Mac software is awesome, but there’s no denying that Windows software is widespread. Thus, many Mac users find themselves needing to run Windows-only apps from time to time.
Maybe you need to use a specific piece of software that only runs on Windows, or just miss something from your Windows days. Whatever the case, you have options for running Windows programs on your Mac.
Here’s an overview of them all, plus our favorite method that will suit most people.
1. Virtual Machines
Virtual machines (VMs) allow you to run an operating system (OS) inside a piece of software. The virtual OS thinks it’s running on a real computer, but you have full control over it thanks to the virtualization software. On macOS, you’ll find three big VM names: Parallels, VMware Fusion, and VirtualBox.
Our review of Parallels found that it offers the best VM user experience, especially for beginners. You don’t have to configure anything or even download Windows yourself during the setup — the software does it all for you. Coherence mode lets you run Windows apps right alongside Mac apps, even pinning them to your Dock, and get Windows out of the way. Indeed, Parallels has surged ahead of VMware Fusion.
The biggest downside is the cost. Parallels costs $80, while VirtualBox is free. However, VirtualBox requires you to perform the setup yourself. It also isn’t quite as smooth as Parallels, since the latter was specifically designed for macOS. Our complete guide to VirtualBox will help you if you decide to try it, though.
We recommend giving the 14-day free trial of Parallels a try and deciding if it’s worth the cost to you. If you don’t want to pay, VirtualBox is your best bet for having a copy of Windows at the ready. Thankfully, you can download the Windows 10 installation media and use it without having to even activate the OS.
- Opening a virtual machine doesn’t require you to reboot your PC.
- Running Windows programs alongside Mac apps is a breeze.
- Parallels offers an impressively smooth experience.
- You can scale how much space the virtual hard drive uses.
- Parallels is expensive.
- VM graphics performance is poor so this isn’t a good solution for playing Windows games on your Mac.
- VirtualBox takes a bit of tinkering to set up.
- Older Macs might not have enough resources to keep a VM running smoothly.
2. Boot Camp
While virtual machines let you run a copy of Windows inside software, Boot Camp lets you install Windows right onto your Mac. Also known as dual-booting, this lets you run Windows and macOS side by side on one hard drive.
The Boot Camp Assistant in macOS walks you through the entire process. This will partition your hard drive and install Windows so you can reboot into it. We’ve covered how to download a Windows installer for Boot Camp and everything you need to know about running Windows on your Mac if you decide to go with this method.
One drawback to dual-booting with Boot Camp is that you can’t run Windows and Mac programs side-by-side. Whenever you need Windows, you’ll need to restart your Mac and boot into Windows. However, this leads to better performance than a virtual machine, because Windows can utilize all of your machine’s resources.
- No additional cost.
- Offers the best performance for running games and other intensive Windows software.
- You must reboot every time you want to access Windows programs.
- Can take up a good bit of disk space.
Both of the above solutions involve actually using the Windows OS to run Windows programs. But Wine is different. It’s a compatibility layer that lets you run Windows software on macOS and Linux. Wine is a lighter solution than an installation of Windows, if you just need to use a program or two. But it doesn’t come without its own set of problems.
Wine isn’t guaranteed to work with all programs. Some may work perfectly, while others will crash or fail to run at all. You can check the Wine Application Database to see if your preferred apps will work. Another problem is that the vanilla Wine program requires some tweaking that will likely confuse new users.
The best way to try Wine is with the third-party WineBottler, which adds some much-needed conveniences.
Download WineBottler and open the DMG file when complete. In the resulting window, drag and drop both the Wine and WineBottler icons to your Applications folder just like you’d install other software. Launch WineBottler, and you’ll see some programs that you can install right away, such as internet Explorer.
To open other Windows programs, download them as EXE files from the appropriate websites. Right-click and choose Open With > Wine and Wine can run them directly. Remember that not all programs will work under Wine, so you may have to try some troubleshooting if one fails.
Wine is best if you need to run a Windows program or two and is worth keeping around for those times. But if you need to run many Windows programs, you’re better off with another method.
- Free and fast install.
- Some common Windows software works out of the box.
- Doesn’t require installing Windows.
- Not guaranteed to work with all software.
- Even supported programs may have problems.
CrossOver is a paid tool that’s based on Wine. It features a solid user interface, allowing you to simply type the name of the Windows software you want to install and handles it all for you. Since it’s commercial software, you can also ask the developers about adding support for a new piece of software if you’re a subscriber.
But compared to your other options here, CrossOver really doesn’t offer the best package for most people’s needs. If you need to run several Windows programs, you’re better off with using a VM. Boot Camp will give you better performance for games, and Wine is free for testing one-off programs. At $40 minimum for CrossOver, we recommend skipping this one.
- Marginally better support and interface than WineBottler.
- Focuses on supporting popular programs.
- Cost is a lot to pay when WineBottler is free.
- Based on Wine, so may still have bugs.
- Not great for running lots of Windows software.
5. Remote Access
If none of the above solutions work for you, why not attack the problem in a different way? Those who have a Windows computer already can simply use a remote control software to access Windows from their Mac.
All you need to do is install your chosen tool on both your Mac and Windows PC, sign into your account on both machines, and you can access your Windows computer whenever you need to.
Depending on your internet connection you may experience some latency, and keyboard shortcuts may cause a bit of confusion. High-intensity programs like games aren’t ideal over a remote connection, either. But if you just want to perform an action in Windows or need access to a specific program, remote access is easy and free.
- Free and easy to set up.
- Doesn’t take up space on your Mac.
- Windows programs are guaranteed to work since they’re running on a Windows machine.
- Requires you to have a Windows PC that’s always on.
- A poor internet connection can hamper the experience.
- It’s hard to use demanding programs over a remote connection.
Don’t Forget Web Apps
While you can’t run Windows apps through your browser, it’s worth mentioning that so much software is available online and doesn’t require an install. No matter if you’re using macOS, Linux, or Chrome OS, these tools all work through any browser.
If you prefer Microsoft Office to the iWork suite, you can use Office Online at no cost. Online image editing tools offer an alternative to Windows apps like Paint.NET. And online collaboration tools let you communicate with others without anyone installing software.
These give you a way to run alternative software if you don’t like the Mac offering available. In some cases, web apps are even better than native Mac apps!
The Easiest Way to Run Windows Programs on a Mac
We’ve taken a look at the five most common ways to run Windows software on your Mac. But which is the easiest? As it turns out…
Unless you’re playing games, running a virtual machine is the best way for most people to access Windows software on macOS.
Using a virtual machine lets you open Windows software alongside Mac apps, all without rebooting your Mac. And it’s more reliable than Wine.
Whether you should use Parallels or Virtualbox for your VM depends on your needs. If you don’t mind paying, aren’t comfortable with setting up your own VM, or want the absolute best experience, go with Parallels. Those who have some experience with VMs or don’t have extra money to spend will do fine with Virtualbox.
VirtualBox. Or Parallels if you don't mind paying every year for the upgrade to keep everything working.
— Thomas Lutz (@thomaslutz_de) October 15, 2016
How Do You Run Windows Software on Your Mac?
Just because a virtual machine is the best method for the average user to use Windows apps on a Mac, it doesn’t mean it’s the best solution for you. Let’s review the five methods in turn to summarize what kind of user can benefit from each:
- Virtual machine: Best for anyone who wants to use a variety of Windows software along with their Mac apps without having to reboot into Windows. Doesn’t offer powerful performance for games.
- Boot Camp: Best for those who need their machine’s full power when running Windows, like when playing video games. Inconvenient to reboot into Windows.
- Wine: Handy to keep around if you only run a handful Windows programs on your Mac. Inferior to a VM if you want to run lots of apps, as many don’t work in Wine.
- CrossOver: Not worth paying for over Wine. You’re better off with a VM.
- Remote Desktop: Worth setting up if you have a Windows PC already. May have problems with network latency. Using a VM is cheaper than buying a dedicated PC for this.
What’s your favorite solution for running Windows software? Is there a better method than the ones we’ve listed here? Talk to us down in the comments!