What Are Emulators? Working, Types, & Examples- Spiceworks

Emulators are defined as hardware or software platforms that allow a computer system (or a mobile system) to behave like another so that the former – the host – can run applications and services designed for the latter – the guest. This article explains how emulators work with examples. 

What Are Emulators?

Emulators are hardware or software platforms that allow a computer system (or a mobile system) to behave like another so that the former – the host – can run applications and services designed for the latter – the guest. 

An emulator is a software program (or, in rare cases, bespoke computer hardware) that simulates another device. For instance, WINE is a tool that enables Windows applications to be run on Linux and Mac systems. Dolphin is an application that allows Nintendo GameCube and Wii games to be played on a computer. Before we discuss how emulators work and look at more emulator examples, here’s a brief overview of how this technology was developed.

How were emulators developed?

Emulators have roots in software simulation techniques used in the early days of computing. Autonetics created the first functioning simulator around 1960 to evaluate assembly language programs for subsequent execution on the armed services system, D-17B. This allowed flight programs to be created, performed, and tested before the construction of D-17B computer hardware. However, the term simulation was used instead of emulation at that time.

IBM coined the term “emulator” in 1963 during the creation of the NPL (IBM System/360) product series. It used a revolutionary software combination, microcode (an instruction set between the CPU and the visible architecture of a computer), and hardware.

IBM observed that simulations employing additional instructions written in microcode and hardware significantly boosted simulation speed compared to the conventional software simulation process. The name “emulator” was invented by IBM engineers to describe this idea. In the twenty-first century, it is customary to use the term “emulate” for both software and microcode-assisted emulation.

The emulation of gaming systems began in 1991, beginning with Sega Genesis. In 1995, emulation development blossomed into a “scene” in which ROMs were widely copied and circulated.

By 1997, robust recompilation techniques had developed, allowing for significant increases in emulation speed. At approximately the same time, businesses started producing and marketing classic and modern computer emulators. Today, well-known Android emulators include the likes of Bluestacks, Nox, MEmu, and numerous others.

Are emulators the same as virtualization?

Hardware virtualization is the customization and virtualization of computers as composite hardware platforms or only the essential functionalities to run multiple operating systems. Virtualization hides from consumers the physical properties of a computer platform, while emulation does not.

While both services seem identical, the difference lies in how the program is used. Virtualization enables guest code to execute natively on the CPU if you want the software to be unobtrusive. On the other hand, emulators will execute the guest code directly, freeing up the CPU for several other duties.

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Applications of emulators

One may comprehend the necessity for emulators in two ways: the technology’s application in computers and its advantages to different sectors. Typically, IT professionals utilize emulators to:

  • Migrate between systems: As the first step in migration, emulators enable the execution of software from one category of systems to another.
  • Enhance current systems: Emulators may offer far more debugging possibilities than hardware, especially in the embedded arena. They were used in early minicomputers like MIMIC.
  • Preserve systems from the past: Emulators enable software from obsolete systems to run on contemporary hardware.
  • Innovate around future systems: Emulators enable the building of notional machines and software debugging before the availability of actual hardware.

Among the various industries, emulators are most frequently seen in gaming. Emulators for video game consoles are applications that enable a computer or console to simulate another system. They are often used to play games from the 1980s to the 2000s on current desktop computers and consoles.

Emulators play an essential role in both media and the arts. As a preservation technique, new media art depends on the emulation because it relies on digital formats. Using emulators, artists may resuscitate defunct media tech in their works and combine historical media with contemporaneous digital art.

How Do Emulators Work?

Before delving into its inner workings, let’s examine emulation’s fundamental value proposition. Emulation operates by controlling the behavior of the CPU and its component units. The emulator constructs each component of the system and, after that, connects them, similar to how wires link hardware components. The precise operation will vary on whether you’re utilizing low-level or high-level emulation technology.

Low-level working

Low-level emulation (LLE) simulates the emulated hardware’s behavior. As nearly as practicable, the host computer will simulate an environment for the program to execute in which it will be processed. Either hardware or software may achieve LLE.

As it replicates the behavior of the hardware, low-level emulation is among the most accurate measures for simulating the system under consideration. Nevertheless, hardware-based emulation is only sometimes possible since it increases system costs. 

However, software-based emulation demands in-depth knowledge of the systems or their components, which may only be available if documentation is sufficient. To execute programs at the same pace, a system that is significantly stronger than the original is necessary. That is where high-level emulation technology comes into play.

High-level working

High-level emulation (HLE) offers a unique approach to system simulation. Instead of simulating the hardware itself, it replicates the device’s functionalities. It provides a set of operations often used by developers and manages all minute details efficiently.

High-level emulators operate using three techniques:

Processor timing and interrupt handling are principles that dictate how the emulator interfaces with the CPU to run appropriately.

Specific systems, particularly older ones, necessitate that the emulator has precise timing to be compatible with a current CPU. For instance, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) measures processor timing in pixel processing units (PPU), which needs the CPU to load pixels into its memory at distinct moments.

In conclusion, interrupts are the principal means through which the CPU interacts with hardware. Typically, your hardware components will convey to the CPU which interrupts are essential to them. Therefore, the emulator can also interrupt handling to enable the same function. 

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9 Types of Emulators

Emulators can be of different types, depending on the use case and the host environment. Here are the essential types of emulators to note:

1. Terminal emulators

A terminal emulator is software that simulates the capabilities of traditional computer terminals. These terminals consisted of a display and keyboard, were primarily used to connect with other computers, like a minicomputer or mainframe. The terminal emulation program accomplishes the same job.

A terminal emulator enables a host computer to contact another, including remote systems, through a command line or graphical interface. Utilizing protocols like Telnet and SSH, communication is made possible. This emulation enables the host computer to use or execute apps on the remote machine and exchange files between both. The advantage here is that the operating systems of the two devices do not need to be identical.

2. Printer emulators

Printer emulations are on-printer applications that offer a range of printer command languages. And in the meantime, they provide manageability and security. Multiple emulations may be transferred to a printer, enabling users to choose the appropriate command language. Given how much software is created for HP printers, many, for instance, are intended to replicate HP LaserJet printers. By simulating an HP printer, it is capable of working with any software designed for a genuine HP printer.

3. Game console emulators

A video game console emulator allows a machine to simulate the hardware of a video game console and run its titles on the emulating platform. Most often, emulators have additional features that transcend the boundaries of the actual hardware, like wider controller compatibility, better performance, sharper clarity, cheat codes accessible with a single click, etc. 

Emulators are also helpful for producing homebrew demonstrations and new games for obsolete, defunct, or uncommon systems. The emulator commonly receives the game’s code and data through a ROM file (a duplicate of the gaming cartridge contents) or an ISO image (a replica of optical media).

4. Full system emulators

Full emulation emulates everything, including the CPU, chipset, basic input/output system (BIOS), devices, and interrupts. COREMU is an open-source concurrent emulation platform that decouples the complexities of integrating full-system environments. Emulators like these are challenging to build since they necessitate the precise elimination of system dependencies on their host.

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5. CPU emulators

A CPU emulator is a software application that emulates a physical CPU. An interpreter – a computer program that tracks the execution path of the emulated program code, is the simplest variant of a CPU emulator. For each machine code instruction detected, actions semantically comparable to the source instructions are executed on the host CPU. Computer scientists utilize these emulators for various tasks, including debugging, profiling, and malware analysis.

6. Functional emulators

Functional emulation is the practice of using a computer program to imitate the running of another computer program written in symbolic assembly language or compiler code, not binary machine code. Without creating binary code, programmers may run and trace specified bits of source code to look for programming errors (bugs) using a functional simulator.

7. Server emulator

Frequently, multiplayer video games require an internet game server that may or may not be accessible for installation on-premise. A server emulator is an unauthorized on-premise server that mimics the behavior of the authorized internet server, even though its core processes may vary. This is not always a legitimate use of emulation technology.

8. Network emulators

Testing the behavior of a network (wireless, 5G, MANETs, etc.) in a lab is network emulation. Software running on a PC or virtual machine performs network emulation; a separate emulation device is occasionally utilized for link emulation. Networks induce latency, glitches, and packet loss to test how they play out within the emulator.

9. Mobile emulators

As its name suggests, a mobile emulator simulates the device’s hardware and software on a desktop computer or as a component of a cloud-based testing platform. It is a comprehensive reimplementation of the machine-level assembly language-based mobile applications. The Android (software development kits or SDKs) emulator illustrates this. It enables developers to assess their applications’ appearance on various hardware types and screen sizes.

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Emulator Examples for Linux, Android, Mac, and Others

Now that we know all about emulators and how they work, let us look at a few popular examples of emulators used by tech professionals:

1. Appetize.io

Appetize.io is a web-based iOS and Android emulator that allows you to launch iPhone, iPad, Mobile Safari, and APK mobile applications on your web browser. The server will transmit a series of snapshots (as blob data) captured by the emulator instance. It then executes it through the open websocket produced by Socket.IO on the web browser. Then, a JavaScript code snippet is used to update the canvas that depicts the device’s screen.

On the other hand, it monitors mouse interactions with the canvas and sends them to the server via JavaScript. On the server side, these coordinates are converted into touch commands and sent back to the emulator.

2. Rosetta 2

Using emulation technology, Rosetta 2 allows a Mac containing Apple silicon to run applications designed for a Mac with an Intel CPU. At its center is Rosetta, a translation mechanism that enables users to execute x86 64-instructed applications on Apple hardware. Unfortunately, the translation process is time-consuming, so users may sometimes believe that translated applications launch or function more slowly.

Importantly, it is an emulator built into new Mac devices so that they can run programs written for Intel, despite having an Apple silicon chip.

3. BlueStacks

BlueStacks App Player is a freeware and robust Android emulator that runs Android apps on a Windows computer. Users may experience their games on a larger display and enjoy added customization options for mapping controls, etc. Regardless of why you need an emulator, BlueStacks is an all-in-one package, despite running an older version of Android.

4. Genymotion

This app aids mobile testing by simulating over 3000 virtual Android device variants (Android releases, screen size, hardware capacity, etc.). Genymotion is an efficient Android emulator that does not require excessive RAM. This expedites the building and execution of applications.

The benefit of this platform is that it is a full-featured Android emulator. It enables technical professionals (developers and QA engineers) and non-technical professionals (designers, sales, marketing, and other stakeholders) to improve the performance quality and the user experience of their Android applications.

5. PearPC

PearPC is an architecture-agnostic PowerPC system emulator that can run several PowerPC (a modified architecture) operating systems, including pre-Intel editions of Mac OS X, Darwin, and Linux. Its distribution is managed by the GNU General Public License (GPL). It is executable on Microsoft Windows, Linux, and various other platforms.

The emulator has a just-in-time (JIT) microprocessor emulation core that dynamically converts PPC code to x86 code and caches the results. The JIT emulation core operates ten times faster than the architecture-agnostic generic processor emulator core while operating solely on x86 host architectures.

6. Aemulor

Aemulor is an emulation of the older 26-bit addressing method ARM microprocessors. The program enables Raspberry Pi and other devices running the reduced instruction set computer (RISC) operating system to use older hardware-specific applications. Aemulor Pro was launched in 2004. This introduced upgrades, like compatibility for low-color settings and a need for numerous games. Additionally, the Pro version adds assistance for low-bpp display modes, sound, a modified memory map, and 26-bit file systems.


QEMU is an open-source and freeware emulator. It emulates the machine’s CPU via flexible binary translation and includes a variety of machine-specific hardware and device models. This allows it to run multiple guest operating systems. It is compatible with Kernel-based Virtual Machine (KVM) to manage virtual machines with near-native performance. QEMU may also emulate user-level processes, making it possible for programs developed for a different architecture to execute on another.

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Emulators have always been crucial for developers since they allow you to run and test applications in different environments without incurring the cost of configuring a fresh OS. DevOps engineers that require access to Windows applications on a Linux PC frequently resort to emulators. Further, one of the most crucial use cases for emulation is gaming since new versions of gaming software come out in rapid intervals, and backward compatibility is still rare. Emulators allow users to revive and preserve older technology while using modern systems. 

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