Buying Guide to Virtualization Apps for the Mac

The Top Choices for Getting Windows to Run on Your Mac

Parallels Control Center
Virtualization software can run more then just Windows. Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, Inc.

It’s easier than you might think to run Windows on a Mac; all you need is virtualization (also know as a virtual machine) software. The top four applications for running Windows on an Intel-based Mac are Boot Camp, ParallelsFusion and VirtualBox. All four work well and are easy to use. Determining which one performs best, provides the best value, and best meets your needs can be difficult. A closer look at each may make the decision easier.

Boot Camp

Apple Boot Camp has two important features that Parallels and Fusion can’t even touch. First of all, it’s free. Well, almost free; it was originally included with OS X Leopard (OS X 10.5) and has been part of OS X ever since. If you're running any version of OS X newer than Leopard, then you already have Boot Camp installed.

Boot Camp is also the fastest of the three contenders, running at the native speed of the underlying hardware. This makes Boot Camp a good choice when performance is important; performance is particularly important when it comes to graphics. Boot Camp can make use of the native graphics system of your Mac, including using the graphics card as a computational engine. This can really speed up many applications, not to mention make playing Windows games just plain zippy.

Technically, Boot Camp isn't a virtualization app. Instead, it's a set of drivers and a partitioning utility that, when used together, lets you install Windows on your Mac, and then allows you to boot directly into a Windows environment. That's why it's always going to be faster than a real virtualization app.

Boot Camp’s main drawback is that it can’t run Windows and OS X at the same time. You must restart your computer to switch between the two OSes.


Parallels was the first commercial virtualization software to allow Intel-based Macs to run Windows. Its main advantage is its ability to run Windows (or other OSes, such as Linux) simultaneously with OS X. This lets you share data between OS X and Windows, and work productively in both environments without stopping to reboot.

In a match against Boot Camp, Parallels will always lag behind. For most general use, such as using Microsoft Office, the performance penalty is negligible. If you’re using graphics-intensive applications, such as Photoshop or 3D games, you will see the difference.

The graphics performance issue is shared, at least so far, by all virtualization apps. The problem is caused by the virtualized operating system not having direct access to the Mac's underlying graphics system. To get around this issue, virtualization apps, including Parallels, create a virtualized graphics system that Windows and other virtualized OSes can make use of. The virtualized graphics system translates the graphics calls into calls to Apple's core graphics services. This extra software layer adds a hefty penalty in graphics performance, especially when compared to native performance.


VMware Fusion, like Parallels, lets you run Windows and OS X simultaneously, and share data between the two environments.

Fusion was the first of the Mac virtualization applications to support multiple processors and cores. This ability set Fusion apart from the others, at least for a while. The ability to use multiple cores lets Fusion perform better than other virtualization apps, although nowhere near as fast as Boot Camp. But the advantage was short-lived; all of the virtualization options now support multiple processors and cores.

Fusion's other key benefits are slightly better graphics drivers and a more Mac-like user interface.

On the downside, I've found that Fusion doesn't support as many USB devices as other virtualization apps, although others haven't experienced this same issue. It may depend on the specific USB device you're attempting to attach to the virtual machine.


VirtualBox from Oracle is a free, open source virtualization app that, like Parallels and Fusion, can run multiple operating systems concurrently with OS X. And of course, being free is an advantage, especially if you only need VirtualBox for general use, and not hard-core processor and graphics intensive applications.

The other minor issue with VirtualBox is that its user interface is the least Mac-like. Setting up VirtualBox can also be slightly more difficult than the other virtualization apps available. However, don't let that keep you from giving VirtualBox a try. It's free, and there's plenty of help available from the VirtualBox community to resolve any issues you may encounter.

Published: 12/18/2007

Updated: 6/17/2015