The 6 Best Virtual Machine Software Programs of 2020

Run a different operating system in a window on your computer

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Virtual machines emulate additional operating systems, each in individual windows, on a computer. With VM software, you can run a Windows instance on macOS or vice versa, as well as other OS combinations that include Chrome OS, Linux, and Solaris. Here are some of the best virtual machine software programs available in 2020.

The computer's operating system is commonly referred to as the host. The secondary operating system that runs in the VM interface is often called the guest.

01
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The Industry Standard: VMware Workstation

A computer runs Windows XP using VMWare Workstation

VMware

What We Like
  • An evaluation version is available.

  • Easy to use once it is set up.

  • Widely used and well regarded.

  • Free for personal use.

What We Don't Like
  • Consumes a lot of resources.

  • Not all programs work in the emulation.

  • The default configuration may require changes.

With almost 20 years on the market, VMware Workstation is often considered the industry standard for virtual machine applications. Its robust set of functions covers many virtualization needs.

It permits advanced 3D solutions by supporting DirectX 10 and OpenGL 3.3, eliminating image and video degradation within the VMs even when using graphics-intensive applications. The software allows for virtual machine open standards, providing the ability to create and run VMs from competing vendors within the VMware product.

Its advanced networking features let you set up and administer elaborate virtual networks for VMs. Its complete data center topologies can be designed and implemented when VMware is integrated with external tools — essentially emulating an entire enterprise DC.

You can use VMware snapshots to set rollback points for testing. Its cloning system makes deploying multiple instances of a similar VM a breeze. With multiple VMs, you can choose between fully isolated duplicates or linked clones that rely partially on the original to save hard drive space.

The package integrates seamlessly with vSphere, the VMware enterprise server virtualization product, resulting in the easy administration of all VMs in a company's data center remotely from the local machine.

There are two versions of the application: Workstation Player and Workstation Pro.

Player is free to use. It allows you to create new VMs and supports over 200 guest operating systems. It also allows for file sharing between the host and guest, features the graphical advantages mentioned above, and supports 4K displays.

The free version falls short on VMware's advanced functionality, such as running more than one VM at a time and accessing abilities like cloning, snapshots, and complex networking.

Workstation Player is restricted from commercial use. Businesses looking to utilize the Workstation software must purchase one or more Pro licenses to use the application beyond the trial period.

For these features, and to create and manage encrypted virtual machines, purchase VMware Workstation Pro. The Pro version includes Unity Mode for Mac users, which hides the Windows interface, and lets you use the Dock to launch Windows applications.

VMware Station is compatible with the following host platforms:

  • Most 64-bit Linux distributions.
  • Windows 7 and above (64-bit only).
  • Windows Server 2008 R2 and above.
02
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Best for Mac Users: VMware Fusion

An example of VMware Fusion running on a Dell laptop
What We Like
  • Brings the VMware emulation capabilities to macOS.

  • The basic version is free.

  • Supports a range of macOS displays.

  • Uses the same virtual machines as non-Mac VMware products.

What We Don't Like
  • Not as full-featured as Parallels.

  • Can be sluggish.

Created by the same people who created VMware Workstation for Linux and Windows, Fusion ports basically the same experience Workstation offers to the Mac platform.

Similar to VMware Workstation, Fusion's basic version is free and for personal use only. Fusion Pro can be purchased for business purposes or individuals who require access to the advanced feature sets.

It does have some Mac-specific functionality, such as support for 5K iMac displays, mixed retina, and non-retina configurations. Fusion includes Unity Mode, which hides the Windows desktop interface and lets you launch Windows applications from the Dock as if the apps are native to macOS.

The free and paid versions of Fusion can run Windows from a Boot Camp partition as a guest VM instance, eliminating the need for a reboot when you switch back and forth.

VMware Fusion is compatible with the following host platforms:

  • macOS/OS X 10.13 and above.
03
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Best Free Option: Oracle VM VirtualBox

Windows 7 runs in Oracle VM VirtualBox

Oracle

What We Like
  • The base version is free.

  • An intuitive interface and operation.

  • It's stable.

What We Don't Like
  • Requires a solid hardware setup with ample RAM for efficient performance.

  • Additional features require a download of Guest-addition software.

First released in 2007, this open-source hypervisor is available for home and enterprise use at no charge.

The extensions pack, which includes USB support and other basic features, is only free for personal use.

VirtualBox supports several guest operating systems, including all Windows versions ranging from XP to 10, Windows NT, and Windows Server 2003. It can run VMs with Linux 2.4 and above, Solaris, OpenSolaris, and OpenBSD. You also can turn back the clock and run OS/2 or DOS/Windows 3.1, whether for nostalgic purposes or to play old favorites like Wasteland or Pool of Radiance in the games' native environments.

You can also run macOS in a VM using VirtualBox. However, this feature only works if the host operating system is also on a Mac.

Apple doesn't allow macOS to function on non-Apple hardware. You cannot legally run macOS in a virtual machine unless the host environment is macOS.

VirtualBox runs several guest windows simultaneously and provides a level of portability. A VM created on one host can be transferred to another host with a different operating system.

It runs on older hardware, recognizes most USB devices, and offers a library of Guest Additions that are free and easy to install. These added features include the ability to transfer files and clipboard contents between the host and guest operating systems, 3D virtualization, and video support to alleviate common problems with visuals on a VM.

The product's website provides several tutorials and a set of canned virtual machines that are custom-made to meet specific development needs.

Oracle VM VirtualBox has an expanding developer community that publishes new releases regularly and an active user forum with almost 100,000 registered members. VirtualBox's track record assures it will continue to improve and serve as a long-term VM solution.

VirtualBox is compatible with the following host platforms:

  • Most Linux distributions.
  • macOS/OS X 10.13 and above.
  • Solaris 11 and above.
  • Windows 8.1, Windows 10, Server 2012, Server 2012 R2, Server 2016, and 2019.
04
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Best for Running Windows and macOS: Parallels Desktop

Windows 10 and Parallels Toolbox 3.0 for Windows

Parallels

What We Like
  • Runs Windows, Chrome OS, Linux, and a second instance of macOS.

  • Three versions to suit different applications.

  • A complement of features, with the ability to monitor and adjust memory usage.

  • Allows the MacBook Pro Touch Bar to work in Windows.

What We Don't Like
  • Considerable resource consumption.

  • Adjustments aren't always intuitive.

  • The subscription pricing model means users must upgrade yearly.

A long-time favorite of Mac enthusiasts who occasionally need to run Windows, Parallels seamlessly runs Windows and Mac applications side-by-side.

Based on your primary use for Windows, Parallels optimizes system and hardware resources for a Windows experience that feels like an actual PC.

Parallels offers most of the features found in a paid VM product and many features specific to the Mac, such as opening websites in IE or Edge from a Safari browser and Windows alerts displaying in the Mac Notification Center. Files can be dragged between the two operating systems, as well as clipboard content. A dedicated cloud storage space is included with Parallels, and it can be shared across macOS and Windows.

A common misconception about Parallels is that it can only be used for Windows in a guest VM. It permits you to run Chrome OS, Linux, and another instance of macOS.

There are three versions of Parallels available, each suited for a particular audience. Use the basic edition if you are switching from a PC to a Mac for the first time or use Windows applications on a regular basis. It contains the basic toolset along with 8 GB of VRAM and 4 vCPUs for each guest VM. It costs a one-time fee of $79.99.

The Pro Edition, aimed at software developers, testers, and other power users, integrates with Microsoft Visual Studio and well-known developer and QA tools such as Jenkins. It has round-the-clock email and phone support, advanced networking tools, and the ability to utilize business cloud services. It has 128 GB of vRAM and 32 vCPUs for every VM. Parallels Desktop Pro Edition is available for $99.99 per year.

The Business Edition includes all of the above, along with centralized administration and management tools. It also has a volume license key that allows you to roll out and control Parallels instances across departments and organizations. The overall cost of Parallels Desktop Business Edition depends on the number of seat licenses.

Parallels is compatible with the following host platforms:

  • macOS/OS X 10.12.6 and above.
05
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Best for (Some) Windows 10 Users: Hyper-V Manager

Microsoft

Microsoft

What We Like
  • Free and installed in supported versions of Windows 10.

  • Robust performance with deep hooks into the host OS.

What We Don't Like
  • Not available on Windows 10 Home.

  • Deep hooks mean other VM solutions can't run simultaneously.

Microsoft includes Hyper-V Manager for professional, enterprise, or academic versions of Windows 10. As a built-in feature, it supports deep linking within the Windows 10 host operating system and a range of guest OSes, including various versions of Windows, Linux, and old systems like MS-DOS.

Microsoft offers a free developer version of Windows 10 for Hyper-V Manager, fully licensed for use within the virtual environment.

If you run Windows 10 Pro, Enterprise, Education, or Windows 8 (and 8.1) Pro or Enterprise, check out this full-featured, powerful hypervisor.

06
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Best for Linux Users: QEMU

QEMU running the ReactOS operating system on Linux.

Nurnware / Wikimedia Commons

What We Like
  • It's free.

  • Functions as a virtual machine host and a machine emulator.

  • Emulates a range of machines.

What We Don't Like
  • For Linux only.

  • Has a dated and confusing interface.

QEMU is frequently the hypervisor of choice for Linux users, based on its zero-dollar price tag and easy-to-perfect full-system emulation tools. The open-source emulator simulates a range of hardware peripherals, using dynamic translation for ideal performance.

Running KVM virtual machines when using QEMU as a virtualizer can result in native-level performance on the right hardware, making you almost forget that you're using a VM.

Administrative privileges are only required in certain scenarios with QEMU, such as when you need to access USB devices from within a guest VM. This is rare with this type of software, adding some flexibility to the ways you can use it.

Custom builds of QEMU are available for macOS and Windows. However, the majority of its user base tends to have Linux computers as the host.

QEMU is compatible with the following host platforms:

  • Most Linux distributions.
  • macOS 10.5 or above (10.7 recommended) through the Homebrew package manager.
  • 32-bit Windows and 64-bit Windows (newer versions no longer work with Windows XP).