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Best Virtual Machines For Mac of 2024 (Free & Paid inc. M1, M2 & M3 Macs)

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Using a virtual machine is an easy and convenient way to run Windows on a Mac so here we’ve looked at the best free and paid virtual environments of 2024.

Although there are several ways to use Windows apps or games on a Mac, virtual machines are arguably the best way for most users that want a simple, convenient and easy way to access Windows on a Mac.

They allow you to run Windows at the same time as macOS so that you can switch between them instantly without having to reboot your Mac.

In our extensive research and testing, we found that Parallels is the easiest and most reliable virtual machine for Macs in 2024 making it simple for anyone to run Windows on any 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 2024.

1. Parallels

parallels

Parallels has long been our favorite virtual machine 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 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.

parallels windows 11

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 M-series 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.

You can try Parallels for free to test it for yourself.

For more on what Parallels can do, you can also check out our full Parallels review.

Pricing: Starting from $99.99.

Pros:

  • 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 Sonoma and Windows 11
  • Now supports DirectX 11 and Metal
  • Officially supports running Windows on M-chip Macs
  • Can be deployed across lots of Macs by IT teams

Cons:

  • 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

virtual machine for mac - vmware fusion

Without doubt the next best thing after Parallels is VMware Fusion.

Although it has lagged behind Parallels for some years, VMware Fusion now makes it extremely easy to install Windows on a Mac.

The latest version of VMware Fusion 13.5 now automatically downloads and installs Windows 11 for you, just like Parallels does.

Like Parallels, VMWare Fusion only supports installing Windows ARM on Apple Silicon Macs which is the only version of Windows that works on M-series chips.

vmware fusion windows 11

Previously, VMware Fusion couldn’t automatically download and install Windows 11 because it didn’t have a licensing agreement with Microsoft for Windows ARM but that now seems to have been resolved.

Although you can’t actually buy an individual license for Windows ARM from Microsoft yet, if you have a license key for Windows 7, 10 or 11, it’s usually enough to activate Windows ARM.

It has also improved integrating Windows and macOS meaning its now easy to drag and drop files between the two operating systems.

VMWare Fusion has also now been fully updated to work on Apple Silicon M-Series Macs and macOS Sonoma although it was a long way behind Parallels in supporting the Apple Silicon chips.

The latest version also has improved Metal-accelerated DirectX 11 3D graphics support for better performance when playing Windows only games on a Mac and using CAD software or rendering apps.

Like Parallels however, one downside is that VMWare Fusion doesn’t support DirectX 12 or Windows games that use anti-cheat software to run.

The big plus side of VMware Fusion is that it offers a limited free version for personal use and students called VMWare Fusion Player.

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 free to try it for yourself.

You can read more in our full VMware Fusion review for more.

You can also read our direct head-to-head comparison of Parallels vs VMware Fusion here.

Pricing: Free / Starting from $149.

Pros:

  • Fusion Player is free for personal and student use
  • Supports Windows ARM on Apple Silicon Macs
  • Supports Windows 11 on a Mac
  • Supports Metal and improved 3D graphics rendering
  • Suitable for Windows gaming and CAD software
  • Pro version can be deployed across enterprises

Cons:

  • Major updates not free in Pro version
  • Can’t accelerate graphics card for gaming as well as Boot Camp
  • Integration between macOS and Windows not as close as Parallels
  • Doesn’t support DirectX 12
  • Doesn’t support games with anti-cheat software

3. UTM

virtual machine mac - utm for mac

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 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 M-chip 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 see how we installed Windows for free with UTM here.

You can download UTM for free and try it for yourself.

Pricing: Free

Pros:

  • Free To Use
  • Works on both Intel and Apple Silicon Macs

Cons:

  • Lacks basic features like drag and dropping of files
  • Difficult to setup and run Windows on M-chip 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

4. VirtualBox

best vm for mac - virtualbox mac

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 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.

Performance on Apple Silicon Macs can also be very unstable with some serious performance issues.

In fact due to difficulties with running VirtualBox on Apple Silicon, since version 7.0 VirtualBox has stopped developing a stable version for ARM based chips so currently you can only download an older test build for M1/M2/M3 chips.

Even worse, VirtualBox can’t even install Windows on Apple Silicon Macs as it can’t run Windows ARM which is the only version of Windows that works on Apple Silicon Macs.

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.

Pricing: Free

Pros:

  • Free to use
  • Supports a wide range of operating systems
  • Test builds works on Apple Silicon Macs
  • Works well in Intel Macs

Cons:

  • Difficult to setup and use Windows
  • Only allows you to run Windows on Intel Macs, no support for M-chip Macs
  • Serious performance issues on Apple Silicon Macs
  • Integration between macOS and Windows limited
  • Requires a lot of manual configuration
  • No official support
  • No stable version after 7.0 for M1/M2/M3 Macs
Feature Parallels Desktop VMware Fusion UTM VirtualBox
Pricing (USD) $99.99/year Free/$149+ Free Free
Cross-Platform Compatibility Yes Yes Yes Yes
Integration with Cloud Services Yes Yes Limited Limited
Performance Excellent Excellent Good Variable
Apple Silicon Support
Yes Yes Yes Very poor
Ease of Use Easy Easy Moderate Easy

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.

Which VM Is Best For M1, M2 & M3 Macs?

In our testing and research we found that Parallels was the best option to run Windows on M-chip Macs.

When Apple first released the new Apple Silicon Macs, 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 Apple Silicon Macs, long before any of it rivals although VMware Fusion has now finally caught up.

Microsoft has even endorsed Parallels as the best way to run Windows on M-series chips and Parallels has continued to improve running Windows in its virtual machine on Apple Silicon.

There is one slight drawback to be aware of however running Windows on Apple Silicon M-series Macs.

Apple Silicon Macs 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 than 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/M3 Macs well at all.

One thing that particularly stands out with Parallels is that it automatically downloads Windows 11 ARM during the setup process making it easy enough for beginners to setup and run Windows on Apple Silicon M-series Macs.

Alternatives To Virtual Machines

Virtual Environments are not the only way to run Windows or other operating systems on a Mac.

There are other ways to use Windows on a Mac although none of them give you quite as much freedom as a virtual machine does to do whatever you want with Windows.

There are Cloud based solutions such as Microsoft’s “Windows App” which runs Windows in the Cloud for you but doesn’t give you as much freedom as installing Windows physically on a Mac in a virtual environment.

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.

There’s also the option of remote desktop software to connect a Mac remotely to a Windows PC and access Windows that way.

For a closer look at these alternatives to using virtual machines on a Mac, check out our guide to the best ways to run Windows on a Mac.


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