Wanna run Windows on an M-series Mac? Fine, buy a license, but no baremetal
Or, you could just rent an expensive Windows VM in the cloud — just a thought, says Redmond
You can now officially run Windows 11 on an M-series Mac. Well, at least as a virtual machine anyway since Microsoft hasn't seen fit to allow Mac users to run the OS on baremetal just yet.
In a support document, Microsoft details two options for running Windows 11 on M1, M2, or M3-equipped Macintosh computers. The first is using Parallels Desktop while the other requires Redmond's own cloud-based virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) platform.
Running Windows on a Mac was broadly supported by Microsoft, either via Apple's Boot Camp dual-booting utility or via desktop hypervisors like Virtualbox, Parallels, VMware Fusion among others.
This changed in 2020 when Apple filed for divorce from long-time CPU partner Intel and began to transition to its own Arm-based processors. Since then, getting Microsoft's popular operating system running on a Mac has been a tricky prospect, despite the fact that Arm-compatible versions of Windows were available and Apple's Boot Camp utility (albeit a non-functional version) still ships with M-series Macs.
Though it's not exactly useful and more vestigial than anything, Boot Camp’s persistence on Arm builds of MacOS may have something to do with the fact that Apple execs remain open to the idea of running Windows natively on M-series silicon. In 2020, shortly after the launch of its M1 Macs, Apple’s Software Engineering Chief Craig Federighi went on the record saying that whether or not dual booting MacOS and Windows will be possible is “really up to Microsoft.”
"We have the core technologies for them to do that, to run their ARM version of Windows, which in turn of course supports x86 user mode applications," he said. "But that’s a decision Microsoft has to make, to bring to license that technology for users to run on these Macs. But the Macs are certainly very capable of it."
It was previously possible to get Windows running using Parallels' desktop hypervisor, but doing so required using an insider build of Windows intended for developers.
However, Microsoft appears to have come around to the idea of running Windows 11 virtually on Macs. "Parallels Desktop version 18 and 19 are authorized solutions for running Arm versions of Windows 11 Pro and Windows 11 Enterprise in a virtual environment on its platform on Apple M1, M2, and M3 computers."
The key word here is "authorized." According to Microsoft, all you need to do to get started is a Windows 11 license — they're platform agnostic — and you're off to the races. Well, in theory. You can't just buy any license, Microsoft has decided only to support the Pro and Enterprise editions of its OS in virtualized environments.
Microsoft does highlight a couple of these limitations.
The big one, they admit, is that nested virtualization isn't supported within Parallels. This means that features like Windows Subsystems for Android or Linux, Sandbox, and virtualization-based security (VBS) apps aren't going to work properly.
Redmond also points out that, just like in MacOS, 32-bit apps aren't going to fly. Having said that, apps compiled for x86-64 should run just fine, albeit with some emulation overhead.
Microsoft adds that the Arm version of Windows 11 also has limitations regarding the use of DirectX 12 accelerated applications, which affects gamers in particular. Redmonds support docs, are a bit wishy-washy on this point. We suspect that the actual issue is how Parallels is passing through M-series Mac's GPU to the VM. It's not uncommon for technologies like GPU paravirtualization to introduce quirks.
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Of course, Microsoft would rather you give it all of your hard earned cash and is pitching its Windows 365 Cloud PCs as the preferred means of accessing its OS on a Mac.
Windows 365 Cloud PC is the software giant's in-house virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) platform announced back in 2021. While it will get you access to a Windows virtual machine, you'll need a reliable internet connection to make the experience worthwhile.
It's also not a particularly cheap platform. The base tier will run you $31/mo and gets you access to 2 vCPUs, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage. You can configure your own instance with up to 8 vCPUs, 32GB of RAM, and 512GB of memory, but that'll run you a rather steep $158/mo.
That said, if you need nested virtualization for something like Windows Subsystem for Linux, Microsoft argues this might be your best bet. Then again, it's not exactly difficult to get Docker or a Linux VM running on M-series silicon. ®