Emulators and virtual machines have existed for a long time. Recently they have gotten more sophisticated and more popular as well. But many people tend to use the two terms interchangeably, even though they define two different things.
So what’s the difference between an emulator and a virtual machine? Here’s a quick breakdown that should hopefully clear up any confusion between the two.
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The Difference Between Emulators and Virtual Machines
Both emulators and virtual machines go back to the 1960s. That’s the time before computers were even small enough for widespread commercial use. Emulation is the central concept on which emulators and virtual machines are both built, albeit for different functions.
Emulation, as a concept, started because every CPU speaks its own language (has its own architecture). It makes it impossible for programs to “speak” with each one. Emulation solves this problem by processing and executing code intended for a “foreign” architecture. It does this by converting the code into a language that the CPU can understand.
There are two types of emulation:
- High-level emulation considers the essence of the different architecture. It uses a bunch of pre-defined functions to achieve an approximate result. Virtual machine monitors (a.k.a. hypervisors) usually employ high-level emulation. VMs create virtualized environments on the same hardware. They only simulate the piece of the hardware that’s necessary for the program to function.
- Low-level emulation takes different instructions and architectures into account and tries to emulate them all. The software then converts all those instructions into a language that the current hardware can understand. Emulators tend to fall into this category because they simulate wholly different hardware on top of another piece of hardware.
What are Emulators and Virtual Machines Used For?
Since emulators can simulate entire operating environments in software, players often use them for gaming purposes. For example, people like to use emulators to run games intended for Nintendo devices or mobile devices like Android or use Apple apps on PC with iPhone emulator for PC.
The emulator simulates the entire piece of hardware, including:
- graphical instructions,
- CPU instructions,
- memory management,
- sound cards.
Sometimes emulators can also emulate old hardware on top of new hardware to use old programs or retrieve information stored on older drives.
Meanwhile, people use virtual machines to run an operating system on top of another operating system. Different virtual machines support different host and guest environments. The “host” is the real-world hardware that the virtual machine is running on. The “guests” are the operating systems that the virtual machine can run on top of the current hardware.
Emulators vs. Virtual Machines: Pros and Cons
There is some overlap between what emulators and virtual machines do (and some hybridizations between the two exist as well). But they are different. Someone who wants to simulate a different type of hardware like an iOS game on a Windows PC doesn’t need to use an emulator for that. But there are still pros and cons to each type of software that is worth mentioning.
Emulators can be resource-demanding on computers or other devices. That’s because they have to simulate different hardware components with software.
Emulators do nothing to protect against any bugs, possible software failures, or malware. It might come along with the software installed on them.
- Emulators work well for people who want to run a program that’s supported by one piece of hardware on a different piece of hardware.
- The types of emulators out there are geared towards the general populace, and so have user-friendly UIs that are easy to learn and use.
- They run on top of the current operating system, so there’s no need to switch between anything or reboot the device.
- Emulators can be resource-demanding on computers or other devices. That’s because they have to simulate different hardware components with software.
- Emulators do nothing to protect against any bugs, possible software failures, or malware. It might come along with the software installed on them.
- Unlike emulators, virtual machines use the host CPU. So they don’t have to do all the work themselves. It means that VMs are much less taxing on system resources.
- Virtual machines provide a safe environment for testing out buggy software or potentially malware-ridden apps. These wouldn’t be able to infect the rest of the system. That said, a VM cannot protect against online tracking. That is why VPNs (at least dependable ones like NordVPN, for instance) are still necessary.
- VM software can run multiple operating systems at a time, saving on hardware costs.
- While they may take fewer resources than emulators depending on what people do, they are still resource hogs.
- Virtual machines are sophisticated tools. Some are more complex than others. So they might be daunting for those who haven’t worked with VMs before.
Emulators and virtual machines are both useful in their own ways. The one a person ends up choosing will largely depend on their needs since these two types of software are similar but have different functions. Hopefully, this article managed to clear up any confusion between the two and will help any undecided persons choose the software that’s right for them.