Virtual machines are useful for a whole range of use cases, both personal and professional, and even better, there are good ways to create virtual machines without having to pay for the acquisition of software.
While the best enterprise solutions come with licensing fees, the home user doesn’t need to spend a penny at all to experience the benefits of a Windows virtual machine.
In this article, we are going to introduce the best free tools to create machines for Windows 10 and 11.
The best all-in-one solution: VMware Workstation Player
You’ve probably heard of VMware and you probably think it comes with a pretty hefty license price. It’s not completely untrue, but it’s far from true. VMware Workstation Player is a completely free version of its desktop VM software, Workstation Pro. There are differences between the two, and some handy features like snapshots are reserved for the paid version. But for the most part, it’s the same thing.
Perhaps surprisingly, VMware Workstation Player also doesn’t require particularly high-end hardware to run. Naturally, the more resources you have, the better your VMs will run, but even on an older computer, you’re not penalized too much. You may run into compatibility issues on some hardware if you try to virtualize Windows (nested virtualization), but it’s entirely possible, just like any Linux distribution you can think of.
Workstation Player also provides additional tools such as GPU virtualization, USB support, and VMware Tools plugins allow you to seamlessly stop and suspend VMs without having to open them. At its core, VMware Workstation Player is really easy to use, with some more advanced features if you want to dive a little deeper. Performance is also very good, although one of the limitations of the free version is that you can only have one VM running at a time.
- Free for personal use.
- GPU virtualization.
- Easy to use.
- Reasonably low hardware requirements.
- Unable to run multiple VMs in the free version.
- Some useful functions reserved for the paid version.
Second place: Oracle VirtualBox
Oracle’s VirtualBox is free software that even works on older versions of Windows if you’re hanging on to older hardware. In terms of performance, it is not quite up to par with VMware, which is why it is ranked second in this ranking, but for many it will definitely be a better choice.
No functionality is reserved for a paid version and Oracle supports VirtualBox even to this day. If you spin VMs often, this is a solid tool to have in your arsenal, supporting both Windows and Linux VMs (only Mac users can install a Mac VM in VirtualBox).
Oracle also provides a range of pre-built virtual machines aimed at developers and there is an official plugin pack which adds some useful extras like support for USB, RDP and disk encryption. It’s a shame that the interface looks a bit dated and sometimes it seems like setting up a VM requires a few too many steps. But the quality cannot be disputed, especially when it will always be completely free.
- Free and open-source.
- Good performance.
- Supports almost anything.
- Official extension for USB pass-through and RDP.
- Outdated user interface.
- VM setup could be easier.
Solution built into Windows: Microsoft Hyper-V
If you need a simple solution and prefer not to install additional software, there is of course Hyper-V, which is built into Windows 10 and Windows 11. It is if you are using the Pro version or WindowsServer. Unfortunately, on Windows 10 Home and Windows 11 Home, you cannot use Hyper-V. This is probably the biggest negative point.
But while Hyper-V is pretty basic, it’s user-friendly, and if you’re not looking for advanced features like GPU acceleration, it’s a perfectly fine tool.
Guest operating system support extends to Windows, Windows Server, and Linux, and while you may encounter some compatibility issues with some Linux distributions, overall you can expect a good experience.
- Built into Windows 10 and 11.
- Ease of use.
- Solid support for Linux VMs.
- Requires Windows Pro or Windows Server editions.
- Basic features.
For the most intensive VM user, choosing VMware Workstation Player is a smart choice. Even though the free version has some limitations, none of the basic features are reserved for the paid version and ultimately, if you need more, you have the option to upgrade.
VirtualBox isn’t quite as good overall, but it’ll be fine for most people, and Oracle’s ongoing support, as well as the open source nature of the software, is a highlight. However, the UI could definitely use a lick of paint to freshen it up.
Hyper-V is arguably the weakest of the lot, but it’s built into some versions of Windows and for quick, basic VM use it’s perfectly fine. Whichever you choose, you can run alternative operating systems easily and at no cost on Windows 10 and Windows 11.