Just like any other system, macOS does not offer everything one would need to get the job done. For that reason, a lot of users usually get a separate system such as a Windows laptop along with a MacBook to use software designed to work only with Windows. There are a lot of programs specialized for engineering, gaming, or business work that are exclusive to Windows OS. Also, when it comes to an artistic approach, professionals also need to use some 3rd party peripherals that may not be compatible with macOS. In such cases, users may need a Windows laptop to connect and use the devices they need.
While using a separate Windows laptop seems like a logical solution, it’s fairly expensive depending on the system you are buying, and also inconvenient if you are looking to work on the go. You can also try dual-booting your MacBook with Windows OS so that you can switch between the operating systems as per your needs. But again, it defeats the purpose of saving time as you will have to reboot the laptop each time you need to use the OS. However, it is possible to avoid the trouble completely using a Windows emulator. In this guide,, we will learn about Windows emulation on macOS, its requirements, and also offer some of the most popular and free Windows emulators available for macOS right now.
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What Are Windows Emulators?
Windows emulators for macOS are applications that allow users to run the Windows operating system and its applications on Mac computers without installing Windows directly. Windows emulators create a virtual environment that mimics the Windows system and enables users to switch between Mac and Windows easily. So, you simply need to install a Windows emulator on your MacBook and you can run almost any application that you want within the environment which requires Windows OS.
There are many different options available for Windows emulators for macOS, each with its own features and advantages. On top of that, many of these emulators are open-source and available for free. So, it is certainly a better alternative than going through the hassle of dual-booting or getting a different laptop.
Requirements of Windows Emulators
Before you can install a Windows emulator on your Mac, you need to first check the requirements of the software and see if it is compatible with your system. While the requirements of each Windows emulator may vary slightly, the general requirements are pretty much the same for all programs.
1. Intel CPU
Most Windows emulators for macOS require a Mac computer with an Intel processor, as they are designed to emulate the x86 architecture of Windows. So if you are using an older MacBook powered by an Intel CPU, you can pretty much install any Windows emulator and it will work without any problem. But, if you are using one of the newer models of MacBook that are powered by an ARM chip such as M1 or M2, you will have to find a Windows emulator which is compatible with that. So before you look for an emulator, make sure you check your Mac’s processor type. You can do that by clicking the Apple menu and selecting About This Mac where you will find all of the hardware information including the CPU.
2. Windows License
To run Windows on your Mac, you also need a valid Windows license that you can purchase from Microsoft or other 3rd party retailers. The majority of Windows emulators for macOS will prompt you to enter the product key during the installation process. But if you already own a license key, or you have a Microsoft account that has an active Windows license, you will be able to provide the license by simply logging in with your Windows account.
3. Disk Space
Last but not least, in order to run Windows on your Mac, you will need additional disk space and memory to allocate to the emulator. The amount of disk space and memory you need will depend on the type of emulator you are using as well as the version of Windows OS and the applications you want to run. As a general rule, you should have at least 50 to 70 GB of free disk space along with 4 GB of RAM dedicated for Windows OS. You can also check your Mac’s disk space and memory in the About This Mac section.
Benefits of Windows Emulators
As you can imagine, using Windows emulators offers a lot of benefits. Most importantly, By using a Windows emulator you can run Windows-specific programs that are not available or compatible with macOS. On top of that, you can also use Windows features and settings that are not present in macOS, such as the Taskbar, the Start menu, and other Windows-exclusive features. Here are some of the major benefits of using a Windows Emulator on macOS:
- Compatibility with Windows-specific file formats: By using a Windows emulator, you can access and edit files that are created on Windows applications. This can include documents, spreadsheets, presentations, databases, and much more. You can also share these files and data between Mac and Windows environments, such as by using drag and drop, copy and paste, or file sharing.
- Seamless integration with Mac OS: By using a Windows emulator, you can switch between Mac and Windows environments quickly. You can run Windows applications from your Mac desktop directly, or use Windows in full-screen mode for a more enhanced experience. You can also use Mac gestures and keyboard shortcuts to control Windows applications.
- Improved productivity and workflow: Using a Windows emulator allows users to work on multiple projects and tasks simultaneously which would otherwise require different platforms and applications. You can also test your code or software on different operating systems without having to reboot the system or transfer the application. Windows emulators also support customizing your Windows emulator to suit your preferences and needs, such as by adjusting the memory, disk space, and network settings.
- Enhanced gaming experience: Another advantage of using a Windows emulator is you can play Windows games on your Mac that are not natively supported by macOS. You can also enjoy better graphics and performance on macOS for some games than Windows. Some emulators can leverage the Mac hardware and software to optimize gaming performance and make the experience better on MacBooks.
Free Windows Emulators for MacOS
Now that you are aware of the compatibility criteria and benefits of using a Windows emulator on macOS, let us turn our attention to some of the best Windows emulators that you can find out there. For this list, we have only chosen the free options so that you can test out all of these options and see which one performs the best for your needs. Also, these are some of the most popular options available for MacOS due to their enhanced compatibility and support for the latest macOS versions. So, you will easily find at least one of these alternatives best suited for your needs.
1. Boot Camp Assistant
Instead of going for a 3rd party option, you can first try the Boot Camp Assistant. This is a built-in tool in macOS that lets you install Windows on a separate partition of your hard drive. You can then choose to boot into either Mac or Windows when you start your computer. Boot Camp Assistant offers the best performance and compatibility for Windows applications, as it uses the full power of the Mac hardware. However, it also requires more disk space and does not allow you to run Mac and Windows simultaneously which can be a deal breaker for a lot of users.
- Built-in feature of macOS.
- Relatively faster and performance-focused choice.
- Takes advantage of the Virtualization feature efficiently.
- Utilizes MacBook resources to the fullest.
- The user needs to reboot the system to switch between the OS.
- Uses additional disk space on the hard drive.
VirtualBox is also a free and open-source application that lets you create and run Windows as a virtual machine on your Mac. Unlike our previous solution, using a dedicated emulator such as VirtualBox allows you to switch between Mac and Windows easily, or even use both OS in a split-screen mode. VirtualBox offers a simple and lightweight solution for running Windows applications. But it may not have the best performance and compatibility compared to a few other emulators.
- Easy to download and install.
- Can be used in the background.
- Completely isolated from the macOS.
- Effectively performs Windows emulation without errors.
- User interface feels dated.
- Graphics support is a bit lacking.
- Boot time is comparatively longer than other emulators.
PlayOnMac is based on Wine, or rather an advanced version of Wine with added features and support for gaming. As the name suggests, PlayOnMac is primarily designed to support gaming on macOS and lets you run Windows games and applications directly on your Mac. In fact, it makes it possible without having to install Windows OS or even creating a virtual machine. PlayOnMac also provides a user-friendly interface along with a list of compatible Windows games and applications. But even though this software offers a convenient and cost-effective way to run Windows games, it may still have some limitations and compatibility issues when it comes to other heavier programs such as video editing or rendering software.
- Highly intuitive GUI.
- Allows users to choose between different versions of Wine.
- Comes with built-in installation scripts for easier installation.
- Easier to use compared to Wine.
- It needs Wine to be installed on the macOS.
- Most features are dedicated to gaming.
4. Wineskin Winery
Wineskin Winery is another free alternative that is based on Wine. Unlike PlayOnMac, Wineskin Winery lets you create wrappers for Windows applications and games. In simpler words, it can create self-contained packages of software that can run on macOS. You can also tweak the settings and features of your wrappers to optimize memory usage, installation space, and network support. While this program offers a flexible and creative solution for running Windows applications, it is slightly more time-consuming and requires users to have some technical skills for efficient performance.
- A free alternative that works for most Windows programs.
- Allows users to run Windows apps under OS X.
- Packages created using Wineskin Winery can be shared with other macOS systems.
- Initial setup and working are a bit complicated.
- It does not support resource-heavy Windows software.
Last but not least, we will suggest you try out Wine which is the parent software for many popular Windows emulators designed for macOS. Surprisingly, this is also a completely free and open-source application that lets you run Windows applications directly on your Mac. And, there is no need to install Windows or create a virtual machine on your system. Wine translates the Windows application code into Mac code, making it possible to run Windows applications as if they were native Mac applications. As a result, apps converted using Wine can utilize Mac hardware completely and offer the best performance. But again, not all Windows programs can be converted using Wine, limiting its compatibility.
- Separate Windows OS installation can be avoided.
- Completely open-source and free alternative.
- Best suited for older Mac OS versions.
- It is not compatible with newer MacBook powered by ARM chip.
- Compatibility is limited and depends on the complexity of Windows programs.
Best Free Windows Emulator for Mac – FAQs
Ans: There are 2 types of Windows emulation that can be performed on a macOS that are using virtualization software and emulation software. Virtualization is a type of emulation that requires the entire operating system within a virtual machine. For that, you can install Windows on a separate partition of your Mac hard drive or on a virtual disk. On the other hand, emulation software does not require having Windows OS at all. It can either execute Windows applications in macOS or convert them into native macOS applications so that they can be used on the system.
Ans: No, Windows emulators do not support all Windows programs. In fact, the selection of which Windows programs you can use on your macOS using emulators depends on which emulator you are using as well as the complexity and compatibility of the Windows program itself. On top of that, running Windows on a Mac consumes more resources and memory which results in slower and laggy performance. So even if some Windows apps support execution by such programs, they are more likely to freeze or crash on a MacBook. Therefore, you should test the application using various emulators to see which one performs the best.
Ans: Windows emulators may cause performance drops on macOS based on the type and configuration of the emulator. These emulators require additional resources and memory than running native Mac applications which affects the speed and efficiency of your Mac. Also, different versions of Windows have varying system requirements that also affect the performance of the emulator. For example, Windows 11 requires more resources and memory compared to Windows 10. So using an emulator for Windows 11 would be relatively more difficult on a MacBook compared to a Windows 10 emulator.
Ans: You will find a handful of Windows emulators designed for macOS that are dedicated to gaming. But even though these emulators are designed to support Windows games, you should keep your expectations lower as you won’t find the gaming performance equivalent to using a dedicated Windows gaming laptop. Since the games are being emulated, it adds an additional layer of processing which degrades the rendering speed or FPS of the game. While you can still enjoy simpler games such as platformers or 2D Windows games, most emulators fail to support action-placed 3D games.
Ans: Yes, there are some drawbacks to using an emulator on a macOS. While you may not notice these drawbacks on newer and more powerful MacBooks, the issues are more than noticeable when it comes to older MacBooks. As the emulator consumes more resources and memory than running native Mac software, it results in slower and laggy performance, especially when you are using a Mac program and an emulated Windows program simultaneously. Also, some software may not run properly or at all on an emulator because of differences in the system architecture and necessary drivers. Most importantly, an emulator may expose your Mac to cyberattacks if you are running a vulnerable Windows application via emulation.
Using a Windows emulator on macOS is definitely a practical solution for those who need access to Windows-exclusive applications or features without the need for a separate Windows machine. The clean and intuitive interface of macOS, coupled with the benefits of running Windows applications seamlessly makes emulators a favorable choice. However, it’s crucial to consider the specific requirements of the emulator you are using as well as the drawbacks associated with each emulator before you make a choice. Also, there are a lot of emulators available out there that can pose a security risk to your system which should be avoided at all costs. So to help you with that, we have brought you the best free alternatives for a Windows emulator in his guide. If you need any more help regarding the information provided in this guide, you can reach us via the comment section below.