Virtualization software lets you run Windows and all its apps on your Mac OS or Linux system. Here are the best options to make your Mac Windows PC–compatible.
Virtualization is not the buzziest tech term, but that’s probably because most people don’t really understand what it means. Virtualization software does for your computer what picture-in-picture does for your high-end TV, but a lot more powerfully. Virtualization utilities let you run a complete Windows system on a Mac or Linux machine, or one version of Windows inside another version. The virtual machine created by the software acts like a real desktop or laptop computer for the guest operating system to run on, except that it doesn’t require extra hardware. Everything in the virtual machine—the CPU, video card, RAM, hard disk, network adapter, and everything else—exists only as bits and bytes. The Windows, Mac, Linux, or other system running in the virtual machine acts exactly as if it were running on real hardware. So you can run a Windows app on a Mac running Mac OS. Or that old Windows XP-only app that you need for your business can run in a window in your new Windows 10 machine. Or you can run multiple versions of OS X on your Mac.
When I’m working at a Mac, I use virtualization software to run Windows productivity software that doesn’t have any OS X counterparts, or when I prefer to use the keyboard-friendly Windows version of Microsoft Office instead of the mouse-friendly OS X version. Under Windows, I use virtualization software to run old apps that have served me well for years but that don’t run under modern Windows versions. One limitation of these apps: You can’t run a guest OS X system on a Linux or Windows machine, because OS X is licensed to run only on Mac hardware, and virtualization apps won’t launch an OS X guest under Windows. Hackers have found ways around this system, but they’re as unstable as they are illegal, and we don’t recommend them.
You can install multiple virtualization apps on the same machine and use different apps for different purposes. For example, you might choose Wineskin Winery to run an old PC game on a Mac, but use Parallels Desktop to run the latest version of Office 2016 for $124.79 at Amazon on the same machine. Keep in mind that there are two kinds of virtualization software out there. On the one hand, you can choose full-scale apps that work by running a complete operating system such as Windows or Linux. The full-scale apps include Parallels Desktop, VMware Fusion, and Oracle VirtualBox. On the other hand, you can choose Wineskin Winery or other software based on the WINE (Wine Is Not an Emulator) project. WINE doesn’t run a complete copy of Windows or anything else, but instead provides a minimal environment that lets a single Windows app run in OS X or Linux.
Before you get started, think about the amount of RAM and disk space you have on your machine. Virtualization software tends to hog memory and CPU cycles, and every virtual guest system that you create is likely to need 10GB to 30GB of disk space, and probably more as you continue to use it. The new Veertu Mac virtualization app outclasses older full-scale apps by using the built-in virtualization resources of OS X to reduce its own footprint. Wineskin Winery (like other WINE-based software) doesn’t need to install a full Windows system, and uses far fewer resources than apps like Parallels Desktop, VMware Fusion, or Oracle VirtualBox, which always run a full Windows system even if only a single app is visible.
Also consider the depth of integration that you want between the virtual guest system and the actual host system. All virtualization apps offer varying degrees of cross-system integration. The champ in the integration sweepstakes is Parallels Desktop, which can optionally make all the files and folders that you have on your actual Mac desktop also appear on a virtual Windows desktop running under Parallels. You may or may not want this level of integration—I always turn it off because it adds to clutter and distraction—but you’ll almost certainly want the ability to drag and drop files between the host and guest system and to copy text in the host and paste it in the guest, or the reverse. All the full-scale virtualization apps offer these features. WINE-based software like Wineskin Winery lets you share text via the clipboard, and lets you share folders between the OS X or Linux host and the guest Windows app. But setup can be tricky, and it uses an interface that looks like something out of Windows 95.
The full-scale commercial apps, VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop, offer further integration features like an option to add shortcuts in OS X that open specific Windows apps so you don’t have to start Windows and then manually launch the Windows app you want. They also let you set up the host and guest system so that (for example) an email link in the guest Windows system opens the Mail app in OS X—or the reverse, with a mail link in OS X opening Outlook in Windows. You can also set up menus of Windows apps that can open in OS X.
One of the most useful features in high-end virtualization apps like Fusion or Parallels is a display mode that lets you hide the guest Windows desktop while displaying only the window for whichever Windows app you’re using. The effect is to make a Windows app look as if it’s an OS X app, though it will inevitably run slightly slower than a native OS X app. All the apps include varying levels of keyboard customization, so you can (for example) use OS X-standard keystrokes like Cmd-C and Cmd-V to copy and paste in Windows apps running on the Mac, instead of Windows-standard Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V. Some keyboard keys on Windows machines—like Ins or PrtSc—have no matching keys on Mac hardware, so full-scale virtualization apps let you type those keys into a Windows app by choosing them from a menu in the virtualization app. Advanced users may want to experiment with different virtualization apps to find the keyboard controls that best suit their work habits.
All these apps let you run the guest computer full-screen, so that your Mac looks as if it’s a Windows machine. When you’re running a guest machine in a window, not full-screen, almost all the apps let you drag on a corner of the window to resize it on the fly. (Veertu and Wineskin Winery are exceptions to this.) These features, and all other advanced integration features, are available only if you install in the guest special software called “guest additions” that run in the background in the guest system to interact with the host system. The kind of integrations that you get with a virtualization app depends on the quality of the guest additions that it provides—and if you’re trying to run a little-used OS, you may need to look around to find a virtualization app that offers guest additions for the system you want to run.
If you’re testing software, or if you want to restore a system to a pristine state after it’s been used, then you’ll rely on the Snapshot feature in Parallels, VMware, and VirtualBox. At any time, you can save one or more snapshots that preserve the current state of a guest system, and you can return to any snapshot at any time, removing all traces of anything that occurred on the guest system after you created the snapshot. This lets you repeatedly test software as if it were being installed for the first time, or lets you access a potentially dangerous website from a virtual machine and then remove all traces that the site left on the virtual machine, restoring it to the clean state it started in.
Virtualization apps aren’t all work and no play. Many users of Wineskin Winery, for example, use it to play Windows games that never got ported to the Mac. Many users of VMware Fusion or Oracle VirtualBox use those utilities to experiment with ancient operating systems like Nextstep or OS/2. And, in addition to the apps listed in the table below, you can find emulation software that lets you run old MS-DOS software and ancient pre-OS X versions of the Mac operating system. If you want to play old DOS games, you can find versions of the open-source DOSBox for Windows, OS X, and Linux.
Virtualization apps make it possible to run almost any app or game ever written on the computer you’re now using. For corporate and leading-edge users, these apps make it possible to test and run programs or whole operating systems with minimal expenditure on hardware. If you’ve tried virtualization software already, you already know how valuable it is. If you haven’t tried it, think back to that game you played on some clunky machine 10 or 20 years ago—because a virtualization app will let you play it again. Post by BY EDWARD MENDELSON
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