When one operating system is not enough: The five best virtual machine applications

If it hasn’t happened already, there will come a time when you’ll wish your computer was running a different operating system. Whether you’re a competent software developer or simply a user desiring an application exclusive to an OS other than your own, there are plenty of valid reasons for why you’d want to use another OS. Despite what you might think, however, you don’t necessarily have to adhere to your supposed monetary and spatial restraints given the amount of available virtual machines.

Assuming your machine touts the capabilities, the intuitive software allows you to emulate your desired OS within another, allowing you to run two operating systems alongside one another on a single machine. For instance, you could run Apple’s Mac OS X on a Windows computer using a virtual machine. Here are our picks for the best virtual machine applications available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Additionally, check out our guides on how to run Internet Explorer on Mac OS X, and how to install Windows 8 on a Mac for more in-depth tutorials.

This list is continually updated to reflect recent software changes. Last update: May 23, 2014. Writers Brandon Widder and John Brandon contributed to this article.

VirtualBox (Windows/Mac OS X/Linux) — Free

VirtualBox is powerful, brimming with terrific features — and best of all — free. It’s a lean piece of software requiring little more than a recent Intel or AMD processor, while boasting seamless integration and switching capabilities within the host desktop. It’s also available on all major platforms, and features plaint-text XML files for easy navigation. It remains coupled with special software packages designed to aid users with sharing folders and drives among guest and host operating systems.


The software functions nearly identically regardless of the host platform, and even offers 3D virtualization, multi-screen resolutions, and laudable hardware support among other features. It’s not the quickest or most industrious when compared to similar offerings, but then again, you often get what you pay for.

VMware (Windows/Mac OS X/Linux) — Free to $250

VMware has been in the virtual machine game since 1998, and offers three differing pieces of virtualization software: VMware Workstation ($250), VMware Fusion ($60), and VMware Player (Free).


Though the Workstation package is ideal for professional users who desire a powerhouse virtual machine capable of simultaneously running applications on multiple guest operating systems, VMware’s Fusion is simply designed for home users who want to run Windows on their Mac machine. VMware Player caters toward those looking to run virtual machines on their Windows or Linux systems. None of the options are particularly simple to use, but the installation is quick, integration between operating systems is seamless, and the guest software runs at near native speeds. Best of all, they’re the most stable and reliable since their inception.

Parallels Desktop 9 (Mac OS X) — $80

When it comes to delivering the Windows experience to Mac users, Parallels Desktop 9 is, well, unparalleled. The latest incarnation of the software is compatible with OS X Mavericks, allowing you to emulate Windows XP, 7, and 8 as a guest operating system. It allows you to conveniently run Mac and Windows applications side-by-side without rebooting, while additionally providing tools for quickly moving files between operating systems, launching programs directly from your Mac dock, and accessing cloud storage.

Parallels Desktop 9

The software features a simple setup wizard for beginners, and moreover, it supports Retina displays and advanced 3D graphics. Parallels can also emulate the Linux and Solaris operating systems, but the tightest integration remains when coupled with Windows. Unfortunately, you’ll have to look elsewhere for more advanced tools and customization.

QEMU (Linux) — Free

The open-source QEMU, short for “Quick EMUlator,” is ideal for Linux power users who want a customizable virtual machine. Through a process involving dynamic binary translation, QEMU can emulate an array of hardware and software types, while skirting host administrative privileges to run guest operating systems.


The software executes the guest code directly on the host machine, thus attaining near-native performance — and given the software’s aforementioned ability to run sans administrative privileges — it’s perfectly apt for creating pocket-sized virtual machines that conveniently fit on a portable flash drive. Like VMware’s offerings, it’s not the easiest to utilize, yet the open-source nature of the project makes it one of the most regularly updated choices out there.

Boot Camp (Mac OS X) — Free

Although Apple’s Boot Camp isn’t technically a virtual machine, the software allows users to dual boot both OS X and Windows. Instead of emulating an operating system, Boot Camp helps you set up a partition in the hard drive so you can install the Windows operating system of their choice on your machine. Since it’s running directly off the hard drive, running Windows via Boot Camp produces a more flawless experience than if the operating system was merely being emulated.


However, your disk space will be split in half, and you’ll be unable to run Mac and Windows applications side-by-side considering the software requires disk partitioning. Then again, Boot Camp is worth using if you have plenty of available disk space, and don’t mind installing two separate operating systems.

What do you think of our roundup of the best virtual machine applications? Sound off in the comments below.

[QEMU screenshot courtesy of Lifehacker]

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