Guide: How to run a virtual Windows PC on any Mac

Last updated 05SEP2020

Many of the specialized programs needed to configure emulators and ROMs for your retro game collection are only available on Windows PCs. As a longtime Mac user (nearly 20 years and counting), I understand the frustration of not being able to access every program that PC users have at their disposal. But instead of going out and buying (or building) a PC of your own, any Mac built after 2007 or so is perfectly capable of running Windows in a virtual environment. So this quick guide will show you how to set up a virtual machine to run Windows within your Mac — for free.

Index:
Some things to consider
Install VirtualBox
Download a Windows virtual machine
Import the Windows VM into VirtualBox
Configure your Windows VM
Start up your Windows VM

Some things to consider

  • You’re going to need about 40GB of free space on your Mac in order to host a Windows virtual machine. Additionally, the default max size of a virtual machine in this guide is 40GB, so you cannot use this virtual machine to store large files. This is mostly to run small Windows-based programs that won’t work on your Mac, like in the Monkey Island voice tracks guide I published the other day.
  • And this is going to pull from your Mac’s RAM and video memory, using up its own resources while in the virtual environment. So it’s not like you can turn your Mac into a gaming PC with this guide, the specs just aren’t there.
  • Microsoft says that its virtual machine expires after 90 days, but if I remember correctly it doesn’t explode at the end of 90 days or anything, it just reminds you to download a new one.
  • No virtual machine is perfect. You might experience some hiccups when it comes to your display and plugging in USB devices.

Install VirtualBox

VirtualBox is a free virtualizer that can be used for any number of operating systems. To get started, download and install the latest VirtualBox platform package (version 6.1.12 as of this writing), which will be labeled “OS X hosts”. You may get a security error when you try and install the program, so just go into your System Preferences, then Security & Privacy, and on that first General tab you will want to “Allow” Oracle to install the app.

Now that VirtualBox is installed, we need to add its Extention Pack. on that same VirtualBox page, download the VirtualBox Extension Pack (it will be right below the platform package), for “all supported platforms”. Once it’s downloaded, double-click on the file to install it.

Download a Windows virtual machine

Now we’re going to install a Windows virtual machine (VM). These are offered for free from Microsoft, specifically as a service for developers to test whether their programs will run on Internet Explorer and Microsoft Edge. Go to this site, and select the MSEdge on Windows 10 (x64) Stable file, and under “Choose a VM platform”, choose VirtualBox. This will start the download.

The downloaded file is large, about 7GB. It’ll be in .zip format, so you will need to unzip it using the Mac’s default Archive Utility, or something like The Unarchiver. Once it’s unzipped, you should have a folder named “MSEdge – Win10”. At this point you can delete the .zip file to free up those 7GB of space.

Import the Windows VM into VirtualBox

Open up VirtualBox, then click on the orange “Import” button. An “Appliance to Import” window will appear, click on the folder icon and navigate to where the “MSEdge – Win10” folder is located (probably in your Download folder). Inside that folder will be a file named MSEdge – Win10.ovf. Select this file and press Continue. There will be a bunch of options on the next screen, just press Import.

Inside your VirtualBox screen you should now see the Windows VM. Congratulations! We’re almost there. Now that the virtual machine has been imported, you can delete that unzipped “MSEdge – Win10” folder to free up some more space on your hard drive.

Configure your Windows VM

There are a couple settings I like to set up with a new Windows VM.

You may want to provide a good chunk of video memory to your VM, to ensure that the display runs smoothly. Go to your VirtualBox settings, and select the “Display” tab. There you should see a Video Memory slider; slide it up to at least 100MB of memory, so that is is clearly in the green part of the scale.

If you’re using this Windows VM to connect to a handheld device like the RG350 via USB, you’ll need to enable the USB ports and teach the VM to recognize your device. First, turn on your RG350 and plug it into your Mac via USB. In VirtualBox, go to Settings, then the “Ports” tab. Click on USB, then check the “Enable USB Controller” option, and select the “USB 2.0 (OCHI + EHCI) Controller” option. On the right of the screen you’ll see a USB icon with a green plus on it. Press that icon, and you should see a list of devices that are hooked up to your Mac via USB. Find the one labeled “Linux 3.12.0-dingux+” or something along those lines, and select it. Now your Windows VM will recognize your RG350 when you plug it in.

If you want, you can also enable a shared folder that will appear on both your Mac and your Windows VM. Bear in mind that this will count towards storage on both systems, since the folder is essentially duplicated. So you want to keep this to smaller files. To set it up, go into your VirtualBox settings and click on the “Shared Folders” tab. On the right side of the screen you’ll see a folder icon with a green plus on it. Press that icon, and under “Folder Path”, select “Other”, and navigate to where you want your shared folder to be (like in your Documents folder). Click on the “New Folder” icon on the bottom left of the screen, and make a new shared folder. Select that folder and press “Open”, and then “Ok” to close it out. You’re all set.

Running Chrome, on a Windows VM, on my Mac.

Start up your Windows VM

Now that we have all of our settings in place, let’s try it out. In VirtualBox, make sure your MSEdge – Win10 machine is selected, and then press the green “Start” icon. Your Windows VM will now boot. It will default to a username of “IEUser”, and your password to log in will be “Passw0rd!” (note that the “0” in “Passw0rd!” is actually a zero).

Your virtual machine will probably launch as a very small window. You can resize the window, and then go to your Menu Bar and select “View” and “Auto-Resize guest display”, or you can also put it in Scaled Mode (“View > Scaled Mode”) or Fullscreen Mode (“View > Full-screen Mode”). Whatever works best for you and your experience. You can also right-click on your Windows desktop and select “Display Settings” to adjust your screen resolution. Personally, I keep my VM in Scaled Mode and adjust the window size to my needs.

The desktop background will show an ugly blue screen with a bunch of text about the Windows VM. You can get rid of it by right-clicking on the desktop and selecting “Personalize”. You can now change the desktop wallpaper. Just bear in mind that when you restart the VM, the desktop will revert to the ugly wallpaper.

You’re now set — go download Chrome, and do whatever it is you need to do on your fresh new Windows VM. When you’re done with your session, I recommend you Shut Down the PC like you would any other Windows machine (via the Windows Start Menu, then Power > Shut down).

Here’s a video guide for the visual learners:

Hope this guide was helpful to you, and please let me know if you have any questions in the comments below!

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