It Turns Out You Can Run Windows Apps on Your Apple Silicon MacBook (Here’s How)

CodeWeavers CrossOver Apple Silicon M1 MacBook Air Credit: Jeremy White / CodeWeavers
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Ever since Apple announced back in June that it would be making the transition to its own first-party Apple Silicon chips, one of the questions that have been in the back of many people’s minds is exactly what this would mean for those who might want to run Windows, or at least Windows apps, on their Macs.

When Apple first switched away from PowerPC to Intel chips 14 years ago, one of the things that change brought with it was native support for running Microsoft Windows on the Mac platform. Since Apple’s then-new MacBooks and other Intel-based Macs were suddenly running the exact same x86 architecture as Windows PCs, that meant that getting Windows running on Mac hardware was suddenly simply a matter of ensuring that the necessary drivers were available for things like video cards and networking hardware.

In fact, Apple even helped this process along, offering up its own “Boot Camp” utility that would let Mac users partition off a chunk of their hard drive to set up a dual boot configuration where they could alternate between macOS (still known as “OS X” back in those days) and whatever flavour of Windows they felt like running.

It also didn’t take long for virtualization companies to get on board, and both Parallels and VMware soon had their own Mac apps out that would let you run the Windows operating system itself natively under the Mac OS, without the need to carve out a separate partition or dual-boot into the other operating system.

Unfortunately, with the transition to Apple Silicon and its ARM-based instruction set, the question of actually running Windows directly on a new M1-based MacBook or Mac mini is suddenly a lot more complicated. Firstly, there’s no way it’s going to happen natively, since even though Microsoft has an ARM-based version of Windows, it doesn’t actually make it available for end-users to install (at least not yet).

Further, Apple has flat out stated that Boot Camp will not be supported on Apple Silicon Macs —  period.

Virtualization apps like Parallels and VMware are a different story, of course, since they could technically offer an emulation layer that would allow the Windows operating system, and its accompanying apps, to operate on an Apple Silicon Mac, but of course there are challenges to this approach, since it would involve translating instruction sets at a very low-level machine code level that’s well beyond what Apple’s own Rosetta 2 is designed to handle.

That said, Parallels says it’s working on a version of Parallels Desktop for M1 Macs which looks extremely promising, especially since Microsoft has now committed to support x64 applications on Windows on ARM, although it’s still an open question whether the company will make the ARM-based version of Windows available to Mac users.

Crossing Over

While Parallels and VMware have gotten the most attention over the years for those who want to run Mac apps, there’s actually been another player in the game for years that you may not have heard of, known as Codeweavers.

This is the team behind a tool called CrossOver that’s popular in some circles as a way of directly running Microsoft Windows apps on the Mac — not by booting into an actual full Windows operating system, but rather by translating Windows APIs and other code into their Mac equivalents.

CrossOver is actually based on the long-standing open-source Wine Project, which was originally conceived as a means of bringing Windows apps to the Linux environment. Of course, since Linux and macOS share common roots — macOS is actually a flavour of BSD Unix under the hood — it’s been relatively simple for The Wine Project to expand into allowing Windows apps to run on the Mac directly, and from this CrossOver was born.

The beauty of CrossOver in the world of Apple Silicon, however, is that unlike the virtualization apps that are required to run entire operating systems, the magic that CrossOver and Wine accomplish is fully supported by Apple’s own Rosetta 2 emulation layer — the same technology that allows macOS apps designed for Intel Macs to run properly on Apple Silicon Macs.

Most importantly, however, Apple’s new M1 chip has such astonishing headroom that Rosetta 2 emulation runs mind-bogglingly well. This is not the old Rosetta of 2007, which usually saw PowerPC apps lagging behind their new Intel counterparts — in many benchmarks that we’ve already seen, even Mac apps that haven’t been updated for Apple Silicon perform better on an M1 MacBook than they do on their Intel counterparts.

In a new blog post, Jeremy White of the CodeWeavers team shares exactly how staggeringly well Apple’s Rosetta 2 technology works on the new M1 MacBooks, adding that “they run CrossOver 20 brilliantly.!”

White notes that they were able to get the latest version of CrossOver to run on the cheapest M1 MacBook Air that’s available and install a wide range of Windows applications, all of which ran without a hitch.

That’s incredible when you consider that we’re on literally the cheapest Apple Silicon device you can buy – one that gets thermally throttled and is missing a GPU core.

Jeremy White, CodeWeavers

This included Quicken, the desktop version of the popular game Among Us, and even Team Fortress 2 and Witcher 3. There was full mouse support in the games, and the gaming experience was “satisfying,” although White notes that TF2 did show some lag, but expects that the CrossOver team will be able to optimize for that.

As White notes, however, the results show off exactly how insanely powerful Apple’s M1 chip actually is, considering that “there is so much emulation going on under the covers” — essentially CrossOver is taking a 32-bit Windows Intel binary, bridging it to a 64-bit binary using Wine on macOS, and then feeding it into an ARM CPU that is emulating x86 using Rosetta 2. Yet it all just works, and it works smoothly — and that’s on the cheapest M1 MacBook Air that Apple sells right now, so we can’t wait to see what Apple will be able to pull off with its next-generation Apple Silicon chips.

To be clear, not all Windows apps will work with CrossOver, but there’s a fairly comprehensive list of those that will, and CodeWeavers maintains a compatiblity database on its site so that you can look up your favourite apps and see if they’ll work.

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