Run Windows on Mac: VirtualBox Vs. VMware Fusion Vs. Parallels

If you need to run Windows inside OS X, you have three options: VirtualBox, VMware, and Parallels. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and different use cases where one is better than the other. Let’s figure out when each is best and why.


Virtual machines allow operating systems such as Windows to run inside OS X alongside a normal Mac setup. After setting up the virtual machine, you install the operating system you want and can use it right from your Mac desktop without rebooting. There are three popular options for this:

  • VirtualBox (free): VirtualBox is perhaps the most boring of the three options we compare here . It contains all kinds of customization options for your virtual machines, but doesn’t have any fancy integration features like Parallels and VMware. Basically, VirtualBox allows you to create a virtual machine that runs Windows, and that’s about it.
  • VMware Fusion ($ 79.99 for Unlimited Macs): VMware Fusion goes between Parallels and VirtualBox, offering a ton of options for customizing your virtual machine while still providing enough manual work for the initial setup process.
  • Parallels ($ 79.99 per Mac): VMware Fusion and Parallels are very similar, but Parallels walks you through the installation process in more detail. It is also geared towards home users who just want an easy way to use Windows on their Mac without rebooting or getting another computer.

It would be an oversight here not to mention Boot Camp , which runs Windows on a separate partition of your hard drive. Unlike virtual machines, Boot Camp requires a computer restart and you cannot use both operating systems at the same time. It’s a little less convenient, but it does mean that your Windows installation can take full advantage of your Mac’s hardware for better performance. We won’t include it in today’s disclosure – specifically about the various virtualization options – but it’s worth mentioning as an option for running Windows on a Mac.

Now let’s dive into some of the specifics of each of them.

Ease of installation

Virtual machines are not like other applications. Installation goes beyond just installing the app, so a simple process is very important.

Let’s start with VirtualBox, as it is the most practical of them all. You start by creating a virtual machine and choosing the operating system you plan to run (Windows, Linux, etc.). From there, you’ll need to tweak a bunch of system settings, including the number of processor cores the VM gets, how much memory and video memory it gets from the total installed on your system. Luckily, we have a guide to guide you throughout the process . Once you’ve got all this set up, you’ll install the operating system just like you would on any computer. This means that you will need an installation disc, USB stick or ISO file to install.

Both VMware and Parallels have installation wizards to guide you through this process in a little more detail. Aside from a simple virtual machine setup, both let you import a Boot Camp partition if you have one, or transfer your old Windows PC to your Mac. Parallels (pictured above) will help you a lot more with the installation process, and you will be able to automatically optimize Parallels for productivity or gaming. Of course, you can always walk past that screen and install Windows from scratch if you like.

They are all simple, although Parallels has a slight advantage for new users as it holds your hand throughout the entire process. In terms of usability, Parallels has consistently been the strongest of the three we tested. This makes it a great solution for those who don’t want to mess around with settings.

Additional features that are critical

While each of these three programs basically does the same thing, they do stand out with a few small functions.

All three applications have support for windowed mode (see image above). This allows a separate Windows application to run in a separate window on the Mac desktop, so it looks more like a native Mac application. VMware calls it Unity , Parallels calls Coherence , and VirtualBox calls seamless mode . When an application is in windowed mode, you can copy and paste information between Windows and Mac applications, move and resize them, and close the application without closing Windows.

Both Parallels and VMware allow you to open individual Windows programs directly from the Dock, simplifying the entire process. VirtualBox does not support this feature, instead you need to open the entire virtual machine to select the application of your choice.

The similarities don’t end there. If you’re using Windows 10, Parallels and VMware give you access to Cortana to perform voice commands , even when Windows is out of focus. They also support DirectX 10, which means they can run most games, although good performance is not guaranteed (more on that in the next section). VirtualBox doesn’t support such cool little gimmicks. Instead, it just performs the simple task of starting Windows altogether.

The differences in functionality between Parallels and VMware are fairly minor. For example, Parallels supports OS X Quick View on Windows, but VMware does not. Conversely, if you have a fancy new iMac, VMware natively supports 5K monitors. Much of this stuff is pretty minor, however, and honestly, if you took away the logos, it would be difficult for me to tell them apart.

If you need a full comparison of all that is in the Parallels and VMware Fusion, in Wikipedia has a handy chart , which is worth a look, although it is not quite relevant.

Performance and benchmarks

Since virtual machines must share resources with the host OS, performance is very important. Fortunately, TekRevue has tested all three programs for various tasks. The current version of VMware outperforms others in almost every category, while VirtualBox lags far behind its competitors. Of course, this is not the only point.

In 18 different benchmarks, VMware scored top awards in 11, especially in the graphics benchmarks. Performance limits were usually quite close, and overall Parallels performed better in CPU benchmarks and VMware performed better in graphics benchmarks.

The general trend of comparing CPU and graphics can be traced throughout all tests. Parallels generally boots faster than VMware, transfers files faster, and saves battery better than VMware. In turn, VMware benchmarks are much higher for 3D graphics and for games, especially with OpenGL. VirtualBox consistently lags behind in both CPU and 3D performance.

Verdict: VirtualBox is free to use without restrictions. VMware or Parallels for easier-to-use and more integrated

If you just need Windows to run this one old app that doesn’t require a ton of 3D rendering or other complex processing, VirtualBox is the place to go. Other than that, the features of the two paid options are very similar, and the difference is mainly in the price and the number of Macs you need to install. If you plan to run anything in 3D, or want to install Windows on more than one Mac, choose VMware. If you’re more interested in productivity software and battery life, and don’t mind one Mac limitation, then Parallels is your best bet.

All this also changes from year to year. Both Parallels and VMware require you to purchase an annual license each year to receive updates that improve performance and improve features. These annual updates are fine in theory, but they are not cheap and will definitely come every year. It’s a little tedious, especially when they block newer versions of Windows for these paid updates . Assuming you don’t need to be at the forefront, they tend to be pretty incremental, and you can skip one or two – until a new version of Windows comes out.

However, the good news is that while VirtualBox is free, even VMware Fusion and Parallels have trial periods so you can check them all out. We definitely recommend that you do this before throwing cash. You don’t have to try all three options, but if your needs are rather limited, start with VirtualBox before considering VMware or Parallels.


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