A few months back, a start-up called BlueStacks explained its vision of an Android app emulator on Windows. Fast forward to present day, and the BlueStacks App Player for Windows has arrived as an alpha. For the time being, this program is only available on Windows 7, and comes with a few caveats as far as functionality goes, but it’s free.
We’re going to dive in and see if you should investigate this method as a new way to enjoy your Android apps.
Installation and set up
The package downloaded from the BlueStacks site clocks in at 116MB in size; much bigger than we expected. It comes with 10 apps pre-installed including Pulse, Words with Friends, and Alchemy. The installation process was painless, and at the end you get a desktop gadget for accessing apps.
This is less than ideal, and we really wish there was a way to open the apps that didn’t require taking up screen real estate. Although, you can close the gadget when not using BlueStacks, allowing the program to continue running in the system tray. Clicking on the gadget opens a pane with the handful of apps installed. Use the arrows to navigate to other pages.
This is all well and good, but you really want to get more apps into the App Player, so you’re going to need access to Facebook and your phone. If you open the “Get More Apps” icon, it opens a Facebook Connect page. If you choose to log in, it pulls up the BlueStacks Channel where you can install some more free apps.
The BlueStacks Channel is also where you can get the PIN for your instance of the App Player. With this code, you can install the Cloud Connect app from the Market and push APK files from the phone, to your PC. The selected apps from both areas will appear in the BlueStacks app tray in about a minute.The free version allows 26 additional apps to be installed.
We did have some issues with apps stalling in the cloud instead of syncing down, but this is the first public alpha. The Cloud Connect section of the BlueStacks Channel keeps you appraised of all the apps you have ready for use in the App Player. It calls all of these “subscriptions.”
How it works in practice
When you launch an app, it will load in something approximating full-screen. There will often be a black border around the app, which only takes up a small area of the screen. Some apps run larger, but it depends on how it was coded. There is a zoom button at the bottom of the player that lets you change the zoom mode, but we found that zooming on some apps caused them to perform poorly.
Also along the bottom of the player interface are back, menu, and close buttons. The close button dumps you back to the desktop, but saves the state of the app. Menu and back are for manipulating the Android apps themselves. You mostly interact with app using the keyboard and mouse, which is definitely going to limit the number of apps that work.
The rig we tested this early software on runs on a fairly snappy Core i7 CPU with ample amounts of RAM, but we still encountered performance issues on many games. Dragon, Fly! for example, ran at roughly 10FPS when zoomed out, but zoomed in it chugged along at less than 1FPS. The LHSee app worked swimmingly, though.
The Android TweetDeck app worked very well, actually. We can’t fathom why you’d want to run it like this, but it totally worked. It was while testing TweetDeck that we realized there is more Android running behind the scenes that we expected. Clicking on a link opened the Browser -- the Android Browser. From here, we could type in any URL and poke around online. Settings, Bookmarks, and downloads were accessible. There is also a notification bar at the top that you can pull down.
It appears that the version of Android running behind the scenes is some flavor of Gingerbread. We cannot be sure just what parts of the OS are there, but it seems to be extensive. We even managed to get LauncherPro installed, giving us a partially functional home screen.
What BlueStacks isn’t telling you
Part of the difficulty in finding out what this virtual environment is capable of, is that many of the app you might want to sync to your App Player won’t go through. Apps deemed popular enough will be marked with an “unavailable” badge in the Cloud Connect page. If you hover over this, it informs you that only the premium version of the App Player (not yet available) allows this app. This happened to us with Angry Birds, Minecraft, Zombieville, Google+, and more.
We have found a partial workaround for this. If you use an application backup app like the one built into Astro, you can extract the APK file and move it over to the PC. Then just open the APK using the BlueStacks APK handler EXE in the BlueStacks programs folder. This won't work for all apps, but we had some success. We installed LauncherPro with this process.
The other difficulty is that if an app calls on a specific system function that isn’t present, it probably won’t work. Apps that expect a certain sensor, or Google service will probably just crash out. One glaring example of this is Android’s DRM system, which is a big impediment to BlueStacks' functionality.
Many paid apps use Google’s authentication servers to make sure your device is allowed to run an app. This replaced the old copy protection DRM system. Since there are no Google services in the BlueStacks version of Android (we suspect this is an AOSP build), these apps fail to authenticate and close.
A potential issue comes in the way BlueStacks is handling those premium apps. We know for a fact that many apps it marks as ‘only for paid users’ have DRM, and won’t work even if you sideload them. Hopefully they don’t try to persuade users to upgrade with these messages only to let them load apps that won’t work. This is early software, so BlueStacks has time to make this situation more clear.
BlueStacks is really interesting to play around with, but the value of it is unclear to us right now. So few apps work correctly, and those that do are less convenient than comparable desktop programs. Similarly, many games require an accelerometer, or multi-touch input. There is very little reason to take an app built for a touchscreen interface and put it on a PC. In the future, this could be interesting on Windows tablets, or as a full Android emulator environment. It was the hints of full Android that we found most interesting about the BlueStacks App Player. Let us know what you think.