If you want to run multiple operating systems on one machine, or multiple copies of the same operating system, then you only have two ways to do it: dual boot or virtual machine. Both methods are useful, but they serve different purposes.
Not sure which one is right for you? Then you’ve come to the right place. We’ll go through a series of questions that you should ask yourself. Your answers to these questions will let you know which method is better for your particular needs.
Note: If you don’t know what a virtual machine is, start with our introductory article on what virtual machines are and why they’re useful.
Do You Have a Powerful Computer?
Normally, 100 percent of your hardware is dedicated to running the operating system on your computer. But when you use a virtual machine, you’re running a second operating system within your primary operating system. This means your hardware splits between the two operating systems.
On older computers and laptops, dual booting is really your only option. When you dual boot, you can switch between operating systems and dedicate all your hardware to one at a time. The more powerful your hardware, the more viable a virtual machine becomes. In that case, a virtual machine is usually preferable.
How much power does a virtual machine require? It depends on the operating system. If you’re running a lightweight Linux distro, you don’t need much. If you’re virtualizing Windows 10 within macOS, then you’ll need a more modern rig.
Will You Do CPU or GPU-Intensive Tasks?
Even with a powerful computer, virtual machines can be problematic when doing resource-intensive tasks like gaming, 3D animation, video editing, etc.
This is because virtualization involves a bit of emulation, and emulated operating systems aren’t as efficient as native operating systems. So if you’re going to do anything that hogs the CPU or GPU, it’s better to go with a dual boot setup instead.
Will You Use One Operating System at a Time?
Virtual machines are great for multitasking, allowing you to switch between multiple operating systems with a simple Alt + Tab. But if you’re going to sit inside a virtualized operating system for hours at a time, it may not be the best choice.
For example, let’s say your main operating system is Windows but you’re a programmer and prefer to code in a Linux environment. If you’re going to bury yourself in a three-hour coding session, might as well dual boot into Linux and take full advantage of the speed of a native operating system. (
Does Your Computer Run on an SSD?
These days, SSDs have gotten so fast that you can shut down and restart a computer within seconds. This is great news for dual boot setups.
With an HDD, switching from one operating system to another could take 5-10 minutes, and doing that multiple times a day can be maddening. But with an SSD, you can hop from Windows to Ubuntu in under a minute, which is comparable to the time it’d take to spin up a virtualized Ubuntu. So if you have an SSD, think about dual booting.
Do You Just Want to Run a Specific App?
Let’s say you’re perfectly happy as a Linux user. You prefer the environment, and you’re more comfortable in GNOME than in Windows. But you’re a photographer and you need to use Adobe Lightroom to edit a few images for a client.
This is one case where dual booting is overkill. If you just want to run a particular app that isn’t available on your native operating system, that’s when a virtual machine really shines. In facts, it’s arguably the most practical use-case for virtual machines.
Are You Just Testing Out an Operating System?
Maybe you’ve been a Windows user all your life and you’ve heard all kinds of praise for Linux, but aren’t sure if you’re ready to commit to a full-scale migration. In that case, don’t dual boot. Use a virtual machine.
While dual booting is convenient, “uninstalling” a dual boot setup can be quite a pain in the neck. Sometimes you can’t without risking the integrity of your disk partitions or your system’s bootloader. And Windows Update has been known to delete Linux from your system. But you can create and delete virtual machines at will, which makes them perfect for one-off trialing of operating systems.
Do You Need Extra Security Against Malware?
One of the biggest benefits of a virtual machine over dual booting is that a virtual machine is sandboxed. This means a virtualized operating system runs in a completely isolated environment. For the most part, nothing within the virtualized operating system can affect the native operating system.
So if you’re testing for security vulnerabilities or checking the efficacy of a security suite, always do it inside a virtual machine. If you get infected by malware, you can just delete the virtual machine and start over.
Do You Want the Ability to Clone an Operating System?
Here’s something you can do in a virtual machine that’s impossible with a dual boot setup: You can create a full snapshot of the entire operating system and save it as a single file, then move that file to another computer and launch it as a virtual machine on that other computer. In essence, you’ve cloned it.
Clones are useful for portability, so you can take your system with you anywhere without needing the actual physical machine. They’re also useful for creating system backups, so if something goes wrong, you can spin up an exact replica of your system before everything went awry. Most virtualization software supports cloning like this.
More to Know About Dual Boot vs. Virtual Machine
By now, you should have a clearer idea of whether you’d be better off with a dual boot setup or a virtual machine. But if you’re still unsure, check out our article on the best way to run multiple operating systems on a single computer.
If you’ve decided to go for the virtual machine method, you’ll want to read our comparison of VirtualBox, VMware Player, and Hyper-V, which are the top three virtualization tools for Windows. On the other hand, the best virtualization software for Mac is Parallels Desktop. Good luck!