Android’s application ecosystem has proven to be versatile and developer-friendly after a bit of a slow start. You are free to develop an app for Android and publish it to the Play Store with just a few basic restrictions. This has led to a plethora of really cool Android apps, some of which aren’t available on iOS or other platforms. Running Android apps usually requires an Android smartphone or tablet — obviously! — but what if you currently use iOS and want to try Android without actually getting an Android device?
Fortunately, with a little leg work, you can run Android apps on a regular old Windows PC. There are a few different ways to go about it, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
One popular way to get Android apps running on a PC is to go through the Android emulator released by Google as part of the official Android Studio. The emulator can be used to create virtual devices running any version of Android you want with different resolutions and hardware configurations. The first downside of this process is the somewhat complicated setup process.
You’ll need to grab the installer from Google’s site and run through the setup process to download the platforms you want — probably whatever the most recent version of Android happens to be at the time (7.1 at the time of publishing). Google has some pre-configured emulation options available in the menu for Nexus/Pixel devices, but you can set the parameters manually, too. Once you’ve booted your virtual device, you’ll need to get apps installed, but the emulator is the bone stock open source version of Android — no Google apps included.
Since there’s no Play Store, you need to do some file management. Take the APK you want to install (be it Google’s app package or something else) and drop the file into the tools folder in your SDK directory. Then use the command prompt while your AVD is running to enter (in that directory) adb install filename.apk. The app should be added to the app list of your virtual device.
The big upside here is that the emulator is unmodified Android right from the source. The way apps render in the emulator will be the same as they render on devices, and almost everything should run. It’s great for testing app builds before loading them onto test devices. The biggest problem is that the emulator is sluggish enough that you won’t want to make a habit of running apps in it. Games are really out of the question as well.
BlueStacks App Player
If you’re looking to get multiple apps and games up and running on your computer with the minimum of effort, BlueStacks is your friend. The BlueStacks App Player presents itself as just a way to get apps working, but it actually runs a full (heavily modified) version of Android behind the scenes. Not only that, but it has the Play Store built-in, so you have instant access to all of your purchased content. It actually adds an entry to your Google Play device list, masquerading as an Android device.
The BlueStacks client will load up in a desktop window with different app categories like games, social, and so on. Clicking on an app or searching does something unexpected — it brings up the full Play Store client as rendered on tablets. You can actually navigate around in this interface just as you would on a real Android device, which makes it clear there’s a lot more to BlueStacks than the “App Player” front end. In fact, you can install a third-party launcher like Nova or Apex from the Play Store and set it as the default. The main screen in BlueStacks with the app categories is just a custom home screen, so replacing it makes BlueStacks feel almost like a regular Android device.
Bluestacks playing Lumino City.
Having full Play Store access means you won’t be messing around with sideloading apps, and BlueStacks manages to run apps pretty well. Most games are playable, but keep in mind you’ll have trouble operating many of them with a mouse. If your PC has a touch screen, you can still use apps and games that rely on more than one touch input. BlueStacks can essentially make a Windows tablet PC into a part-time Android tablet. BlueStacks calls the technology that makes this possible “LayerCake” because Android apps run in a layer on top of Windows.
The only real issue with BlueStacks is that it’s not running a standard Android build. All the alterations the company made to get apps working on a PC can cause issues — some apps fail to run or crash unexpectedly. This customized environment is also of little value as a development tool because there’s no guarantee things will render the same on BlueStacks as they might on a real Android device without all the back-end modifications. It’s also a freemium service with a $2 pro subscription, or you can install a few sponsored apps.
Android PC ports
If you don’t mind a little extra hassle, you can have a more fluid Android app experience by installing a modified version of the OS on your PC. There are a few ports of Android that will run on desktop PCs, but not all systems will be able to run them properly. The two leading choices for a full Android installation on PC are the Android-x86 Project and Remix OS (pictured above), which is based on x86. There’s also an “app player” version of Remix that runs within Windows, but I’ve found it to be extremely temperamental.
Neither one is in a perfect state, but Remix OS is a little more fleshed out. Remix requires at least 2GB of RAM and a 2GHz dual-core processor, but practically you’ll need more than that for good performance. The UI is not stock Android — it’s based on the x86 project code, but has been modified for a more desktop-like experience. That might actually be preferable, though. You could install either over top of Windows, but that’s not the best idea. The smarter way would be to create a separate hard drive partition and install Android there. The Remix installer will help you do that.
If you don’t want to install Android on your PC, you can try running one of these operating systems in VirtualBox, which should be a little faster than the official Android emulator. It probably still won’t be good enough for games, but most apps should install and run correctly (BlueStacks is faster at this). There’s no Google Play integration when you install Android ports, but sideloading Play Services is fairly simple with Remix.
So what’s the best way?
If you need to test something with the intention of putting it on other Android devices, the emulator is still the best way. This is best suited to developers as the configuration and management of apps is complicated. It’s slow, but you’ll be able to see how things will work on the real deal. The Android PC ports are definitely fun to play with, and performance is solid when you get apps running, but they can be finicky.
If you’re interested in getting more than a handful of apps running on your PC so you can actually use and enjoy them, BlueStacks App Player is the best solution. It’s fast, has Play Store access, and works on multitouch Windows devices. I think it’s still the best of the “app players” for Windows. If you actually want to use Android apps long-term on your PC, you might want to consider installing Remix OS. It’ll take time to get it working, but it’s a full Android-based OS for your PC.