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.
From time to time you’ll hear about yet another effort to bring Android to the desktop. Yes, there’s an official effort to do this straight from Google by bringing the Play Store to a select number of Chromebooks.
But what if you want this now, or don’t want to buy a new computer to experience what it’d be like to use Android apps on your PC? With a little bit of digital elbow grease, it’s possible. You can run some of your favorite apps and engage in Android gaming by trying out one of the many third-party solutions. I looked at several software choices that offer this, and came away with four solid options that will have you up and running with Android on your Windows PC rather painlessly.
The best: Remix OS
Remix OS is my top choice because it’s clearly the had considerable development work. It’s a full-blown desktop OS that’s based on Android. Everything you need to be productive or entertained is there, with the Google Play Store available and of course the ability to use Google Drive, Gmail, Chrome, or any non-Google apps for productivity.
The developers have built a slide-out notification menu and repurposed the software buttons without significantly changing the way that Android works. I played Clash of Clans, solitaire, and fooled around in Chrome while trying Remix OS out. It was quite stable and was the first time I felt that Android had actual capabilities to move beyond the smartphone or tablet.
Remix OS is a clever implementation of Android on the desktop.
It also may sound like a small matter, but being able to tap into apps like Snapchat that are currently mobile-only is an appealing part of the experience. It speaks to how blending the mobile and desktop worlds can mean less time shifting between devices (with more potential distractions, of course).
However, it’s the most complicated of these software packages to set up. You need to disable Secure Boot and then choose Remix from the boot menu in Windows—basically, you’re dual-booting. If you know your way around a PC well enough you’ll be fine, but if this concept sounds foreign you’ll need to be willing to leap through several hoops to learn what to do.
A slide-out bar lets you keep tabs on any notifications.
Remix is very stable and runs Android Marshmallow, although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend using it as your primary PC unless your computing needs are pretty minimal. And unfortunately touch support didn’t work on my Surface Pro 4, unlike some of the other alternatives that I tried here. However, I suspect that touch would work with one of the many supported devices. However, I came away impressed at what Jide, the company behind it, has built here. It’s especially a great option if you want to do some Android gaming, as it handled numerous titles very well.
Available for both Mac and Windows, Bluestacks has a clear focus on gaming with several titles waiting for you to download once you fire it up. You go through the typical Android setup process, Lollipop style. The interface makes clever use of tabs so that you can keep multiple apps running at once.
Bluestacks offers a great way to lay mobile games right on your PC.
There are several dedicated buttons along the side that emulate features you’d normally do with a gesture or tap on a mobile device. You’ll find dedicated buttons for uploading an APK, taking a picture, grabbing screenshots, and shaking the device (handy for those games or apps where this performs some type of action).
There is a large list of suggested games, while I was also able to grab titles like Clash of Clans from the Play Store and get going without a problem.
Installing other Android apps was handy, as it put favorites like Google Keep just a click away on the desktop. Snapchat didn’t work for me, however, giving me an error when I tried to sign in. I found this to be the case with other apps as well, so your mileage may vary.
Bluestacks has a heavy emphasis on mobile game streaming.
Another component of the platform is BlueStacks TV, which allows you to stream some of your gaming action or view other live streams that are powered by Twitch. While I’m not a huge fan of the video game streaming phenomenon, this is as good a way as any to do it if you want to watch some mobile games in action.
In all the capabilities are pretty impressive, but I did find the performance to be slow and buggy at times.
The Lollipop-powered Amiduos puts a stock version of Android on your PC, sans the Google Play Store. It comes preinstalled with Amazon Appstore and has all the sideloading capabilities of Android so you can install an APK of the Play Store if you want to get more Google-powered apps on your PC.
But I used this as an opportunity to check out the whole Amazon Undergroundscene. You get a ton of paid apps for free, although you have to download and update them through Amazon’s store instead of Google’s.
Recognize that multitasking menu? That’s because it’s Android right on your computer.
Amiduos also gives you have a more traditional Android experience. I also found it to be the most responsive version of Android to work with the touch screen on my Surface. It’s still not as hyper responsive as something like a Pixel C or an iPad, but it was neat that this experience could be hacked together.
Slide down from the top for the notification center, just like on a typical Android phone.
Otherwise, you’ll need to rely on mouse clicks and drags to work through the interface, which is pretty close to a stock build of Lollipop. It was a pretty solid setup on my Surface Pro 4, though it did use enough processor power to keep the fan running whenever it was on (I have 8GB of RAM and an i5 processor).
In all operation was smooth, however, and didn’t require a huge learning curve.
Andy has its merits, but I took issue with some elements of the experience. The platform is loaded with ads and tries to install a Chrome extension that changes your default search page in Chrome. This happened even though I clicked the box to decline this feature. Not cool.
Developers need to make money and all, but installing bloatware isn’t the way to do it.
It does handle much of Android well, especially when playing Android games. The build is based on Marshmallow, and it was quite responsive to touches on my Surface. The stock build was easy to navigate, although you need to sideload the Play Store as this also instead comes preinstalled with the Amazon Appstore.
Recognize that multitasking menu? That’s because it’s Android right on your computer.
It’s a pretty good option for gaming and was rather easy to use. But keep an eye for all of those unwanted “extras” that are baked in.
The future of Android
If nothing else, this exercise made me excited for what it’ll be like to have Android apps on Chromebooks. There are already some good apps and gamesout there for those Chromebooks that are capable of running the Google Play Store. You can peer down the road and see that Android can be useful on a desktop, though it’s still going to take some work to make it something that I’d want to use everyday.