiar with, but it’s the only version of Windows that will work with the M1 and M2 chips.
Although not all programs and applications are available for Windows ARM, most will run in it thanks to what’s known as x86 emulation which translates all Intel Windows software to work on Windows ARM.
Once installed, Parallels allows you to switch between macOS and Windows instantly whenever you want.
Parallels allows you to decide how much of your Macs RAM and CPU you want to devote to it and so if you find that Windows is running slowly on your Mac, you can simply increase the amount of RAM and CPU you allocate to it.
Parallels also offers the best integration between macOS and Windows of any virtual machine especially in Coherence mode which effectively blends your Windows app into macOS if you want to.
Dragging and dropping files between the two operating systems is also really easy as is connecting peripherals such as printers, external drives and even game controllers.
For more on what Parallels can do, check out our full Parallels review.
You can also try Parallels for free to test it for yourself.
- Very easy to install Windows
- Officially authorized by Microsoft to run Windows 11 on Mac
- Runs Windows and macOS simultaneously
- Excellent for gaming
- Fast startup and shutdown time
- Supports Windows keyboard shortcuts
- Optimized for macOS Ventura, Mojave, Catalina, Big Sur and Windows 10 & 11
- Now supports DirectX and Metal
- Officially supports running Windows on M1 & M2 Macs
- Can be deployed across lots of Macs by IT teams
- Updates aren’t free
- Requires a separate license for each Mac you want to install it on
- Subscription pricing model
- Can’t accelerate graphics card for gaming as well as Boot Camp
- Will not support games that use anti-cheat protection software
- Does not support running DirectX 12 (but does support DirectX 11)
2. VMWare Fusion
Without doubt the next best virtual machine for Mac after Parallels is VMWare Fusion.
VMWare Fusion isn’t as easy to setup and use as Parallels as it doesn’t automatically download and install Windows for you like Parallels does.
It also isn’t quite as good at integrating Windows and macOS as Parallels is making working between the operating systems not quite as seamless as the latter.
However, the plus side is that it does have a limited free version for personal use called VMWare Fusion Player.
VMWare Fusion has also now been updated to work on Apple Silicon M-Series Macs although it was a long way behind Parallels in supporting the M1 and M2 chips.
Like Parallels, VMWare Fusion only supports installing Windows ARM on Apple Silicon Macs but unlike Parallels, it doesn’t have a licensing agreement with Microsoft for using it.
This is why VMWare Fusion can’t download and install Windows automatically on an Apple Silicon Mac with VMWare Fusion.
This means you have to download Windows ARM from Microsoft first for which you need to be part of the Windows Insider Program.
The other big problem is that you due to licensing issues, you can’t actually buy an individual license for Windows ARM from Microsoft yet.
However, if you have a license key for Windows 7, 10 or 11, it’s usually enough to activate Windows ARM.
If you do manage to download Windows ARM and activate it, VMWare Fusion can emulate the TPM2.0 chip required to install Windows 11 on a Mac.
Like Parallels however, VMWare Fusion doesn’t support DirectX 12 or Windows games that use anti-cheat software to run.
The free version of VMWare Fusion is Fusion Player which is free for personal use and students.
The commercial version is VMWare Fusion Pro which is designed for system admins that administer multiple installations of VMWare across a network of Macs such as in a corporate environment.
You can download VMWare Fusion Player to try it for yourself.
- Fusion Player is free for personal and student use
- Supports Windows ARM on Apple Silicon Macs
- Supports Windows 11 on a Mac
- Not as easy to setup and use as Parallels
- Does not download and install Windows automatically
- Integration between macOS and Windows not as close as Parallels
VirtualBox is a free open source virtualization software that supports a wide range of operating systems including Windows, Linux, Solaris and OpenBSD Unix.
VirtualBox even supports old versions of Windows such as 3.x although why you’d want to run such as old version of Windows apart from nostalgic reasons is another question.
Although VirtualBox is free and open source, its development is also supported by Oracle.
VirtualBox is certainly not recommended for beginners to virtual machines however.
Compared to Parallels, everything has to be setup and installed manually and the integration between macOS and Windows is nowhere near as good.
You can however run VirtualBox on Apple Silicon M1 and M2 Macs to install Windows ARM, although running Windows in it is even more complicated than on Intel Macs.
You’ll need to do a lot of manual configuration to setup Windows on an Apple Silicon Mac using VirtualBox and it may also stop working when new updates to macOS are released.
Since it’s an open source project with no official support team, it often takes a long time before VirtualBox is updated to work with new releases of macOS or updates to it.
The big plus of course is that VirtualBox is free, even for enterprise customers and if you only need occasional use of Windows on your Mac, it may be worth exploring.
You can download Virtual Box for free and try it for yourself.
- Free to use
- Supports a wide range of operating systems
- Works on Apple Silicon M1/M2 Macs
- Difficult to setup and use Windows especially on M1/M2 Macs
- Integration between macOS and Windows limited
- Requires a lot of manual configuration
- No official support
UTM is a relatively new virtual machine that allows you to run Windows, Ubuntu and macOS.
UTM supports running Windows and other operating system on both Intel and Apple Silicon M1/M2 chip Macs.
UTM also supports running older versions of Windows 7, Windows XP, and other older operating systems, although only on Intel Macs.
UTM is based on the free QEMU open source system emulator but is easier to use thanks to the UTM User Interface which doesn’t require any knowledge of QEMU command arguments.
UTM also supports x86 emulation meaning that you can run Intel only apps even when running Windows on Apple Silicon Macs.
However, you will find that running Windows on M1 and M2 Macs particularly complicated and difficult to setup with UTM, especially compared to Parallels.
There’s a lot of manual configuration required and even advanced users will struggle to get Windows 11 working on Apple Silicon Macs using UTM.
UTM supports attaching some external devices to your virtual machine such as external displays but not external hard drives.
UTM provides an easy to understand UI for creating and configuring VMs that does not require knowledge of QEMU command line arguments
On the downside, UTM is not as advanced as commercial products and many convenient features of VMs like Parallels are missing.
There’s no support for dragging and dropping files between UTM and macOS and you can’t copy and paste content between operating systems either.
You can download UTM for free and try it for yourself.
- Free To Use
- Works on both Intel and Apple Silicon Macs
- Lacks basic features like drag and dropping of files
- Difficult to setup and run Windows on M1/M2 Macs
- No support for external hard drives
- Not as easy to setup and use as commercial products
- Not user friendly for beginners to virtual environments
- No customer support
Alternatives To Virtual Machines
These are the best virtual machines for Mac but they’re not the only way to run Windows or indeed other operating systems on a Mac.
There are other way to use Windows only applications and games on a Mac although none of them give you the complete freedom of a complete version of Windows that you can do pretty much anything you want with.
There are Cloud based solutions such as Windows 365 which run Windows in the Cloud for you.
There are also so called “translation layer” solutions such as Wine and Crossover which don’t actually run Windows but “translate” Windows apps and games on the fly to work on a Mac.
Then there’s also of course the option of remote desktop software to connect a Mac remotely to a Windows PC and accessing Windows that way.
For a closer look at these alternatives to virtual machines on a Mac, check out our guide to the best ways to run Windows on a Mac.
The author lists as a “pro” for Parallels “fast startup and shutdown times.” I have used Parallels for eight years on Intel-based iMacs (currently a 2019 5K), and my reason for recently installing a little small-form-factor PC in my home office was the absurdly long, painful waiting to suspend and resume Windows 10. “Fast startup and shutdown?” Umm . . . no. (A secondary reason was the cost of annual upgrades and Parallels moving to a subscription model.)
The latest version of Parallels for the M1 and M2 series Macs is much quicker at startup and shutdown, partly because the Apple Silicon Chip is much faster but yes, using Parallels on a 2019 Intel Mac will be considerably slower.