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BlueStacks: A First Step Toward Android On Windows

Want to run Android applications natively on Windows? Now you can, although BlueStacks still needs a lot of work to be attractive to most people.

BlueStacks is a bold idea, albeit one still in a primordial phase: a way to run Android applications natively on an x86 Windows system.

After a three-month alpha test last year, BlueStacks is now out in a somewhat more polished beta form, although it's still far from being casually useful. It uses a custom binary-translation codenamed Layercake to allow apps designed for ARM processors--including apps that use hardware-accelerated graphics--to run on the PC.

When you install BlueStacks on your PC, it creates an app folder in your Start menu with two entries: Start BlueStacks and Android Apps. The former launches BlueStacks itself; the latter launches instances of Android applications that you install directly inside BlueStacks.

Launching the main BlueStacks app brings up a simple desktop with a few preinstalled apps, a Suggested Apps sidebar, and a search box that lets you install new apps from app stores including Amazon's and Google's. Once an app is installed, though, it doesn't always show up in the list of app icons within BlueStacks--it shows up in the Android Apps shortcut folder. It also shows up in a drawer that can be invoked by clicking on one of the icons in a little hovering dock that BlueStacks places at the top of the screen in Windows itself. This installation idiosyncrasy is a little awkward, to say the least, especially because the dock launcher opened on my secondary display and couldn't be moved around (I have two monitors).

The main value of BlueStacks is being able to run Android apps, rather than provide an entire emulated Android environment. Only the most basic stuff is emulated, and even then the emulation is deeply incomplete. Conventional behaviors such as pressing and holding the Home button to bring up the running-apps menu, for instance, don't exist. Host integration is also iffy. For instance, copy and paste from the host--in my case, for passwords--doesn't work.

The main program window runs at a fixed tablet-size resolution--1120 x 640 or so. You can't resize the screen freely. However, you can maximize the window to fill the screen, and BlueStacks will register the change after restarting itself. One useful feature is being able to set individual apps to open at one of three pre-set sizes: tablet, large phone, or phone.

As touch-and-go as the implementation is, Android apps themselves run respectably well. I was able to run Amazon's Kindle app, Barnes & Noble's Nook app, Evernote, GoodReader, and a clutch of other stuff I often use on my Android phone. Some apps worked only partially. Google Maps, for instance, crashed if I tried to invoke the program's Settings menu, but the maps themselves worked fine.

Other functions aren't available thanks to the limitations of emulated hardware. GoodReader and's Shopping app, for instance, have barcode-reader functions, but because there's no emulation for a camera in BlueStacks, they showed nothing but a black screen where the camera's image would normally appear. There was some emulation of GPS location functionality (for Google Maps, for instance) based on whatever location data was available through my wired network--but it was off by a few miles.

Games actually provide one of the best workouts for BlueStacks, because they show off the program's binary-translation functions. The games I tried out--including Fruit Ninja, shown below--ran very well. Full-screen video was iffy, though: NetFlix didn't work, but I did get the Crunchyroll streaming-video portal app to run with only 12% CPU consumption on the host.

Despite the obvious crudeness and blatant limitations of the app, BlueStacks is a fascinating proof-of-concept. Once it's more complete, it ought to provide a way for app developers to test their creations in a convenient way, or to allow people without an Android device to use that one Android app they really want. Right now, it's worth trying out and keeping an eye on.

Name: BlueStacks 0.6.3
Price: Free

A primitive but intriguing way to run Android apps on Windows, BlueStacks needs a lot of refinement before it can be considered consumer ready. However, it promises to be a useful way to allow PC users to sample the Android world.

  • Runs most Android applications, including games.

  • Clunky implementation, especially for installed apps.
  • Many hardware and software features common to Android devices (e.g., camera, GPS) are not emulated well or at all.

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