How to install macOS on a VM to run your 32 bit apps

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Still need to run your 32 bit apps on macOS? Use a Virtual Machine!

Back in April of 2018 and depending upon the software you run, you may have noticed a message pop up that informs you that the application you are using is not optimized for your Mac. This message pops up when you run a 32 bit application on macOS High Sierra. Typically, 32 bit applications tend to be older, legacy apps that may not have newer 64 bit versions. Although the application will run fine, Apple is likely gearing up to no longer support these 32 bit applications in a future version of macOS.

Running older software

The issue with running old versions of software is that it can eventually “break” and not function on a future version of the OS you are running it on. You can hope that the vendor of your application will keep on updating the software to run on future OS updates, but what if you have a very specific program that is no longer maintained? Or perhaps you have a software license for your current version of an application but upgrading to a more modern version introduces to great a cost?

Running a virtual machine

One possible solution to the 32 bit application dilemma is to run a version of the latest macOS that fully supports your app in a virtual machine. A virtual machine, or VM, is an emulated computer running on top of your current OS installation as a program. The VM takes resources from your actual computer and uses them to run itself in a contained environment as a separate system all together. Think of it like the Matrix where the real world is your physical computer and the “dream” world in the VM.

Benefits of a VM

Since you needn’t buy new hardware, you can simply run an instance of the macOS version that will run your application without issue regardless of that app being 32 bit or 64 bit for as long as you keep your VM. If you upgrade the macOS on your physical Mac, the VM version is completely separate from that process so you’ll still be able to keep the “old” macOS on the VM and run the “new” macOS for all of your other up-to-date programs. You’ll be able to have your proverbial cake and eat it to.

Setting up a VM

There are a few options for VM software solutions for you to choose from. You can run Virtualbox, VMware, QEMU, and Parallels. All of the non-open source VM managers have free “lighter” versions that will serve our purpose but you can get their full fledge versions that provide various features that are beyond the scope of this article.

We will be using Parallels Lite that is freely downloadable from the App Store. We chose Parallels Lite due to their ease of setup and ability to function on top of a macOS host passing system information that is needed for the guest macOS to properly install. Note that if one day you’d want to change your Mac’s operating system to Windows or Linux then you’d might want to install one of the other mentioned VM managers since those can run on those host OSs albeit with a much more involved setup.

We will also be using macOS High Sierra as the installed OS. You can use these instructions for older versions as well. Credit to Howtogeek.com for the command line bits to make a disk image to install macOS High Sierra from their Virtualbox install instructions on Windows 10.

  1. Download Parallels Lite from the App Store.
  2. Download (but do not install) macOS High Sierra.

  3. We need to create the install image so we need to start Terminal.

  4. In Terminal in your home directory type or copy and paste line by line the following:
    1. hdiutil create -o HighSierra.cdr -size 7316m -layout SPUD -fs HFS+J
    2. hdiutil attach HighSierra.cdr.dmg -noverify -nobrowse -mountpoint /Volumes/install_build
    3. asr restore -source /Applications/Install macOS High Sierra.app/Contents/SharedSupport/BaseSystem.dmg -target /Volumes/install_build -noprompt -noverify -erase
    4. hdiutil detach /Volumes/OS X Base System
    5. hdiutil convert HighSierra.cdr.dmg -format UDTO -o HighSierra.iso
    6. mv HighSierra.iso.cdr HighSierra.iso
  5. Start Parallels Lite.
  6. Select Linux only.
  7. Click Continue.
  8. Select Install Windows or another OS from a DVD or image file.
  9. Click Continue.

  10. Select Image File.
  11. Click Select a file.
  12. Navigate to your home directory and select the HighSierra.iso file we created in terminal.
  13. Click Open.
  14. Click Continue.
  15. Select macOS as the operating system type.
  16. Click OK.

  17. Navigate to the folder to house the VM.
  18. Click Select.
  19. Name your VM and click Create.

  20. You can optionally setup any VM options you desire such as (note that these can be changed later too):
    1. Startup and sharing settings in the Options tab.
    2. Choose CPU, memory and graphic options in the Hardware tab.
    3. Still under the Hardware Tab select the CD/DVD sub option.
    4. Click the dropdown arrow for Source.
    5. Select Chose an Image File.
    6. Navigate to your home folder and select the HighSierra.iso file we created in terminal.
    7. Select Open.
    8. Select Continue.
  21. You can now Start the VM.
  22. Install macOS like you would normally do on any real system

Once you have a completed install, you’ll want to install the Parallels Tools program in your VM macOS. This will allow you to be able to seamlessly use your mouse between your real desktop and your VM desktop as well as resize your VM screen on the fly with proper display attributes.

  1. Click the highlighted yellow exclamation point over your VM window.
  2. Click Continue.
  3. On your VM double click the Parallels Tools installer that opens.

  4. Complete the installation and reboot your VM.

Final comments

You now have a full fledged macOS installation that you can keep for your older 32 bit applications once macOS decides to give them the boot. You’ll be able to make snapshots of the VM to have different save states. You’ll be able to run all native macOS applications you normally do. The drawback will be speed of execution and disk speed but if you have a powerful Mac, you may not notice too much of a difference depending on the application. Does this solution work for you? Tell us what you’d rather see happen for 32 bit applications on macOS in the comments!

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