Virtualization creates an abstraction layer over a computer’s hardware, allowing you to create and run several Virtual Machines (VMs) on the same physical computer. All resources like memory and processors are shared across these VMs without overlapping with each other. In other words, every VM has its own copy of memory and resources, which differ from other VMs and even the host computer. How is this virtualization implemented, though? The simple answer is to use virtualization software like VirtualBox or QEMU.
This software enables you to run many VMs on the same host. Now, virtualization software is often confused with an emulator. To clarify, an emulator is a tool used to run a specific program on a device. For example, an emulator can run a Windows program on a Mac device.
An emulator software can also double up as a virtualization tool. Sounds confusing? Read on as I lay out the differences between Quick EMUlator (QEMU) and VirtualBox.
First, I’ll start with the basics of what each tool is before heading to a comparison between the two.
1. What Is QEMU?
QEMU is an emulator and virtualization software. You can use it to run non-compatible programs on operating systems. For example, you can run ARM software on an x86 PC. QEMU is also a virtualization software you can use to run multiple VMs on a single machine.
Now that you know what QEMU is, let’s jump into its pros and cons.
- Runs programs on incompatible devices
- Is open source and free
- Handles both virtualization and emulation (dual-purpose)
- Is flexible, especially in configuration
- Is highly complex and suits experienced users more
- Requires a Kernel-based Virtual Machine (KVM) for virtualization
- Doesn’t support 3D, extensive graphics, and USB 3.0 in virtual machines
- Provides basic audio support at best
Moving on, let’s talk about what VirtualBox is.
2. What Is VirtualBox?
VirtualBox is a virtualization software from Oracle. It comes with both GUI and a command-line tool to create VMs and deploy them anywhere. It works best on x86 and AMD64 systems.
Let me now guide you through the pros and cons of VirtualBox.
- Works well on all popular operating systems
- Doesn’t require elaborate experience or knowledge and is highly user-friendly
- Suits anyone looking to leverage virtualization’s benefits
- Runs quickly and uses a lot less CPU when compared to other similar tools
- Oracle’s USB drivers aren’t open source.
- VirtualBox is only free for personal use. This could be bothersome if you plan to redistribute.
- It only supports x86 and x64 architecture.
Next, let’s compare both platforms to understand which fares better across different aspects.
QEMU vs. VirtualBox
On the surface, both platforms may seem similar. That said, they have a fundamental difference. In general, QEMU is both an emulator and a virtualization software while VirtualBox is only a virtualization software. That’s not the only difference though.
Going down into the specifics, check out the differences between the two platforms.
|Compatible with older operating systems and hardware||Highly limited||Extensive|
|Knowledge level||Advanced knowledge is required and ideal for experts||Basic working knowledge of VMs is enough and ideal for users with varying knowledge and experience levels|
|Fast||No, when compared to VirtualBox||Yes, and uses less CPU load|
|Processor architectures||Wide range like ARM, SPARC, Alpha, etc.||X86 and x64 architecture only|
|Uses Kernel-based Virtual Machine (KVM)||Yes||No|
|Ideal for OS kernel development||Yes||Maybe|
|Free||Yes||Only for personal use|
Overall, go for QEMU if you’re working on kernel development or non-x86/x64 architectures, and if you need extensive flexibility and configuration. QEMU is also a good choice if you’re looking for a dual-purpose emulator and virtualization software. On the other hand, go for VirtualBox if you want to quickly and easily create VMs on your existing PC.
The Bottom Line
Virtualization offers many benefits like optimized resource usage and reduced costs. That said, you need virtualization software to make the most of these benefits. You’ve got so many choices available today, so it’s not easy to pick the appropriate one for your environment. QEMU and VirtualBox cause a lot of confusion between them because of their similarities like being open source, ideal for virtualization, etc. Lastly, I hope this article comes in handy to help you decide which of the two is better for your implementation and computing needs.
Have more questions about QEMU or VirtualBox? Check out the FAQs and Resources sections below!
What is QEMU used for?
QEMU is an emulator and virtualization software. You can use it to run programs on incompatible devices like running Windows programs on Linux systems.You can also use it to virtualize different hardware platforms and architectures like ARM, SPARC, etc.
What is VirtualBox used for?
VirtualBox is a virtualization software designed for x86 and x64 architectures. It allows you to leverage your hardware resources and run multiple Virtual Machines (VMs) on a single PC. You can also use it to run Windows, macOS, Linux, and Solaris.
Is VirtualBox free?
Yes, VirtualBox is free for personal use. It’s distributed under an open-source license for personal use. You’ll have to buy a paid license for commercial use or if you plan to redistribute it.
Is QEMU better than VirtualBox?
Not always. QEMU is ideal if you’re a kernel developer or an advanced user looking to deploy virtualization on your PC. It’s also a good choice if you want to virtualize ARM, SPARC, and other non-x86 architectures. QEMU works well as an emulation software, too.
Is VirtualBox better than QEMU?
In some cases, yes. VirtualBox is faster and has a better UI than QEMU. It’s also a good choice only for x86 and x64 architectures. Lastly, VirtualBox doesn’t require advanced knowledge or experience.
TechGenix’s VirtualBox Guide
Learn more about why VirtualBox is a fantastic management tool here.
TechGenix’s VirtualBox or VMWare Article
Check out this article to understand the differences between the two most popular virtualization software, VirtualBox, and VMWare.
TechGenix’s Creating a Linux Virtual Machine Guide
Discover how to create a Linux virtual machine in this article.
TechGenix’s Starting VirtualBox Machines Automatically Guide
Learn how to start a VirtualBox machine automatically as a service here.
TechGenix’s UAC Virtualization Article
Click here to discover how UAC virtualization can be a security tool for your OS.
TechGenix’s IaaS vs. Virtualization vs. Containerization Article
Learn about the differences between IaaS, virtualization, and containerization in this article.
6 thoughts on “QEMU v. VirtualBox: What’s the Difference?”
Just wanted to point out certain incorrectness.
VirtualBox is essentially opensource, thus free to use, regardless of purpose (personal or not). However, to make out the best out of it, you need the so called extensions package. Which is not opensource, has a separate license to the main app and is no longer free for commercial usage (used to be, until I think 2018).
You can use it without these extensions, but then you miss things like USB 3.0 support and few more.
What you are saying is false, qemu grants far better performance than virtualbox these days. You just need to configure stuff right, e.g. virtio drivers, qcow2 image format and GPU passthrough.
you made this article on 2022? it’s common knowledge that QEMU is far faster than vbox, it even perform near bare metal level. my kali linux on virtualbox just doesn’t run as smoothly (read : crashes a ton!) than qemu. migrating to qemu and familiarizing myself with the environment now.
but yes, Qemu is far less user friendly
Quemu is far faster, and use far less resources.
Why do you say the opposite?
can we transfer from virtualbox to qemu & vice-versa ?
Show us some stats to backup your claims!