The words clearly have a similar meaning. But I think there must be a subtle difference.

e.g. You get a "flight simulator", but an "ipad emulator".

Both are pieces of software for replicating the behaviour of something. So why are the words not interchangable?

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    See this answer on stackoverflow: stackoverflow.com/a/1584701/988769
    – Kreiri
    Apr 19, 2013 at 9:23
  • @Kreiri Good link. I don't think I should delete the question though. I think it should really be closed as a duplicate of one on Stackoverflow. Can we do that?
    – Urbycoz
    Apr 19, 2013 at 9:41
  • 1
    @Kreiri As it's not possible to close as a duplicate of a question on another site, but it is possible to reproduce SO content elsewhere [with the correct linking attribution], why not produce an answer here using the best parts of that answer -- perhaps slanting it to an ELU perspective rather than an SO perspective, of course.
    – Andrew Leach
    Apr 19, 2013 at 11:25

6 Answers 6


The word "emulator" was coined in 1963 at IBM during development of the NPL (IBM 360) product line, using a "new combination of software, microcode, and hardware". They discovered that using microcode hardware instead of software simulation, to execute programs written for earlier IBM computers, dramatically increased simulation speed. [...]

In 1963, when microcode was first used to speed up this simulation process, IBM engineers coined the term "emulator" to describe the concept. In the 2000s, it has become common to use the word "emulate" in the context of software. However, before 1980, "emulation" referred only to emulation with a hardware or microcode assist, while "simulation" referred to pure software emulation. For example, a computer specially built for running programs designed for another architecture is an emulator. In contrast, a simulator could be a program which runs on a PC, so that old Atari games can be simulated on it. Purists continue to insist on this distinction, but currently the term "emulation" often means the complete imitation of a machine executing binary code while "simulation" often refers to computer simulation, where a computer program is used to simulate an abstract model. Computer simulation is used in virtually every scientific and engineering domain and Computer Science is no exception, with several projects simulating abstract models of computer systems, such as network simulation, which both practically and semantically differs from network emulation.

"Emulator": "Comparison with Simulation", Wikipedia

See also the Stack Overflow question "What's the difference between emulation and simulation?"


If you think about it, with a flight simulator you aren't really flying, but with an iPad emulator you are enabling doing anything you could do on a real iPad (except probably for difference in speed and looks etc.)

People tend to emulate other people, animals or things in the natural world. They might also simulate emotions, displaying them without actually having them. Here we are talking about copying what other people (etc.) do.

Machines are used to simulate things that people, animals or other machines do. Machines are used to emulate other machines (only and in their entirety).

So note the real/pretend distinction, the people/machine factors and the noun/verb aspects.

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    My preferred answer. This is not SO - I want to know the meaning and distinction of the words themselves in general, rather than specifically in an IT context.
    – Sc0ttyD
    Aug 20, 2014 at 17:49
  • I agree, simulate is to do in the abstract, emulation is the re-creation of some functionality. You could run a simulation on an emulator!
    – jiggunjer
    Jul 15, 2015 at 18:51
  • With "copying what other people do," do you only consider simulation of emotions, or do you also consider "to emulate other people"? Jan 3, 2019 at 16:35
  • Also, can you explain what you mean by "the noun/verb aspect"? Jan 3, 2019 at 16:36

A simulation is a system that exhibits the behavior of and performs all or many of the functions of a real-world entity. As a system, it typically consists of hardware, software, complex electronics, mechanical hardware as framework or housing, etc. But is may consist of only software and the computer hardware on which it runs. A simulation exists because it serves to provide these behaviors and/or functions in a way much more flexible, feasible, cost effective, and controlled manner than the actual system being simulated.

The example of flight simulator is a good one. We have flight simulations for many reasons. Flight simulations provide training for pilots. Companies that build certified flight training simulations are typically as or more complex than the aircraft they simulate and they do it with fidelity (reality) in every way as accurate as the real aircraft. But they can additionally provide the pilot trainee with the experience of flying without the danger. More importantly, the simulation can do things that the real aircraft cannot such as simulate in a totally controlled manner any number of failures of the aircraft that a pilot would have to know how to deal with. These aircraft malfunctions are inserted by the instructor who has an instructor station interface with the simulation and can cause one or more malfunctions to be simulated at any time.

Similarly, there are engineering simulations that are used for developing aircraft (manned and unmanned as well as missiles). These simulations exhibit the planned or required or to-be-developed characteristics of an air vehicle yet to be realized. Thus the simulation represents a virtual capability and is used as an engineering tool to develop, verify, and validate requirements and design for an air vehicle yet to be realized and at various stages of development.

Simulations represent opportunities to model and represent realities and explore real situations in a controlled virtual environment. So, as example, real physical events are possible to simulate that are statistic in nature. Thus Monte Carlo statistical models can realistically and with great fidelity “color” the more deterministic characteristics of an aircraft’s aerodynamics. And various characteristics of the atmosphere can be simulated in a controlled fashion. These include clear air turbulence (CAT), icing conditions, condensing fog, etc. So it is grossly an error to say that simulations are typically of lower fidelity than the actual system being simulated.

What makes a simulation different from an emulation is that the simulation is used as a standalone reference for the desired observable behavior and/or functionality. It is not (typically) used in place of the thing that is being simulated.

Another thing about simulations that has been misrepresented here is that a simulation does not necessarily provide an “exact” interface. That is absolutely not correct. In fact most all engineering simulations simulate exactly any number of desired physical interfaces as the “real” system being simulated. That is the purpose of many, if not all, simulations known as hardware-in-the-loop (HWIL) simulation systems. My organizations use simulations of various entities to interact in real-time with live actual systems. These interactions are used as test capabilities to test new versions of software or such in the systems under test which are stimulated by our simulations. In this capacity, the simulation is used much as an emulation but it is still a simulation because of the other diverse uses of the simulation as a distinctly standalone simulation system.

This brings the discussion to emulation. An emulation is typically like a simulation in that it exhibits desired behavior and/or functions of the “real” system being emulated or simulated. But the primary difference is that an emulation is typically used in an operational context where it is put in place of the “real” system being emulated. Thus it is a representation of a system for purposes of cost, feasibility, flexibility, control, etc.

Unlike what was said earlier, the emulation does not have to be a full exact replication of the system being emulated. Only those features, behaviors, functions of the real system desired are replicated. An emulation does have to function as a surrogate for the real system in an meaningful operational environment as it interfaces with those things the real system would interface and interact with – most typically in real-time. That the emulation is not an exact replication of the system it emulates is so that it can incorporate features not typically available in the real system and do it in a controlled manner.

Example of this is, again, exhibiting in a controlled and commanded fashion any number of off-nominal or failed or degraded (but real) behaviors and/or functions of the actual system that it would be impossible for the actual system to exhibit “on demand”. Consider a system (call it System A) that interacts dynamically within the context of a system of systems. Consider that System A interacts with other systems in this operational context but primarily it interacts with System B. Now consider that System A has behavior that depends on its external temperature and humidity environment or some other environmental condition. How would one test or evaluate software changes System B in its interaction with System A for all possible environmental conditions? Simple, build an emulation of System A in which the emulation could be made to exhibit on demand the exact behavior of System A in any desired environmental conditions. With this System A Emulator, an organization can, in a controlled environment completely test their System B in its operation with System A in any possible environmental condition. And best of all, the emulation may be cheaper than the actual System A and provide features impossible to achieve with a “real” System A.

Now one has the idea of the value and utility of an emulation in engineering. Hopefully this discussion has clarified some points made incorrectly by other commenters above.


It's always been my understanding that software emulation was essentially making a virtual re-creation of some hardware via knowledge of its electronic components and the modeling and simulation of those components as a circuit in a virtual enviornment of some sort.

So a software emulator of some hardware is really the software simulation of the electrical components and their connections, made to run in real time in a virtual enviornment. A simulation is an attempt to model something by quantifying its observable properties as they vary over time, recording these quantifications then projecting their pattern into the future. An emulation is a simulation of something about which all variables are completely known allowing the modeling of a complete virtual piece of hardware.

I would consider what are currently being called virtualizations as emulations. Emulation enviornments, rather.

Anyways, that's just how I always understood it; it was interesting reading about its origins @ IBM...


My own impression is that an emulation is a kind of simulation (which means that you imitate something) in which the simulated system can be simulated exactly. This may be possible with digital or otherwise discrete systems, for which the internal state can be represented and processed exactly in a computer (with sufficient memory).

On the other hand, analogue, real-world systems are continuous in nature and can therefore only be represented and simulated approximately in a computer, and you can for that reason not say that you emulate it.

This may be completely incorrect but that is my own understanding of the two words :)


Simulate & emulate re(late) to Imitate. From language prospects, simulate derived from same and similar, so it may refer to the (as) which mean like but not exact. simulate is the functions,the keys, and (main) behaviors. while emulate derived from emo and emotions which represent the (heart) and the exact characteristics. So, while the tow word fund the (same) purpose, emulation circulate the infinite meaning of the imitation and hits the target in and out.

  • 1
    Hi, Tariq—thanks for your interest in English Language & Usage. I'm having trouble making sense of your final sentence. Can you reword it to make it clear? Also, if you could point to some specific reference-work authority for the assertions you make earlier in your answer, the answer would be more persuasive and useful for readers.
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 15, 2017 at 19:23

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