A software hypervisor is a software program used for creating, managing, and running virtual machines on a particular computer and its operating system. Hence, in Mac computers and the macOS operating system of Apple, it is used for creating and running other operating systems such as Windows, Linux distributions such as Debian and Ubuntu, and Unix. There is a limited selection of software hypervisors for Mac. Most of their intended use cases or applications center on running a virtualized Windows computer on top of macOS. Nevertheless, despite this, these software programs have their respective capabilities and advantages. This article identifies and provides a comparative overview of the 4 best software hypervisors for Mac.
Comparing the Different Software Hypervisors for Mac: Choosing the Best Hypervisor for Running Windows and Other Operating Systems on macOS
1. Oracle VirtualBox
One of the 5 software hypervisors for Mac is Oracle VirtualBox. It is also considered the most basic hypervisor among the selections because it is free to download and use. It is also popular across Intel-based Mac computers because it is developed for x86 instruction set architecture. This means that it has native support for the standard Windows and even for Linux and Unix because these operating systems can run on an x86 processor by default.
The newest version of this hypervisor now supports the new Mac devices based on the Apple M series of systems-on-chips. The M series is based on RISC and ARM architectures. Hence, when using VirtualBox to run another operating system on top of macOS, it is important to choose the ARM versions of Windows and Linux distributions.
Nevertheless, Oracle VirtualBox is ideal for those who do not have a budget or cannot set aside a budget to purchase a licensed software hypervisor. This is specifically suitable for running basic tasks or less resource-intensive workloads on another operating system. However, because of its limitations, it is not ideal for heavier workloads. This software hypervisor tends to lag by default and it will struggle to run resource-demanding software programs or apps.
2. Parallels Desktop for Mac
Another one of the more popular software hypervisors for Mac is Parallels Desktop for Mac. It specifically provides hardware virtualization for Mac computers running on Intel processors or the newer Apple M series chips. It is interesting to note that even Microsoft endorses the use of this software hypervisor to run Windows 11 on newer models of Mac computers and the latest versions of and updates to the macOS. This is a testament to its stability.
This hypervisor is similar to Oracle VirtualBox. Both are type-2 software hypervisors. What this means is that they run on top of the host operating system similar to most software. They also use all relevant hardware resources via the host operating system. Parallels Desktop for Mac is able to virtualize a full set of standard PC hardware.
It is also worth mentioning that this hypervisor has a stable and smooth overall performance. It is also easy to install and has an intuitive user interface. The tight integration with macOS allows crossovers between the host OS and guest OS. However, when it comes to its drawbacks, it is not ideal for those with a limited budget because it comes with a cost either via a subscription plan or a one-time license payment. It also lacks comprehensive customer support.
3. VMware Fusion
There is a feature-limited and paid full versions of VMware Fusion. This has made it also one of the go-to software hypervisors for Mac for both individual and enterprise users. It is compatible with both Intel-based and M-based Mac computers. There is also support for the latest Windows and Linux distribution versions or releases. The fact that it is a stable and reliable software makes it suitable for running an entire operating system experience on top of macOS.
Another advantage of this hypervisor is its intuitive user interface. The entire user experience is straightforward. There is also a library of pre-configured virtual machines for quick installation without the need for a full configuration. Furthermore, similar to Parallels Desktop for Mac, the tight integration with macOS allows crossover functions.
The free version is suitable for personal use or those with average usage requirements. The paid version brings in more features and capabilities. A notable drawback of VMware Fusion is that it still has some compatibility issues with ARM-based Windows. It also needs at least 8GB of RAM and at least 16GB to 30GB of storage space depending on the virtual machine. Parallels Desktop for Mac is also considered to be a bit faster and more reliable than VMware Fusion.
4. QEMU for Mac
Quick Emulator or QEMU for Mac is both a free and open-source emulator and hypervisor that is available on mainstream platforms such as Mac. Nonetheless, as a software emulator, it is used for emulating hardware architectures to enable running operating systems and apps designed on a Mac computer. Furthermore, as a hypervisor, it leverages the Hypervisor Framework of Apple to create, manage, and run virtual machines with different operating systems.
The two-sided function of this software depends on the configuration. A user can choose to set it up as an emulator under a user-mode emulation or system emulation modes. It can also be set up under the hypervisor support mode and act as a virtual machine manager or a device emulation back-end virtual machine running under a hypervisor.
Nevertheless, when used as a software emulator, one of the disadvantages of QEMU is that it has a slower performance compared to actual software hypervisors for Mac. Furthermore, when used as a software hypervisor, it is limited to Intel-based Mac computers. Another disadvantage is that it is not a straightforward solution to run Windows on Mac or other operating systems on top of macOS. It is also not ideal for resource-intensive tasks or applications.
Alternative to Software Hypervisors for Mac: Other Solutions for Running Windows and Other Operating Systems on Mac Computers and macOS
There are other options for running other operating systems on Mac. One of the most popular ones is through the use of a compatibility layer software or interfaces. Examples include the free and open-source Windows compatibility layer called Wine and its derivatives such as CrossOver. These software or interfaces allow a particular user to run Windows applications on macOS without the need for running an actual Windows operating system.
Another solution is through the Boot Camp feature of Intel-based Mac computers. This enables a user to partition the internal storage of a Mac device and install Windows alongside macOS. It provides a full Windows experience and native performance with no virtual machine overhead. Switching between macOS and Windows requires a restart. The user can choose between the two operating systems on boot. This makes it better than hypervisors.
However, considering the arrival of M-based Mac computers, it is worth noting that Boot Camp is not supported in Apple M chips. Furthermore, because of the different architecture of Apple M chips, using a compatibility layer can bring forth app compatibility and performance issues. The workaround is to either opt for a cloud-based solution such as Microsoft Azure Virtual Desktop or choose one of the software hypervisors for Mac discussed above.