Parallels Desktop for Mac

5 Ways to Run Windows Software on a Mac

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Macs have a thriving ecosystem of software, but some programs still only support Windows. Whether you want to use business software or play Windows PC games, there are many ways to run Windows programs on your Mac.

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Virtual Machines

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We recommend using a virtual machine program, ideally Parallels or VMWare Fusion, to run Windows applications on a Mac without rebooting. For maximum performance, which is particularly necessary for gaming, we recommend dual-booting Windows with Boot Camp instead.

A virtual machine is one of the best ways to run Windows desktop software. They allow you to install Windows and other operating systems in a window on your Mac desktop. Windows will think it’s running on a real computer, but it’s actually running inside a piece of software on your Mac.

You don’t have to use your Windows program in the virtual machine window, either—many virtual machine programs allow you to break Windows programs out of your virtual machine window so they can appear on your Mac desktop. However, they’re still running inside the virtual machine in the background.

You’ll need a Windows license to install Windows in a virtual machine. If you already have a product key, you can download Windows installation media for free and install it in a virtual machine program.

Popular virtual machine programs for Mac include Parallels and VMware Fusion. Each of these is a paid program, so you’ll have to buy both a Windows license and a copy of your virtual machine program of choice. You can also use the completely free and open-source VirtualBox for Mac, but its 3D graphics support and Mac operating system integration aren’t as good. Parallels and VMWare Fusion both offer free trials, so you can try all these programs and decide which is best for you.

Note:We don’t often recommend paid software, but in the case of Parallels Desktop, it’s something we use at How-To Geek every single day for testing software and running Windows. The integration with macOS is amazingly well done, and the speed blows away VirtualBox. In the long run, the price is well worth it.

There’s one big downside to virtual machines: 3D graphics performance isn’t amazing, so this isn’t the best way to run Windows games on your Mac. Yes, it can work—especially with older games—but you won’t get the best performance, even in an ideal situation….

How to Seamlessly Run Windows Programs on Your Mac with Parallels

Sometimes, Mac users need to run Windows software. Maybe there’s a program you need for work that doesn’t offer a Mac version, or maybe you occasionally need to test websites in Internet Explorer. Whatever you need Windows for, Parallels is the best tool for the job.

Why Use Parallels Instead of Boot Camp or VirtualBox?

Sure, you could set up your Mac to run Windows with Boot Camp, but that means restarting your computer every time you need to use Windows. Parallels runs Windows within macOS, using what’s called a Virtual Machine. This allows you to quickly switch between the Mac and Windows desktops. You can even combine the two desktops, if you want, and run Windows software right on your Mac desktop from your Mac’s dock.

Virtual machines are complicated, but Parallels makes it reasonably simple to set one up and use it. There are other virtual machine options available to Mac users, including the open source Virtualbox, but Parallels is different in that it’s designed exclusively with Mac users in mind. Parallels costs more (since VirtualBox is free and Parallels is not), but there are hundreds of little design touches that help make running Windows within macOS as painless as possible, and that make setting everything up quick and easy. it’s well worth the cost.

How Much Does Parallels Cost?

Browsing the Parallels website, it can be a little tricky to find out what the product actually costs. So here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Purchasing the latest home version of Parallels Desktop costs $80 as of this writing. This lets you run Parallels on a single Mac.
  • Upgrading from one version of Parallels to another generally costs $50, and will probably be necessary every couple of years if you keep installing the latest versions of macOS.
  • A $70 annual subscription gives you access to all updates “for free,” according to the Parallels website.

If you just want to try out Parallels and see if it works for you, you can: there’s a 14 day trial of the software, which you can access without providing a credit card number. There’s also Parallels Desktop Lite, which is free on the Mac App Store and lets you create both Linux and macOS virtual machines. Parallels Desktop Lite can only run Windows virtual machines if you pay for a subscription, however.

One more note: purchasing Parallels does not give you a Windows license, or a Windows product key. If you have a Windows installation CD or USB key handy with a valid license you can use that, otherwise you will need to purchase Windows 10 from Microsoft to create a Windows 10 virtual machine.

We’ll point out that you don’t technically need a product key to install and use Windows 10—Microsoft basically gave up enforcing their license requirements with Windows 10, and you can download Windows 10 right from Microsoft at no cost (you’ll probably want it in the form of an ISO file). Legally speaking, however, you still need a product key to use Windows, even in a virtual machine.

How to Install Windows in Parallels

Got everything you need? Good. The new virtual machine wizard, which launches the first time you open Parallels, makes the process simple.

Assuming you already have a Windows CD or ISO,…

How to Free Up Disk Space in Parallels

Virtual machines can use a large amount of disk space. If you want to regain some of that disk space, just deleting files inside the virtual machine won’t help. You’ll need to reclaim that disk space, shrinking the virtual hard disk and making it use less space on your Mac.

Parallels includes a helpful wizard that will walk you through this. To open it, launch Parallels, select the virtual machine you want to free up space on, and click File > Free Up Disk Space.

If you have multiple virtual machines you want to free up space from, you’ll need to repeat the below process for each virtual machine.

You’ll see the Free Up Disk Space wizard for that virtual machine. The wizard has four options:

  • Snapshots: If you’ve taken snapshots to save the state of the virtual machine, those snapshots will use space. Click the “Snapshot Manager” button and you can choose to delete some snapshots to free up space.
  • Resume & Shutdown: If you put the virtual machine to sleep instead of shutting it…

How to Make Linux and macOS Virtual Machines for Free with Parallels Lite

Parallels is easily the best virtualization software on the Mac, and earlier this year, they quietly added a new app called Parallels Desktop Lite to the Mac App Store—and unlike its cousin, it’s free to download. The catch: if you want to use Windows virtual machines, you’re going to have to pay for a $60 a year for a subscription.

But the program itself is completely free otherwise, meaning if you want to create Linux, Chromium OS, or even macOS virtual machines, you don’t need to pay a dime.

Should I Use Parallels Lite, or the “Full” Version of Parallels?

So how it Parallels Desktop Lite different than Parallels Desktop? Parallels outlines all of the differences here, if you’re curious—there are a few limitations related to Mac App Store sandboxing. Other than that, the main difference is that Lite is free for anything except Windows virtual machines. If you want to run a Windows virtual machine, you’ll need to pony up $60 annually.

How does that compare to Parallels Desktop for Mac, the “full” version of this software? Well that product currently costs $70, and is yours as long as you can keep it running. Parallels versions typically stop running every couple of macOS releases, after which you’ll need to either stick to an older host operating system or pony up $50 for an upgrade license. Assuming you need to upgrade every two years, which is roughly consistent with our experience, the two pricing plans are about that same.

But that’s only if you want to run Windows. If your interest in virtual machines lies entirely on the Linux and macOS side of things, Lite is without question the better deal, because you can’t beat free.

Getting Started With Parallels Desktop Lite

Start up Parallels Lite for the first time and you’ll see the Parallels Wizard, which makes setting up or adding virtual machines simple.

There are three main options here. The most prominent points you to download Windows 10 from Microsoft, which will cost you around $120 for Windows itself on top of the Parallels subscription. To the right, you’ll find the option to browse your computer for any installation images on your computer. Below these two prominent options, you’ll see quick tools for downloading several other operating systems, including:

  • Chromium OS (the open source version of Chrome OS)
  • Ubuntu 16.04
  • Fedora 23
  • CentOS 7
  • Debian 8

Let’s get started with setting up a couple of these installers, then move on to setting up macOS in a virtual…