If you’re looking to run Windows on your Apple Silicon Mac, you have a few options. Two of the easiest to use are Parallels Desktop and UTM. So, the question is, which will prove better at running Windows on your M1 or M2-powered Mac? Read on as I compare Parallels vs UTM on M1 and M2 Macs.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to this debate. Both options have their own strengths and weaknesses. You’ll need to think about what your specific needs are as far as running Windows virtually on your Mac. Let’s explore both software packages to help you make that decision.
The Core Difference Between Parallels and UTM: Virtualization vs Emulation
Parallels Desktop and UTM both serve very similar purposes. They also perform similarly, although some reports indicate UTM offers better GPU performance. Parallels Desktop tends to offer more bells and whistles that matter to the average user. On the other hand, UTM supports a bit more customization.
The core difference between the two tools, though, lies deep under the hood. To grok this difference, you need to know the difference between virtualization (which Parallels Desktop relies upon) and the emulation support offered by UTM.
This is because UTM is built upon QEMU, a free and open source emulation software that’s been around for decades. The problem with QEMU is that it can be difficult to set up and configure. UTM eases that pain, by intuitively setting the options to best suit the OS you’re running.
With virtualization, the software is basically offering the guest operating system a virtual copy of your Mac’s CPU and other hardware. This means that on an Apple Silicon Mac, you can only run operating systems in Parallel that are made for the Arm chipset.
Emulation, on the other hand, allows the software to create a PC with one of several different CPU architectures. Currently, UTM supports emulating dozens of different processors, including those used for enterprise solutions.
This means you can run not just Windows or macOS in your emulator under UTM, but a host of older operating systems as well. Let’s say you want to run the old Mac OS 9 operating system on your Mac, or Sun Solaris 9. You can do that with UTM, but not with Parallels Desktop.
GPU Options for Gaming and More
Now, one reason quite a few folks want to run Windows on their Mac in the first place is to play games. This, unfortunately, gets tricky. Both Parallels Desktop and UTM provide a virtual graphics card. That’s often not nearly good enough for the heavy demands of AAA games.
UTM even comes right out and says gaming probably isn’t an option.
No, probably not. UTM does not currently support GPU emulation/virtualization on Windows and therefore lacks support for 3D acceleration (e.g. OpenGL and DirectX). You may be able to run older games with software rendering options, but nothing with hardware acceleration. There is experimental support for hardware OpenGL acceleration on Linux through Virgl.
Parallels Desktop is somewhat better, although my own experience has shown the difference to be minimal at best. Parallels Desktop does support DirectX 11 applications in Windows, using Apple Metal to power it. It also offers OpenGL 3 support.
That being said, many of the top games today need DirectX 12, Vulcan or OpenGL 4.6 support. You won’t find that in Parallels Desktop or in UTM. If you want to check whether your favorite game will run under Parallels Desktop, check out the AppleGamingWiki list of Parallels Windows-compatible games on M1 Macs.
The State of Virtualization or Emulation Is Heavily Work-Slanted
The fact of the matter is, development on these tools focuses primarily on work-related needs. That’s because, for obvious reasons, corporations and corporate users are much more likely to pay for such software.
This becomes crucial for corporate users who want to work on a Mac, but need access to Windows-based productivity apps. Both UTM and Parallels Desktop will fully support that need.
Parallels Desktop focuses its feature set very clearly on the corporate users. If you’re wanting or needing to run Windows and have daily snapshot backups, Parallels supports that. If you’re looking for a software solution that’s tried and tested, and backed by a strong customer and technical support team, Parallels excels in that, too.
However, if your needs extend to running operating systems for a processor other than what’s inside your Mac’s case, Parallels won’t help you. UTM, on the other hand, could very well offer the support you’re looking for.
Summing Up Parallels Desktop vs UTM
Unfortunately, I can’t explicitly tell you which option to choose. I can say, though, that if your virtualization needs include being able to run Intel-based, Power PC-based, or other architectures on your Mac, UTM is probably your best bet.
The good news is there’s an easy way to test each out to see which best suits your needs. Parallels Desktop offers a 14-day free trial. After that, the Standard Edition is $99.99. For more advances support and options, subscriptions for the Pro and Business Edition versions start at $119.99 per year.
On the other hand, you can download UTM absolutely free or pay for it on the Mac App Store. This is identical to the free version, but offers automatic updates and helps fund the software development of the tool.
As a final note, there are other options out there for virtualizing Windows on macOS. These include Virtual Box and VMWare Fusion. However, both tend to appeal even more to the corporate user than even Parallels Desktop does. Even so, they do warrant mention and you can read more about them in our article comparing several options for running Windows on your Mac.