What is an Emulator?

The word “emulate” means to mimic or copy someone or something. It’s not surprising that in computer terms, an emulator does exactly that.

Specifically, an emulator refers to a computer or program that tries to copy another version. You’ve seen this on Mac computers with software programs that allow Windows to run when the two would otherwise be incompatible.

As with any “mimic,” there are things the emulator does well and things that the original version does better.

So why would you use an emulator instead of the real thing? There are many reasons, like these, that help explain why emulators are in high demand in the tech industry.

1. The Origins of Emulators

Although the term has become more popular recently, emulators have been around since 1963. At that time, microcodes were used to run older programs on new devices.

It was a method that combined software and hardware designed specifically for mimicking older programs. Engineers needed something to call this process, so they used an “emulator.”

Decades later, as these software programs became more common, the term stuck. For the most part, though, we use emulators for video games, so players can enjoy their favorite older games on their new systems.

But as users switch between iOS and Android systems, the demand for emulators has increased substantially.

2. Emulators in Action

The way an emulator works depends on the technique behind the specific unit. Each one is designed to recreate the original software or hardware and make it usable for the new device. But some emulators go beyond the basic specs and add new or improved features.

Because emulating isn’t simple, there are dozens (or more) of resources included in one emulator. It usually takes a while for an emulator program to be developed, especially when the programmer is doing it independently without pay.

Even with these tech specs, the original is typically better than the copy.  But this also depends on the device you’re running the emulator on. For instance, some Emulator tablets are more suitable than others.

3. The Popularity of Emulators Today

So why have emulators been making the headlines in tech industries lately? The answer is partly due to the war between Android and iOS and Windows and Mac.

If there’s a program you really want to use, but it’s only available on the competition’s devices, you’re stuck going without—unless you have an emulator. Then, you can use whatever apps you want, regardless of their original platform design.

Emulators are also essential to pass down generations of digital programs. Think about the Mario Bros. games as a prime example. Without emulators to preserve and share this video game marvel, Mario and Luigi would have been lost to millions of gamers every year.

When a program is stored on a platform that’s now obsolete, like Nintendo and Atari consoles, the format can be downloaded as read-only memory (ROM). From there, the ROM is opened with an emulator, and the original game or software is played on the new device.

4. Emulators Are Still Developing

As it is with technology, emulators aren’t done evolving yet. Devices are always changing with innovative ideas and hardware solutions, and emulators have to keep up with the changes.

Take an emulator that needs to replicate the original Donkey Kong designed for arcade games. It wasn’t that complicated when it was first released, and now, gamers can play it on the Nintendo Switch. The software was easy to download into ROM, and Nintendo bought the rights for its Switch device.

Now imagine the same type of mimicking with a game like Fortnight. The world developed an entire culture around this realistic game. And trying to run it on an emulator would require serious graphics power.

The more intricate the system, the more difficult it is to emulate it. That’s why newer emulated programs will lag behind their original counterparts. Still, if you’re determined to run software that isn’t designed for your system on your device, an emulator makes this possible.

5. Cautions With Emulators

Planning on using an emulator? Keep these risks in mind as you run your programs.

First, it’s not uncommon to find viruses disguised as emulators available for downloading.

We should all be in the habit of never downloading or installing anything from a site we haven’t researched. But it’s exciting to find your favorite software in emulator format. Slow down, and check out the authenticity before you click “download.”

Second, remember that any program that isn’t on an emulator format from its manufacturer puts you in a legal bind. The emulator itself is fine, but if you download a program without paying for it, you could be violating the copyright. (Remember Napster?)


Emulators mimic the original version of software and hardware, making it possible for millions of other users to enjoy the program.

With so many competing platforms, it’s no wonder emulators are in demand. They’re beneficial as long as you’re aware of the drawbacks and legalities involved in using yours.

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