What’s the Best Way to Run Multiple Operating Systems on Your PC?

Joel Lee 02-10-2015

For most people these days, it doesn’t matter which OS you use Mac, Linux or Windows: It Really Doesn't Matter Anymore [Opinion] It matters less and less every year what operating system you use, because every year we all spend more time on our computer using nothing but the browser. And browsers are cross-platform. Want to have... Read More . There’s no such thing as a “best” OS and you’re better off using the OS you’re most comfortable with Hey Windows User, Should You Switch To Linux or Mac? Did you ever consider switching from Windows to Linux or Mac? The quick answer: if you're on Windows, stay on Windows—and don't worry about upgrading just yet. Here's why. Read More .


That being said, each OS is still unique and you might be in a position where using multiple OSes is the most practical way to go. For example, a programmer might use Linux for coding and Windows for testing builds, or an artist might use Windows for Photoshop and Linux for casual home use.

But what if you only have one machine? Rest assured, that won’t be a problem. It’s possible to run multiple OSes on a single machine either by dual booting or using a virtual machine. Let’s find out which one is best for you.

While most of the concepts in this article can also apply to OS X, we’re focusing mainly on Windows and Linux. Apple does not allow OS X to be used on machines that aren’t Apple-branded, so to go that route, you’ll have to use an Apple host whether you choose to dual boot or go virtual machine.

Pros and Cons of Dual Booting

Dual booting, more rarely called multibooting, is when you install two or more OSes side-by-side so that you can choose which one you want to use every time you restart your computer — or at “boot time”, hence the term.

It’s a popular route these days, especially because many Linux distros will automatically configure a dual boot setup at installation Tired Of Windows 8? How To Dual Boot Windows & Ubuntu If you discover that Windows 8 isn't quite your cup of tea, and you have no feasible path to downgrade, it may be a good idea to dual boot with Linux to have an alternative... Read More on your behalf (a luxury that was hard to come by several years ago). Not to mention that there are very few downsides to dual booting.


The biggest benefit is that you get to use all of your computer’s runtime resources — RAM, CPU, GPU, etc. — for the OS that you boot into. Even though you have multiple OSes installed, you only run one at a time so you aren’t allocating half your CPU to one and half your CPU to another. This is important for resource-intensive activities, like gaming.

This isn’t true for virtual machines, which we’ll explore later.


Not only do you run a single OS at a given time, you give each OS designated sections of your hard drive that they can use. So if you have a single 500 GB drive, maybe Windows gets 200 GB and Linux gets 300 GB. If you have two separate drives, you could dedicate each one to a particular OS. It’s up to you.


These hard drive designations are called partitions, and in most cases, the OS won’t be able to operate outside of its partition. (It can still access data from outside of its partition, but how to do that is beyond the scope of this article).

Partitions are necessary because different OSes store their data in different ways (e.g. Windows commonly uses NTFS while Linux commonly uses EXT3) and different filesystems are not cross-compatible. As such, moving files between filesystems is sometimes impossible without third-party software, and when it is possible, it’s slower due to the conversion process.


So what happens when you want to switch from Windows to Linux? As mentioned before, you have to restart the computer because the OS is selected at boot time.


This can be quite an inconvenience depending on how frequently you need to switch between OSes. There are things you can do to make Windows boot faster How To Make Windows 8 Boot Even Faster! Windows 8 may have plenty of issues, but a slow boot time ain't one. Windows 8 boots fast! Yet, there is room for improvement. We show you how to measure and optimize your Windows boot... Read More and make Linux boot faster 5 Ways To Make Linux Boot Faster Linux users are quite proud of the fact that Linux is pretty darn fast when compared to other operating systems. Not only that, but Linux doesn't seem to suffer much of the same "bogging down"... Read More , such as installing a solid-state drive What Is The Fastest Computer Hard Drive Solution? [Geeks Weigh In] A computer’s performance can be significantly impacted by the speed of its storage. So what is the fastest consumer hard drive solution both in practical and absolute terms? Solid state drives are likely the way... Read More . But even so, rebooting to switch OSes is never not a hassle.

Note: Thinking of switching to a solid-state drive? Here are five things to consider before buying an SSD 5 Things You Should Consider When Buying An SSD The world of home computing is moving towards solid state drives for storage. Should you buy one? Read More .

If you do decide to go with the dual booting method, then we highly recommend that you start with a Windows PC and install Linux rather than starting with a Linux PC and installing Windows. Long story short, it’s just less of a headache this way How to Dual-Boot Windows & Linux OSes on Your Computer It's like having two computers in one - start your system up and choose between Windows and Linux. It's called dual-booting, and it gives you access to two of the best operating systems on the... Read More .

Pros and Cons of a Virtual Machine

Virtual machines are not as scary as they sound, so don’t be intimidated. They’re surprisingly easy and convenient to use even if you don’t have much technical experience. That being said, using a virtual machine What Is a Virtual Machine? Everything You Need to Know Virtual machines allow you to run other operating systems on your current computer. Here's what you should know about them. Read More is neither better nor worse than dual booting. It’s just different.


In short, a virtual machine is an emulator that runs a “guest OS” (like Linux) from within your “host OS” (like Windows). Once you install a guest OS, you can run it like any other program and it will basically be just another window on your desktop.


Sounds pretty awesome, doesn’t it? And for the most part, it is awesome. No reboots are necessary to switch between OSes, and you can even run several different OSes at the same time with each one in its own window. Try doing that with dual booting. (Hint: You can’t.)

Not only is it more convenient, but virtual machines are also safer because each guest OS runs in a sandbox environment. No matter what happens inside the guest OS, your host OS will remain safe and unaltered — even if it crashes or you catch a virus! That’s why virtual machines are best for testing new operating systems Testing A New Operating System? Stay Secure With A Virtual Machine Read More .

Another beautiful feature that virtual machines offer is the ability to move your guest OSes from one host to another. The guest OS is usually saved as a file on the hard drive, so as long as two hosts are using the same emulator (we recommend VirtualBox), this file can be transferred and loaded without much hassle. In some cases, you can even clone a host OS into a guest OS Turn Your Old Mission-Critical PC Into A VM Before It Dies If you’ve got an older PC running important software, one of the best ways to give that software a new lease of life is by ditching the hardware entirely – you can convert your existing... Read More to be used elsewhere.

This all comes with a cost, though.

The drawback is that your computer’s runtime resources — RAM, CPU, GPU, etc. — are shared between all running virtual machines. This means if you decide to run Linux within Windows, Linux won’t be running at 100% and might therefore lag or experience some other kind of performance hit. The more RAM you have, the smoother it will run.


On older computers, or computers that just aren’t very powerful to begin with, virtualization is undesirable unless you’re ready to endure a very slow operation. And because guest OSes are stored as single files, it’s possible to accidentally erase a file and lose an entire guest OS.

Lastly, you’re probably wondering which OS to use as the host Which Operating System Should You Choose for Your Next PC? Buying a new PC? You have more operating system choices than ever. Which is the best operating system for your computer? Read More and which OS to use as the guest. Technically, it doesn’t matter because VirtualBox is cross-platform and works great pretty much across the board.

Therefore, we recommend choosing the OS that you’ll be using the most as your host. If you spend most of your time in Linux and only need Windows for Photoshop, then make Linux your host. If you’re only using Linux for programming one hour a day, then make Windows your host. Simple, right?

The only caveat is if you need 100% of your computer’s resources in the guest OS, such as for video editing, gaming, or another resource-intensive activity. In that case, you’re probably better off dual booting.

So, Which One Is For You?

If you’re switching between many OSes in frequent real-time, go virtual. If you just need to test something in another OS for a few minutes, go virtual. If you want a secure sandbox for an experiment, go virtual. If you have a very powerful computer, go virtual. If you think rebooting is a huge pain in the neck, go virtual.

In all other cases, you can’t go wrong with dual booting. It’s the method preferred by many, including myself.

But before you go ahead with it, make sure to consider whether or not you really need multiple operating systems in the first place. If you’re only after a single OS-specific feature, you might be able to get it on your preferred OS How To Get The Best Features Of Mac, Linux & Co On Windows Operating system envy: You admire certain Mac and Linux features, while using Windows. What if Windows was a canvas and you could add all the neat gimmicks you like? Here's how. Read More instead.

Dual booting or virtual machines: Which one do you prefer? Got any additional advice for someone who can’t choose between the two? Is there anything I missed? Share with us in the comments below!

Image Credits: Snail on Keyboard by Bastian Weltjen via Shutterstock, Ubuntu Bootloader by Andrew Mason via Flickr, Windows Virtualization by Zlatko Unger via Flickr, Windows 10 Virtual Machine by RoSonic via Shutterstock

Related topics: Dual Boot, Linux, VirtualBox, Virtualization, Windows.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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  1. Mycroft
    January 15, 2019 at 10:59 am

    I know this is over three years old, but I was disturbed by an omission in the original post, and felt that it needed to be corrected.

    The OP included:
    "a virtual machine is an emulator that runs a “guest OS” (like Linux) from within your “host OS” (like Windows)"

    This is operating-system-level virtualization, and the quote omits mention of type-1 (native or bare-metal) hypervisors.
    These run directly on the hardware of the host computer, and the virtual (guest) machines run on the hypervisor.

    A distinction is that with operating-system-level virtualization, the host and the guest operating system(s) run at different levels, while with type-1 hypervisors all the guest machines/operating systems run at the same level.

    Should anyone wish to know more, a reasonable start would be:

  2. Rosemary Jane
    May 6, 2018 at 8:52 pm

    I have a Surface Pro 4 and a 7 port hub with its own power - mainly because it is so light weight. I used Pinguy for years but am amazed at how easy windows 10 is and how fast everything works in the Surface but am concerned about security. Having had no success in dual booting which I would prefer I am now considering using Xubuntu either in Virtual box or booting it from a USB stick. Which would be best?

    • Merble
      August 17, 2018 at 3:02 am

      Unlike Windows, Linux is designed to be mobile so running off a usb is no issue. Just make sure to get a good tested usb brand cheaper ones wear down on read/write overtime. A good one should last indefinitely after all its Linux not Windows. Another option is to run it live, I will assume Xubuntu has a livecd version most popular Linux do. You just pop in the dvd and run Xubuntu right off the dvd, and everything gets stored in temporary ram so when you reboot or power off. The memory stored in ram auto wipes. Running a VM regardless open or closed, is basically like running an operating system in a restricted environment. The problem is you usually can't install drivers, it uses virtual replacements "fancy words" for its running without access to real hardware. If you won't be gaming in vm's then their pretty good for browsing, file storage, movies, music. Anything more that demands hardware power then just nope.

      • Ms R Jane
        August 17, 2018 at 10:35 am

        Thank you for your reply.

        Could you please suggest a suitable USB stick that will last indefinitely?

        I'd just like to point out that the SP4 does not have a dvd drive and only has one usb port. The external dvd player will not work in a hub and my searches lead to the conclusion that none of them will.

  3. Shannon
    May 31, 2016 at 8:58 pm

    VirtualBox is the bottom-barrel virtualization tool.

    VMWare 12, even VMWare Player, offers virtualized 3D acceleration up to a certain point. It supports up to DirectX 10 and OpenGL 3.3 which runs older stuff but not the latest-and-greatest.

    KVM/QEmu with PCIe pass-thru offers a real solution for a work-station and gaming.
    If you only have one graphics adapter then you have to stop using it and unload the driver and then assign it to the VM and boot it. If you happen to have two graphics adapters, such as an integrated Intel HD and an AMD or nVidia GPU then you can assign one to the host and pass-thru one to the VM. You now need "two" monitors but most monitors have multiple inputs and let you switch between them fairly easily.

  4. Lee
    November 25, 2015 at 1:11 am

    well there's one you missed. and that's backup, backup, backup! a coupla years ago my linux drive crashed. it had win7 installed as guest under linux. one day I started getting warnings from linux on boot. but too late! the data I had in the win7 guest was not backed up because I failed to back that entire file (my /home directory was backed on another ext4 partition on another drive which I did every weekend (and still do)). but the work (lotta CAD stuff) was lost due to drive failure under win7 guest because I couldn't sign in to boot it).

    now IF this had been a dual boot I coulda booted linux from any other partition and possibly gotten to my win7 data files (you can only do this from linux because winX does not recognize anything related to linux partitions). yeah SOL and for this reason I no longer run a virtual machine. one thing about dual booting though to windows. turn off your router and never access the internet out of windows. return to linux and do your internet stuff from there. the only time I do allow the lan under windows is if I have to print something. but if the length of the job runs more than a few pages I return to linux to print it. slower... but a LOT safer!

  5. Anonymous
    October 4, 2015 at 11:08 pm

    I've tried every which way to take advantage of multiple operating systems from multiple physical devices linked with a KVM to dual-booting to virtualization. I finally settled on virtualization because of the convenience factor.

    While virtualization does take a more "beefy" system, it's worth it in the end if you plan on using any of the other operating systems. I upgraded my Mac Mini to 8GB RAM and a huge SSD drive before I even turned it on because I knew I would be using it for this purpose.

    One benefit that was not mentioned in the article is encryption. On Mac and Linux you can easily encrypt your whole drive. However, the Windows version of full disc encryption (BitLocker) requires a special (TPM) chip in your computer to work which most computers don't have. But if you're on a Mac or Linux host with an encrypted drive, your data is automatically encrypted on your virtual Windows client because it's virtual HDD is just another file nestled inside the underlying OS' encrypted drive.

  6. Anonymous
    October 4, 2015 at 6:58 pm

    Overall, I have found that virtualization takes a pretty beefy system. I use a Windows 7 unit with 24 gigs of RAM and dual 2GB video cards. I run Virtualbox and VMWare Exsi client at the same time, and rarely go up past 40% memory usage. Tried Virtualbox on a system with 4 gb ram and it choked :-) So the moral of this story is horsepower makes virtualization work best. No low end budget systems can play in this league.

    The benefits are one can run most anything on one unit. i ran Windows 10 preview before it released and it worked well on Virtualbox.

    I also use VMWare Fusion on the Mac side to run everything, OSX and Windows side by side.

    One last comment: forget dual booting anything unless you enjoy frustration :-)

  7. Anonymous
    October 3, 2015 at 3:09 pm

    I'm running 7 Pro, 8.1 Pro, and 10 Pro, all off of my desktop.
    I use Windows 8.1 Pro, as my main operating system. I also have a Separate HHD formatted for Mac OS, but I don't have Mac OS running yet....

    I do clean outs, recoveries, and repair desktops and laptops for many people though my computer repair hobbyist.

    I started as in TV and home electronic repair at age 12 (1960), I have worked for many companies over the years, I bought out a TV repair shop in 1993 and closed it in 2012.
    I started to work and learned computers in 1983 with the Texas Home computer TI-99/4A, then I started into IBM compatibles, and have leaned and used DOS though Windows 10....

    I tell must of the people, I work on computers for, I believe, that people with less savvy, should wait 6 or 8 months to let Microsoft get some of the bugs out and more updates. You can get Windows 10 free for 1 year from July 29, 2015 to July 29, 2016

    • Lee
      November 25, 2015 at 1:40 am

      need to get into linux with that kinda experience why you running windows? I'm a bit earlier than you though as by the time you got into digital the IBM PS1 was already out. ever hear of CP/M? that's the launch point for DOS. and before that around 1972 there were others (mostly based upon the S100 bus or motorola's 6502 CPU). I preferred Intel's 8080 though. yeah like yesterday. anyhow I've been running linux almost since inception. it totally blows windows completely away in absolutely every single category that you can imagine... IF you're somewhat technically inclined that is. yeah the nomenclature over here is a bit arcane to say the least. however as time passes one becomes more and more comfortable with things like gimp, dragon player, vlc, k3b, cheese, okular, gwenview. gparted, lazarus, and thousands of other awesome apps. none of this horseshit with micropuke updates either. you're notified when they show up and they persist (including the kernel) but YOU decide when/IF to install some/all of them. here's my final thoughts: micropuke makes the assumption that YOU are STUPID. but linux makes the assumption that you are SMART!

  8. Anonymous
    October 3, 2015 at 2:09 pm

    As you say, there is no "best" way to run multiple O/Ss, there is only the most convenient way that satisfies one's requirements.

    I've had dedicated Windows, Linux, Mac and BSD PCs connected to a KVM switch, allowing for all four 0/Ss to be running concurrently and instantly accessible with a click of a switch. Cross-platform file access was through shared files.

    Similar to likefunbutnot's O/S on a USB drive, one can also use an O/S on an HD in a removable tray. With this method cross-platform file access is only possible if a separate data drive is used.

  9. Anonymous
    October 3, 2015 at 11:16 am

    likefun butnot I disagree with you. Once you start using Linux you will hardly ever use Windows. I dual boot, but only use windows for the few websites that do not support Linux. Magic Jack, which I use, is one of them. Otherwise the only time I am on Windows is to keep it updated.

    • Anonymous
      October 3, 2015 at 6:58 pm

      That's me. I use Windows when I have to or to update it. Otherwise, I don't know it's there.

  10. Anonymous
    October 2, 2015 at 11:57 pm

    It's my experience that the overwhelming majority of people who say they dual boot Windows and something else spend almost all their time in Windows after they get their other thing installed.

    The author also missed a couple options. Users can run their alternative OS from a live USB drive. It's technically possible to do this with Windows under some circumstances but it's only EASY for someone who has access to Windows 8+ Enterprise licenses, but it's very simple to create a *nix installation on a fairly spacious flash drive.

    It's also entirely possible to get a good experience via remote access. Most *nix machines run X and there's very little difference between accessing those sessions on a local machine or on a client someplace else. You also have VNC, Teamviewer and RDP for graphical interfaces or various forms of remote shells for the those capable of using them.

  11. Anonymous
    October 2, 2015 at 3:39 pm

    "Lastly, you’re probably wondering which OS to use as the host and which OS to use as the guest. Technically, it doesn’t matter because VirtualBox is cross-platform and works great pretty much across the board."

    Actually, it does in one case: VirtualBox doesn't support a Windows host with a Mac OS X guest OS (although there are workarounds).