The 6 Best Virtual Machine Software Programs

Run a different operating system in a window on your computer

Virtual machines emulate additional operating systems within their own individual window, right from your existing computer. With VM software, you can run a Windows instance on macOS or vice versa, as well as a number of other different OS combinations that include Chrome OS, Linux, Solaris and more.

Virtual Box running Linux on macOS

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

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VMware Workstation

VMware Workstation
What We Like
  • Evaluation version available.

  • Easy to use once 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.

  • Default configuration may require changes.

With almost 20 years on the market, VMware Workstation is often looked upon as the industry standard when it comes to virtual machine applications—with its robust set of functions covering a wide breadth of virtualization needs.

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

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

VMware's snapshots let you set various rollback points for testing, and its cloning system makes deploying multiple instances of a similar VM a breeze—allowing you to choose between fully isolated duplicates or linked clones which rely partially on the original in an effort to save a notable amount of hard drive space.

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

There are two versions of the application, Workstation Player, and Workstation Pro, the former available free of charge.

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

Where the free version falls short, for the most part, is when it comes to VMware's advanced functionality such as running more than one VM at a time and accessing many of the aforementioned abilities like cloning, snapshots, and complex networking.

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

Workstation Player is also restricted from commercial use, so businesses looking to utilize the Workstation software are expected to purchase one or more Pro licenses if they intend to use the application beyond its trial period.

Compatible with the following host platforms:

  • Most 64-bit Linux distributions
  • Windows 7 and above (64-bit only)
  • Windows Server 2008 R2 and above
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VMware Fusion

VMware Fusion
VMware, Inc.
What We Like
  • Brings VMware’s emulation capabilities to MacOS.

  • Basic version is free.

  • Supports a range of MacOS displays.

  • Can use same virtual machines as non-Mac VMware products.

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

  • Can be sluggish.

Brought to you by the same folks that created VMware Workstation for Linux and Windows, Fusion ports what is basically the same experience that Workstation offers to the Mac platform.

Not unlike VMware Workstation, the software's basic version is free and intended for personal use only while 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 as well as mixed retina and non-retina configurations. Fusion also includes Unity Mode, which hides the Windows desktop interface and lets you launch and run Windows applications from your Dock as if they were native to macOS.

Both the free and paid versions of Fusion also provide the option to run Windows from your Boot Camp partition as a guest VM instance, eliminating the need for a reboot when you want to switch back and forth.

Compatible with the following host platforms:

  • macOS/OS X 10.13 and above
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Oracle VM VirtualBox

Oracle VM Virtualbox
What We Like
  • Base version is free.

  • Intuitive interface and operation.

  • Stable.

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

  • Download Guest-addition software to manage additional features.

First released in 2007, this open-source hypervisor is available for both home and enterprise use at no charge. Its extensions pack, which includes USB support and other basic features is only free for personal use,

VirtualBox supports an array of guest operating systems, a list that features all versions of Windows ranging from XP to 10 as well as Windows NT and Server 2003. It allows you to run VMs with Linux 2.4 and above, Solaris and OpenSolaris in addition to OpenBSD. You're even given the option to turn back the clock and run OS/2 or DOS/Windows 3.1, whether for nostalgic purposes or to play some of your old favorites like Wasteland or Pool of Radiance in their native environments.

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

Apple does not allow the macOS operating system to function on non-Apple hardware, so you cannot legally run macOS even in a virtual machine unless the host environment is also macOS.

VirtualBox runs several guest windows simultaneously and also provides a level of portability where a VM created on one host can be easily transferred to another that may have a different operating system.

It tends to run fairly well on older hardware, recognizes most USB devices, and offers a useful library of Guest Additions that are available for 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 other added video support to alleviate many common problems with visuals on a VM.

The product's website provides several thorough and easy-to-digest tutorials along with a set of canned virtual machines, custom-made to meet specific development needs.

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

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, Server 2019
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Parallels Desktop

Parallels Toolbox on macOS

 Parallels, Inc

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

  • Three versions to suit different applications.

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

  • Allows MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar to work in Windows.

What We Don't Like
  • Considerable resource consumption.

  • Adjustments not always intuitive.

  • 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 upon your primary use for Windows, Parallels optimizes system and hardware resources for a Windows experience that often feels as if you're on an actual PC.

Parallels offers most features that you'd expect in a paid VM product, as well as many specific to the Mac such as being able to open websites in IE or Edge directly from a Safari browser and Windows alerts displaying in the Mac Notification Center. Files can be quickly dragged between the two operating systems, as well as all clipboard content. Also included with Parallels is a dedicated cloud storage space that can be shared across both macOS and Windows.

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

There are three versions of Parallels available, each suited for a particular audience. The basic edition targets those who are switching from PC to Mac for the first time, as well as the everyday user that has a need to utilize Windows applications on a regular basis. It contains the basic toolset along with 8 GB of VRAM and 4 vCPUs for each guest VM and 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 in addition to other well-known developer and QA tools such as Jenkins. Round-the-clock email and phone support are provided, along with advanced networking tools and the ability to utilize business cloud services. With a formidable 128 GB vRAM and 32 vCPUs for every VM, Parallels Desktop Pro Edition is available for $99.99 per year.

Last, but certainly not least, is the Business Edition, which includes all of the above along with centralized administration and management tools and a volume license key that allows you to roll out and control Parallels instances across entire departments and organizations. The overall cost of Parallels Desktop Business Edition is dependent on the number of seat licenses you require.

Compatible with the following host platforms:

  • macOS/OS X 10.12.6 and above
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Hyper-V Manager

hyper-v manager
What We Like
  • Free and already installed in a supported version of Windows 10.

  • Robust performance with deep hooks into 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 it supports a broad 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, consider checking out this full-featured, powerful hypervisor.

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What We Like
  • Free.

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

  • Can emulate a broad range of machines.

What We Don't Like
  • For Linux only.

  • Dated, confusing interface.

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

Running KVM virtual machines when using QEMU as a virtualizer can result in what is essentially 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 your USB devices from within a guest VM. This is somewhat of a rarity with this type of software, adding some pliability to the ways in which you can use it.

Custom builds of QEMU have also been created for macOS and Windows, although the majority of its user base tends to have Linux boxes as their host.

Compatible with the following host platforms:

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

Cloud-Based Virtual Machines

So far we've discussed the pros and cons of application-based virtual machine hypervisors across multiple platforms. As with most other technologies, many well-known companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, and PaperSpace have taken the concept of VMs and container instances to the cloud, allowing you to remotely access virtual machines that are hosted on the provider's own servers.

Some bill by the minute, letting you pay only for the time that you need, while others allow for full-scale networks to be designed, created and hosted on cloud-based servers.