What Is An Emulator? Explained With Examples

Play Zelda: Breath of the Wild on PC

What Is An Emulator? Explained With Examples

Key Points

  • An emulator is a program or type of hardware that allows you to run software on a device that’s usually incompatible.
  • Emulators can be legal, but downloading ROMs or computer programs to run on them tends not to be.
  • Examples of emulators include video game emulators like VisualBoyAdvance and Dolphin, device emulators used by software developers, and operating system emulators like BlueStacks and Wine.

If you’re trying to run a program or play a video game, you’ll probably run into the term “emulator” sooner or later. Most of us understand the common usage of the word “emulate” as essentially synonymous with “imitate.” This gives you a bit of an idea of what an emulator does, but it’s not quite as simple as copying something. In this article, we’re going to explain what an emulator is, illustrate it with examples, and help you decide whether you should use one.

What Is an Emulator, and Why Use One?

In simple terms, an emulator is a program or type of hardware that allows you to run some software on a device that’s usually incompatible. It does this by simulating, or “emulating”, the device. The term is most commonly used regarding video game emulators, which are programs that can be used to play all sorts of video games, typically on your computer. However, modern smartphones and even some modern consoles (i.e., the Nintendo Switch) can successfully emulate game consoles as well.

Although video game emulators are hugely popular, the concept predates their development. IBM came up with the idea as a means of giving backward compatibility to newer computer models. And sure enough, emulating computer programs that are native to different operating systems is another common use of emulation these days.

Generally, people use emulators both for the convenience of running the games they want from one place, such as their PC and also for the financial benefit. It’s much cheaper to use an emulator to run a Windows program on your Mac than to go out and buy a whole new computer. Similarly, most people who download “ROMs” (a digital version of a game) haven’t bought the game already, so they are essentially playing the title for free.

How Do Emulators Work?

There are two main types of emulation: low-level and high-level emulation.

Low-level emulation relies on simulating the behavior of a device, either by using software or hardware. When we think of video game emulation, this is usually via software emulation, such as in the case of running old video games on your PC. Hardware emulation is more involved and relies on physically having the components that the emulated device uses. For example, the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3 are backward compatible with their predecessors. This is because they contain the actual hardware that these games run on.

High-level emulation, on the other hand, focuses on imitating the functionality of the hardware rather than the hardware itself. In this way, it’s more abstract, emulating the hardware by simulating what each instruction is meant to achieve. Typically, the complexity gap between the emulated hardware and the device it’s being emulated on is minimized with high-level emulation. As such, it tends to be more common with modern systems.

The Drawbacks of Emulators

Emulators are typically legal. However, downloading ROMs or computer programs to run on them tends not to be. Before you consider using an emulator, be sure to research the laws governing your country first.

Even if emulation were completely legal, using them isn’t always what it’s cut out to be. First off, downloading a virus instead of an emulator isn’t an uncommon scenario. It’s safe to say you don’t want to run into that situation. Secondly, because emulators are trying to reproduce the performance and behavior of a completely different device, they tend to not run as smoothly as the native hardware. This is especially true if you’re trying to run the latest games on a system that simply isn’t designed for it.

Nintendo N64 Console and Mario Kart Game
Using emulators to run classic video games is tempting, but it’s usually illegal.


Now, let’s get into the different kinds of emulators out there, with some examples of each.

  • Video game emulators: Some of the most popular video game emulators include VisualBoyAdvance (VBA), PSX emulator/ePSXe, MAME, and Dolphin. You can use VBA and PSX to run Game Boy Advance and Playstation One games, respectively. MAME, on the other hand, is an older emulator for running classic arcade games. The last of the bunch, Dolphin, is a newer example that allows you to run both Wii and GameCube games.
  • Device emulation: This is a more legal type of emulation that software developers regularly use. Virtual machines give developers the capability to test out programs they’re working on with alternative operating systems. This helps them determine how they respond and the functionality of the program.
  • Operating system emulators: These let you run programs on a different operating system than intended. For example, BlueStacks allows you to use Android apps on a computer. Similarly, Xcode lets you do the same with iPhone apps on a Mac. Wine and Parallels, on the other hand, gives you the opportunity to run Windows programs on your Mac computer. VMWare and VirtualBox do the reverse.

(Fun fact: WINE isn’t actually an emulator but a wrapper for 32-bit Windows. The name stands for “Wine Is Not an Emulator”, although it’s a common misconception.)

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an emulator?

An emulator is a kind of hardware or program that imitates the behavior or functionality of some other hardware. Usually, emulators are used to run programs on typically incompatible operating systems or video game consoles.

How do emulators work?

Emulators work by simulating the behavior of a device using software or hardware (i.e., using your PC’s components or by having identical components to the native device.) Alternatively, emulators can work through a more abstract process of simulating the functionality of the hardware, achieving the same outcomes from a given instruction.

Are emulators legal?

While emulators themselves tend to be legal, downloading programs and using them with emulators usually isn’t. The precise laws around emulation depend on your country and location, but it’s safe to say it’s probably illegal.

What are the downsides of emulators?

Aside from the issue of legality, emulators tend to perform at least slightly worse than the native hardware. This is because it’s computationally expensive to emulate the behavior and features by copying the instructions and converting them into something your device can understand.

What types of emulators are there?

There are many kinds of emulators, from operating system emulators (i.e., BlueStacks, Xcode, and Parallel) to video game emulators (i.e., Dolphin, MAME, and VBA) and virtual machines.

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