If you want to run a full Windows system on an Intel Mac, Parallels Desktop is the best choice for individual and small-business users. It’s also currently the only practical choice for running Windows on Apple Silicon machines. Parallels is fast, features tight integrations between host and guest machines, and gets frequent updates that keep it compatible with the latest Windows and macOS systems. It wins our Editors’ Choice award for virtualization software.
Parallels Desktop is slightly less stable and enterprise-friendly than Parallels, but that app performs more slowly and doesn’t yet officially support Apple Silicon hardware. Freeware VirtualBox won’t run on an M1 Mac either and is too unstable for regular use. The experimental UTM app, based on the open-source QEMU emulation software, is unreliable and lacks all of Parallel Desktop’s built-in conveniences.
How Much Does Parallels Desktop Cost?
Parallels Desktop offers both Standard and Pro editions of its software. The Standard edition, which is intended for home users, costs either a one-time fee of $99.99 or $79.99 per year. Students can get the Standard edition for $39.99 per year. The subscription version includes any upgrades to new versions of the software during the payment period, while anyone who buys a permanent license version is not eligible for free version updates. The Pro edition costs $99.99 per year and you can try it free for 14 days.
Because the Parallels app is so deeply integrated with macOS and new iterations of macOS often require new versions of Parallels, I strongly recommend the subscription model. If, however, you’ve already bought a one-time license to the Standard edition, you can upgrade to a Pro subscription for $49.99 per year instead of paying the full Pro version subscription price. Of course, you’re better off starting out with a subscription to the Standard or Pro version. You can also purchase a one-time upgrade to the latest, single-license version of Parallels Desktop’s Standard edition for $49.99.
The Standard version supports virtual machines with 8GB of RAM and four virtual CPUs; the Pro version upgrades those specs to 128GB of RAM and 32 CPUs. If you’re using graphic- or math-intensive Windows software, you’ll need the Pro version. A Business version, priced identically to the Pro version and with the same support for RAM and CPUs, offers centralized management and a single volume license for multiple machines.
VMware Fusion is pricier than Parallels Desktop. It charges $149 for the standard Player edition and $199 for the Pro version. Upgrades to the latest version of the Player edition for current users cost $79, while upgrades for Pro users to the latest Pro version cost $99. Notably, VMware offers a free version that lets you run existing emulated systems, but not create new ones.
If price is what matters most, you can use the free VirtualBox or UTM solutions, but I think you’re better off spending money for VMware or Parallels rather than struggling with the free apps.
What Platforms Does Parallels Desktop Support?
On an M1 Mac, Parallels lets you run the freely available and ARM-based developer beta versions of Windows 10 or Windows 11. You can also run ARM-based versions of Linux—Parallels has a menu that lets you download and install ARM-based Debian, Fedora, Kali Linux, or Ubuntu. Those who have installed the Monterey beta (or, presumably, the release version when it arrives this fall), can even run a special version of it virtually. However, at the time of my testing, this special version didn’t support any of the tight host-guest integration features that Parallels offers to those running macOS guest systems on Intel machines.
On a Mac with an Intel CPU, you can create virtual systems that run any Intel-based Windows or Linux versions, plus any recent Intel-based versions of macOS from your recovery partition. On these devices, the download menu includes multiple flavors of Android, Linux, and Windows.
You can also install any supported system from a disk image or DVD, as well as import an existing Windows system over a network after installing Parallels’ transfer software on the original machine. Keep in mind that you need to buy a license for any virtual Windows systems, except those running developer betas.
Unlike with VMware Fusion, you can’t download a version of Parallels Desktop that lets you run emulated systems on Windows or Linux platforms. That means, with Parallels, you are restricted to running your virtual machines on a Mac. VMware doesn’t yet officially support Apple Silicon devices, but it recently announced a private tech preview of an M1-compatible version and an upcoming public preview.
For gaming and graphics-intensive apps, Parallels Desktop, like VMware Fusion, supports DirectX 11 graphics, but not DirectX 12. VirtualBox works with up to DirectX 9. The only way to get DirectX 12 graphics on a Mac is to install Windows via a Boot Camp partition on an Intel-based Mac. Unless you’re a serious Windows gamer or run high-powered Windows scientific and graphic apps, DirectX 11 support is likely sufficient.
Recent versions of macOS won’t let you run older 32-bit apps, but Parallels, like VMware Fusion, lets you run older macOS versions (Mojave and earlier) that support these apps on virtual machines. Our story on how to run 32-bit apps in macOS Catalina has all the details.
Getting Started With Parallels Desktop
When you install Parallels Desktop, the app walks you through the process of setting up the permissions it needs instead of sending you to your Mac’s System Preferences to sort them out on your own. I wish more vendors took the trouble to make this process as smooth as Parallels does.
If you’re installing Parallels on an M1-based Mac, you first need to follow the app’s instructions for downloading the preview version of Windows 10 for ARM machines. Next, you encounter the Create New menu that lets you configure a Windows system from the disk image you downloaded in the previous step or download a few prebuilt Linux systems. As with VMware Fusion and VirtualBox, Parallels lists all your virtual systems in a single window, which it calls the Control Center.
The easiest way to install the ARM-based preview version of Windows 10 is from a disk image. If you aren’t already a member of Microsoft’s Insider Preview program, follow the instructions that Parallels provides and then drag the disk image you download from Microsoft into Parallels’ window. Parallels then gives you a choice of configuring your system for productivity or only full-screen games. In testing, Parallels created and started the Windows guest system in less than a minute. Windows then installed itself in less than five minutes—not much slower than the process would take on real hardware.
Host and Guest Integrations
Like VMware Fusion and VirtualBox, Parallels offers tight integrations between the macOS host and the virtual guest systems that it manages. For instance, you can drag and drop files between your Mac host and your Windows or Linux host, and, for Intel Macs only, your macOS guest system. You can also share the clipboard between the two operating systems, and, optionally, launch applications on your Windows system to open files on your host Mac and vice versa.
By default, when Windows starts up under Parallels, the folders on your Mac’s desktop also appear on your Windows desktop. The same setting is now the default in VMware Fusion. For me, this configuration is a bad idea because I keep some Mac apps on my Mac desktop. Mac apps are technically folders (called application bundles) that the Mac displays as if they were individual files. Windows can’t handle application bundles correctly and simply displays them as folders on your desktop. You can easily mess up your Mac apps if you start exploring these folders on your Windows machine. I always turn off the option to share the desktop between my Mac and any guest system. Even if you do, however, Parallels still has a convenient Mac Files shortcut on the Windows desktop that lets you access any of your Mac folders on your virtual Windows system.
Parallels, like VMware Fusion and VirtualBox, lets you run Windows in three ways: with the Windows desktop running in a window on your macOS desktop, in a full-screen mode, or via what Parallels calls Coherence mode. In Coherence mode, Parallels shows only a single Windows app on your Mac desktop in its own window and hides the rest of the Windows desktop. As I discuss in a later section, Parallels Desktop switches in and out of these modes quickly and seamlessly.
Other aspects of day-to-day computing work as expected. For example, the same printers installed on your Mac appear in the print dialog in your Windows apps. When you attach a USB peripheral, a clear menu pops up to let you choose whether the device will be accessible in your Windows or Mac systems. You can send Windows-only keystrokes like Break or PrintScreen via a menu on your Mac. All these features are also available in VMware Fusion (for Intel Macs only at the moment), but Parallels does a better job of implementing them, with more lucid dialogs and better-organized menus.
Additional Features and Customizations
One major advantage of Parallels Desktop for Pro subscribers is the ability to start a virtual machine in Rollback mode. In this mode, you can run a guest Windows, Mac, or Linux system like a kiosk. In other words, every time you reboot the machine, it returns to its original state. This is a useful capability for those who like to experiment with software without making any permanent changes to the system. All the other emulation apps support snapshots that let you preserve the current state of a guest system, but Parallels is the only one with this invaluable kiosk-style mode.
Parallels Desktop, by default, muscles into your Mac with features that you may or may not find convenient. For example, drives on your emulated system appear in the Finder’s sidebar and applications that you run in Windows show up on the dock. You can bring all these integration features under control, but you have to spend some time exploring Parallel’s options menus to get everything to work the way you want.
One other minor annoyance is that the app pops up dialogs inviting you to buy a utility suite called Parallels Toolbox. This is a set of miscellaneous tools for reading barcodes, taking screen captures, and more, and although the software is published and sold by Parallels, it has nothing to do with virtualization and doesn’t add anything to the virtualization experience. You can, fortunately, turn off the advertising dialogs, but you can’t remove the Install Parallels Toolbox menu item.
Speed and Performance
The most impressive aspect of Parallels Desktop is its speed in testing. On my Intel-based MacBook Pro, Windows 10 booted to the desktop in 30 seconds and needed fewer than three seconds to resume the system after I had suspended it. On the same machine, VMware Fusion took about 40 seconds to boot Windows 10 to the desktop and four seconds to resume from a suspended state. VirtualBox started Windows 10 in 46 seconds, but I found its performance unusably slow once I reached the desktop.
Parallel’s various display modes also worked more quickly and fluidly than competitors’ similar modes. For example, when I ran a Windows app in Parallel’s Coherence mode, I moved its window around my Mac desktop without the choppiness and slow responses that I got with rival emulators. When I switched in and out of Coherence mode, Parallels got the job done smoothly and without visual distraction. VMware Fusion and VirtualBox switched between modes more slowly and with distracting partial windows appearing and disappearing on screen.
The price that Parallels pays for its speed may be its reliability. The current version is a lot more stable than previous ones, but, even with the new version, I experienced one lockup while Parallels was updating its host-guest integration tools—I had to shut down the app from my Mac’s Force Quit menu. This won’t stop me from using Parallels when I need to run Windows apps, but it will make me cautious about backing up often from those apps. VirtualBox is far more unreliable, with frequent crashes during setup. In contrast, I’ve never experienced a lockup with VMware Fusion.
Seamless Virtualization Software for Mac Users
Parallels Desktop is the obvious first choice for all home and small office users who want to run Windows on an Apple Silicon- or Intel-based Mac. It’s terrifically fast, smooth, and, despite minor glitches, reliable. Parallels Desktop once again earns our Editors’ Choice award for emulation software.
VMware Fusion may be a better choice for large corporations and educational sites that need absolute reliability and the option to run virtual machines on Windows and Linux platforms, in addition to Macs.