How to run Intel Windows apps on an M1 Mac

I tested a 2005 x86 version of Palm Desktop on an Arm version of Windows on an M1 Apple Silicon Mac. But seriously, folks: You can go ahead and enjoy running x86 Windows applications on your M1 Mac. Just be prepared for it to stop working at any time.

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By Tada Images shutterstock

For those who need to jump between running Mac and Windows software, one of the most compelling aspects of Intel-based Mac ownership has been that those Macs could run both Windows and Mac applications, using either dual boot or virtualization.

With the advent of the M1 Mac, which was no longer based on an Intel processor architecture, that advantage went away. For many Mac users, losing the Intel instruction set was a non-issue. But for folks whose work required them to run applications from both environments, an important productivity feature was suddenly removed from the equation.

Until now. Sort of.

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I've been running various versions of the Parallels virtualization solution on my Intel Macs since I repurchased my 2013 iMac in the day. I found the ability to switch between Windows Excel and PowerPoint (which still, to this day, have some features not found on the Mac) and my Mac-based graphics and video applications to be a huge win.

When the M1 Macs came out, Parallels announced it could port their virtualization software to Apple Silicon. Expectations, however, were that the M1 Parallels implementation might run Windows for Arm but not Intel Windows applications. Even then, expectations were low because, as ZDNet reported, Microsoft's license doesn't support running Windows for Arm on Macs.

This week, I got my hands on Parallels Desktop 17. I had to know. Would it run classic Intel-based Windows apps, or would it just be a version of Windows devoid of most of Windows enormous library of Intel-based software?

I put it to the test on my M1 MacBook Air. I won't bury the lede: It does run Intel apps. Getting there is a bit messy, but it works... for now.  

See also: Migrating from Intel iMac to M1 MacBook Air: My five-day journey.

See also: I don't care what you say about the M1: the 2018 Intel Mac mini is still a beast.

See also: Migrating to M1 Macs: How I'm upgrading my small fleet of older Apple desktops and laptops.

Getting set up

The first part of the setup is easy. You download the binary from Parallels.com. There's a trial version, so you might want to tinker with that initially to see if you like it. Parallels sent me a one year license, so that's what I used.

You go through the install process, which is pretty similar to most other Mac install procedures. There will come a time when you need to give it a Windows image file, and that's where things get interesting. You can't use whatever Intel-based Windows 10 image or disk you happen to have lying around. Oh, no. You need Windows for Arm.

The gotcha is that there is no publicly sold and shipping Windows for Arm. It exists as a developer preview version. Are you starting to see the messy? If not, just follow along. You will.

Parallels provides a guide for downloading Windows for Arm. Basically, you have to join the Windows Insider Preview program. That's easy. Just sign up. For basic access, there's no fee.

Once you're signed up, go to the Insider Preview page for Windows for Arm. Click the big blue download button and download your copy. You'll download a 9.74GB .vhdx file.

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When it's downloaded, go ahead and double-click it. You'll be brought into Parallels, asked to enter your license code, and then...Windows will launch.

Inside Windows for Arm

I'm not exactly sure what I was expecting, but I didn't expect Windows for Arm to feel exactly like Windows for Intel. I don't know; maybe deep down, I was expecting some kind of larger buttons or a throwback to the bad ol' Windows 8 user interface. But here's the thing: it looks and feels exactly like Windows 10.

But we've been fooled before. Remember the Surface RT? Microsoft sold these devices back in 2012. They did look and feel like Windows, but they wouldn't run any traditional Windows software. Unless it was in the Windows Store, and specifically for Arm, you were, to coin a term, screwed.

But what about Intel applications?

I got started going down this Parallels testing rabbit hole because of an article we ran in ZDNet a few weeks ago. Cliff Joseph did a full review of Parallels Desktop 17. Cliff discussed many of the new features of this latest Parallels version, but he didn't answer my burning question: could I run Intel Windows programs on my M1?

I reached out to Parallels, and they told me I could. That's how I got my evaluation copy of the software. But... really? Last year they were saying you probably would never be able to. So, what was the real story?

Having lived through previous Windows for Arm/Windows RT debacles, I didn't want to take a chance that any software I tested was something that had been modified for the Windows store or was otherwise recompiled for Arm. I wanted to test software that I knew was an Intel-based application beyond a shadow of a doubt.

I picked three applications: Turbotax for Business, Gimp, and Palm Desktop (yes, that Palm Desktop).

First, I installed Turbotax for Business. I know this is a Windows-only application because its annual use is one of the few remaining reasons I still need to use Parallels on my Intel Mac. While you can run most Intuit products on Mac, Turbotax will only run on Intel Windows machines. Since Intuit couldn't be bothered even to port it to the Mac, it was extremely unlikely that they'd create an Arm version.

I loaded it, and it ran.

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Next, I went to an open-source application, Gimp. While there is a MacOS version of Gimp, I figured that it was a good test for a general-purpose application. I downloaded the Intel binary and installed it.

It, too, loaded and ran.

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But then I decided to get devious. I wanted to run something that was definitely, unabashedly Intel. Something that could not possibly have any Arm elements in it. Something from, yes, the Windows Vista era. Something that would be pure Intel.

So, I logged into my old-stuff-share, which is the network volume I use to store old stuff. I dug around until I came up with a Palm Desktop zip file. I found Palm Desktop 4.1, which was released sometime around 2005. That was before the iPhone. That was before Android. This is old software.

I moved that zip file to my Windows for Arm install, unzipped it, and ran the installer. Would you believe it? It loaded, and it ran.

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I actually clapped my hands and giggled. Somewhere deep in my geekboy psyche is a little kid that gets an unreasonable amount of joy making things run that just shouldn't. Being able to run an ancient 2005 Intel-based Windows application for an obsolete device in an Arm version of Windows on an Apple Silicon-based Mac, in 2021 delights me to no end.

The hard truth

I found this discovery delightful, but there are some hard truths. Keep in mind that the x86 emulation engine is in Windows on Arm. You have to install Windows on Arm to run Windows in a VM on an Arm host. And that could be a problem.

I reached out to ZDNet's Windows guru Ed Bott for a reading on the future of Windows for Arm. After the Insider period is over, what will the Windows for Arm story be? Will we be able to use it for production Windows use?

See also: Windows 10 on Arm: What you need to know before you buy a Surface Pro X.

Ed says, "You can't get Windows on Arm as an ISO right now, and I don't expect Microsoft to release Windows on Arm as a retail product anytime soon, which is what you need to install in a host machine running virtualization software on Arm."

So, while you can run Intel-based Windows applications on your M1 Mac right now, that might change. My guess is that Parallels will eventually license Windows for Arm and sell it as an add-on to Parallels Desktop. But that hasn't happened yet, and they're making no promises.

So go ahead and enjoy running x86 Windows applications on your M1 Mac. Just be prepared for it all to stop working at any time.

Keep an eye out here. If Parallels, Microsoft, or Ed comes up with any updates on the licensing status for Windows for Arm as it pertains to the Parallels implementation, I'll update this article.

Oh, and before I go, here's a thought. Since the iPad Pro is running the exact same processor as my MacBook Air, there's really no inherent architectural reason Parallels can't run on an iPad.

What do you think? Do you need to run Intel Windows applications on your Mac? Does the ability to run them on Apple Silicon machines change your thinking about Macs and Windows? Let us know in the comments below.


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