Android’s application ecosystem has proven to be versatile and very 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 minimal 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 or another mobile OS, and want to try out Android without actually getting an Android device?
Well, 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.
ARC Welder for Chrome
Probably the easiest way to get Android apps running on your Windows PC is to use Google’s ARC Welder Chrome extension (ARC stands for App Runtime for Chrome). Since this is a Chrome extension, it’s not only restricted to Windows PCs — you could also use this method on a Chromebook or Mac. The process is much the same no matter which platform you’re using Chrome on. Simply head to the Chrome Web Store and grab the ARC Welder extension to get everything you need installed.
ARC Welder is a beta tool, and it’s mainly directed at developers. Still, the process of loading an app is quite simple. You’ll need an APK to load into ARC Welder (known as sideloading), which you can get from backing up an app on your physical Android device, or you can download an APK from any number of places on the internet. We don’t recommend you download paid apps and games from shady websites, though. There are a few sites that archive legitimate free APKs, like APK Mirror.
When you’ve got your APK ready to go, you can open ARC Welder from the Chrome app list and point it at the file. Then you just have to choose how you want the app to render — landscape/portrait, tablet/phone, and whether you want it to have clipboard access. Not every app will run, and some of those that do will be missing components. ARC Welder doesn’t currently have native support for Google Play Services (unless you’re the app developer and have access to the app’s code), so Google’s apps and some third-party ones will refuse to run.
Apps and games that work tend to run very well in ARC. You should get almost full functionality from apps like Evernote, Instagram, and even Flappy Bird. You can only have one app installed in Chrome via ARC Welder at a time, so you need to go back to the install dialog whenever you want to change to a different one.
The sideloading requirement along with the limit of one app at a time makes ARC Welder less than ideal for running Android apps on Windows on a daily basis. However, if you just want to get one up and running for testing or just to play around, this should be your first stop.
The Android emulator
The next most straightforward way to get Android apps running on a PC is to go through the Android emulator released by Google as part of the official SDK. 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 SDK package from Google’s site and use the included SDK Manager program to download the platforms you want — probably whatever the most recent version of Android happens to be at the time (5.1 at the time of publishing). The AVD manager is where you can create and manage your virtual devices. Google makes some pre-configured options available in the menu for Nexus 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’ll 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.
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 support is somewhat limited because of the extensive hardware configuration options for PCs. The two leading choices for a full Android installation on PC are Android on Intel Architecture (UEFI-equipped devices) and the Android-x86 Project (pictured above).
Neither one is in a perfect state, and you’ll need a supported piece of hardware, like the Dell XPS 12 for Intel’s version or the Lenovo ThinkPad x61 Tablet for Android-x86. You could install them 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.
If your hardware isn’t supported by either of these projects, you can also try installing them 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. Also, you’ll have to install the apps you want manually, as there’s no Google Play integration here either.
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 a Galaxy Note II.
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 App Player, in the Play Store
Having full Play Store access means you won’t be messing around with sideloading apps, and BlueStacks manages to run everything impressively. 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 8 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 simply 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.
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 to give builds a quick once-over on a PC before loading them on to Android phones or tablets. It’s slow, but standardized, and 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. ARC Welder is also something to keep in mind if you only need to use one app at a time. The setup is easy and it’s completely free.