What is Emulation? Benefits, Downsides and More

Emulation is something you’ve likely heard quite a lot about over the years – we’ve even covered plenty of emulators here on Make Tech Easier. But what is emulation? If you have any questions about this topic, read on through this article, and I’ll explain to you what emulation is, what the benefits of it are and what its downsides are.

Put simply, emulation is when one computer behaves like another device. An emulator is software that allows the host computer to behave like anot her. Devices that can be emulated include old operating systems, video game consoles, and certain programs.

In short, emulation allows your computer to pretend to be something else.


There are a great number of benefits to emulation, especially emulation in video games. Video game emulation allows users to increase in-game resolution, add post-processing effects, play with different controllers, and do all kinds of new things with their games that they previously couldn’t.


The image above shows Xenoblade Chronicles, a Wii title, running in full 1080p with anti-aliasing and custom HD textures added, on a Windows PC.

An emulator also allows sufficiently powerful hardware to imitate old hardware for backwards compatibility – the Xbox 360 and PS3 are much different, hardware-wise, than their successors, but emulation of the 360 is progressing on the Xbox One. The Wii U, however, shares architecture with the Wii, so games are backwards compatible with no need of emulation.

Aside from gaming, emulation also sees its usage in developer circles. An emulator is useful for developers working on Android devices, for instance, as an Android emulator is included within Google’s own Android SDK.

It should be noted that emulation and virtualization are not the same. Emulation uses full hardware and software imitation, while virtualization only imitates parts of the hardware required, and even so still requires the virtual machine to have the same architecture (like x86) to run properly, which is why you can run Windows/Linux in virtualization on x86 PCs but not on other devices.


The image above shows a comparison of Gears of War running on the original Xbox 360 and then the title emulated on the Xbox One. Why would the emulated game look worse on the more powerful console?

It’s because emulation has severe performance costs. Successful emulation may be technically possible on the Xbox One, but the Xbox One simply isn’t powerful enough to emulate 360 titles at full graphical settings while retaining good performance. Even in titles optimized like this, performance is still worse on the Xbox One than on the original 360 – and in the case of games capped at 30 FPS, this kind of performance loss can border on unplayable at times.

Programming-wise, emulation is also very difficult to do. Due to how strange the original Xbox is, no successful Xbox emulator has yet been released. Even PCSX2, the premiere PS2 emulator, still faces a lot of compatibility issues with major PS2 titles despite having been in development for thirteen years as of December 2015.

Emulation is also a tricky area, legally-speaking, at least for video games and other licensed software.  You’re technically allowed to have your own archival copies in the United States but not allowed to create them yourself. However, prosecution for possession of video game backups doesn’t usually happen unless you’re selling or distributing them, in which case all kinds of copyright lawyers will be after your blood in the water.

Emulation can be a tricky, difficult situation to understand, but I hope that this article explains it for you. Emulation can be used for gaming, development and more. If you have any more questions, be sure to let us know in the comments.

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