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Best virtual machine software of 2020: virtualization for different OS

Best virtual machine software
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

The best virtual machine software makes it easy to provide virtualization for different operating systems, allowing you to run multiple OS installs on the same computer or workstation.

Virtual machines have become an important part of computing, not least for business and especially for cloud computing. However, virtualization is something also available to home users as well. 

For personal use, virtualization enables users to run different operating systems on their home PC, such as running Windows on a Mac, or running Linux on a Windows PC - and vice versa.

A key advantage of running a virtual machine is that it allows you to run apps that would otherwise not be available due to having very different system requirements, which is one particular reason why virtualization has become so important in business.

Another, surprisingly, is security concerns, as malware cannot run properly in a virtualized environment, and often will shut down if it detects it is in one.

Overall, virtualization has become a powerful tool in computing and IT, and here we'll feature the best in virtual machine software.

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(Image credit: VMware)

1. VMware Workstation Player

20 years of development shines through

Free for personal use
Supports GPU virtualisation
Windows, Mac and Linux

VMware offers a very comprehensive selection of virtualization products, with Fusion for the Apple Mac and Workstation Player for the PC.

Despite the name difference, these two products offer effectively the same solution, though tailored to each host OS.

For the Mac that includes a neat ‘Unity Mode’ that enables Mac OS to launch Windows applications from the Dock and have them appear like they’re part of the host OS.

Workstation, as the version numbering suggests, is a more mature product and delivers one of the most sophisticated VM implementations seen so far.

Being one of the few hosts that supports DirectX 10 and OpenGL 3.3, it allows CAD and other GPU accelerated applications to work under virtualization.

Workstation Player for Windows or Linux is free for personal use, though Pro is required for business users, and those wanting to run restricted VMs created using Pro or Fusion Pro. 

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(Image credit: VirtualBox)

2. VirtualBox

Not all good things cost money

Free
Windows, Mac and Linux
100,000 registered users

Not sure what operating systems you are likely to use? Then VirtualBox is a good choice because it supports an amazingly wide selection of host and client combinations.

Windows from XP onwards, any Linux level 2.4 or better, Windows NT, Server 2003, Solaris, OpenSolaris and even OpenBSD Unix. There are even people that nostalgically run Windows 3.x or even IBM OS/2 on their modern systems,

It also runs on Apple Mac, and for Apple users, it can host a client Mac VM session.

Oracle has been kind enough to support VirtualBox, and provide a wide selection of pre-built developer VMs to download and use at no cost.

And, all this is free; even the Enterprise release.

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(Image credit: Parallels)

3. Parallels Desktop

The best Apple Mac virtuality

Integration with macOS
Affordable
Much better than Boot Camp
Mac host only

Boot Camp is Apple’s free tool for running a Virtual session under macOS, but those that need to do this on a regular basis use Parallels, now owned by software behemoth Corel.

It enables them to seamlessly run Windows alongside their native OS, for those awkward moments when they need software that only works on that platform.

A few of the elegant things that Parallels can do is make Windows alerts appear in the Mac notification centre, and operate a unified clipboard.

Most Mac users think of Parallels as a tool exclusively for using Windows, but it can be used to host a wide range of Linux distros, Chrome OS (which the best Chromebooks run) and even other (and older) versions of Mac OS.

The lowest rung is $79.99 (£69.99) for the basic edition. Above that is a Pro edition that can address more memory and supports development environments like Microsoft Visual Studio. And, a Business Edition that includes centralized license management tools for IT professionals to use.

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(Image credit: QEMU)

4. QEMU

A virtual hardware emulator

Free
Easy-to-use 
Linux only

The QEMU website isn’t very sophisticated, but don’t let that put you off.

Where this product slightly differs from other VM solutions is that it is both a VM host and also a machine emulator.  Along with x86 PC, QEMU can emulate PowerPC, MIPS64, ARM, SPARC (32 and 64), MicroBlaze, ETRAX CRIS, SH4 and RISC-V, among others.

It manages to do this without administrator privileges, and the performance of VMs running on it is close to that of native installations.

What QEMU lacks is any sophisticated interface tools, instead relying on CLI inputs to install and configure VM clients.

At this time it is also only able to host on Linux, even if it can run a wide range of operating systems under that.

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(Image credit: Citrix)

5. Citrix Hypervisor

A highly scalable solution from Citrix

Free (if you like basic)
Bare-metal installs
Limited third-party OS support

Oddly, Citrix Hypervisor started life as an open source project, and to this day it remains free to download and install. Or rather the basic version is free, but advanced features are restricted to paid tier releases.

Paying customers get sophisticated management tools, the ability to automate and distribute live environments at will. It also has the GPU pass-through and virtualized GPU capabilities, allowing it to offer virtualized CAD for example.

The other thrust of XenServer is to create virtual data centers that can handle planned and unplanned outages equally smoothly, and maintain the high levels of availability that business expects.

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(Image credit: Xen Project)

6. Xen Project

Free and open source
Advanced virtualization
Works with hyperscale clouds

Xen Project is a free and open source virtual machine monitor (VMM), intended to serve as a type-1 hyperviser for multiple operating systems using the same hardware. Originally developed by Cambridge University, the staff who created it spun it into a company that was later acquired by Citrix. The Xen Project now works with The Linux Foundation in promoting open source applications.

It is especially used for advanced virtualization, not least for servers, in both commercial and open source environments. This includes but is not restricted to Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) applications, desktop virtualization, and security virtuzlised. The Xen Project software is even being used in automotive and aviation systems.

The service is especially applicable for hyperscale clouds, and can easily be used with AWS, Azure, Rackspace, IBM Softlayer, and Oracle. A key emphasis is on security by using as small a code base as possible, making it not just secure but especially flexible.

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(Image credit: Microsoft Hyper-V)

7. Microsoft Hyper-V

Microsoft’s basic hypervisor

On Windows 10 and Windows Server
Free
Linux support is limited

Originally codenamed Viridian, and then Windows Server Virtualization, it was rebranded to Hyper-V Server when it was first released in late 2008.

These days it comes as part of Windows 10 Pro and Windows Server (2012 and 2016), at no additional cost to the user.

However, what you get for nothing is a very basic hypervisor that can’t do the clever things that VMware offers.

The guest OS support includes Windows Server, Windows XP SP3 or later, Linux with a 3.4 or better Kernel and FreeBSD. Although driver support for Linux isn’t great, and there is no virtual GPU support.

Hyper-V allows relatively inexperienced users to create a virtual server environment, but don’t expect miracles.