If you're a Windows 8 user frustrated with the paltry selection of apps, or a Mac OS X user who wants an Android experience without having to buy any additional hardware, BlueStacks offers a virtual Android environment, complete with access to the Google Play store. As it turns out, though, this emulator may not be worth the trouble.
It's available for Windows XP, Vista, 7 and 8, and Mac OSX; we installed a version of BlueStacks designed specifically for the Microsoft Surface Pro.
Getting BlueStacks up and running was simple: we downloaded the Surface Pro version (a 9.1MB file) from BlueStacks.com, installed the program and opened it.
Don't think you're getting a typical Android desktop with this app. BlueStacks opens to a white-and-grey screen with four buttons at the top: My Apps, Top Charts, 1-Click Sync and App Search. Top Charts displays what the most popular apps were at any given moment (though we're unsure how accurate the rankings were, considering we couldn't recognize any of the chart toppers).
My Apps listed the apps we had installed; 1-Click Sync sent apps from BlueStacks to our phone/tablet, but not vice versa; and App Search let us search for apps.
When in full-screen mode, swiping from the bottom left corner reveals several buttons. Among them is a "Show Menu" that did nothing when pressed. The Back button let us return to the previous screen. "Share" took screenshots of what we did in BlueStacks and let us post the image to our Facebook or Twitter account. Settings opened BlueStacks' settings menu. A button to the right of Settings switched between windowed and full-screen mode, and X closed BlueStacks. The enlarged button to the right of all these buttons returns you to BlueStacks' Home screen.
Within Settings, there is an option for Cloud Connect, which sends apps, app updates, photos and text messages from your phone to your PC. To set this up, we had to enter our email address as well as our phone number. Once we tapped Register, we were supposed to get a text message on our phone that would provide instructions on how to complete the process. We attempted this more than three times, but never received a text message.
In Settings, you can also perform other tasks such as changing the language BlueStacks uses, adjusting keyboard settings, managing your accounts, setting date/time and more. Change App Size allowed us to switch between two views for each app: tablet and default.
To find apps in BlueStacks, we clicked the Search button. After typing what we wanted and tapping "Find," it only took a couple of seconds for BlueStacks to return all of the relevant results. From here, we could send the app to our phone via 1-Click Sync or install it in BlueStacks.
After we tapped Install, we were asked to log into our Google account. BlueStacks then asked to set up 1-Click Sync, requiring us to log into the Google account that we used on the device we wanted to send apps to. Then, we selected all the devices we wanted to sync with BlueStacks. The app will detect all the gadgets that you use to log into that particular Google account.
After we selected our device and finished setting up 1-Click Sync, BlueStacks took us back to the Search bar, requiring us to search for what we wanted to find again. When we re-entered our search term and tapped Find and Install this time, BlueStacks searched not only the Google Play store, but the Amazon AppStore and 1Mobile marketplace as well. We appreciated this feature, though only three results were shown per marketplace and we did not have the option to scroll down and view more results.
While we found such popular apps as "Angry Birds," "Temple Run 2," Meet the Press" and NFL 2012, others, such as Reddit News and BBC News, did not show up in Google Play. Fortunately, the Amazon Appstore had the latter two.
Paying for apps isn't much different than doing so on your Android phone or tablet. The same goes for purchases made within the Amazon AppStore. We wished that BlueStacks would tell us immediately whether each app was free or not; you don't find out until you're shown the app in the respective marketplace where it's available. Note that 1Mobile only has free apps.
While there's an option to remove your Google account from BlueStacks, we were unable to do this. Instead, BlueStacks presented an error message telling us to "reset our phone to factory defaults" if we wanted to do get rid of our account. In other words, we would have to delete BlueStacks altogether if we wanted to remove our Google account from the emulator. There's no option to remove your Amazon AppStore account, either. Once you've logged into either account, there doesn't appear to be a way to remove an account, log out or even switch to another account, unless you delete BlueStacks.
We found the keyboard in BlueStacks to be cramped. All of the keys were wide, but short, making for an uneasy and uncomfortable typing experience. We preferred to put BlueStacks in Windowed mode so we could use Windows 8's digital keyboard, or simply use a physical keyboard instead.
In the Default view, Android apps generally appeared poor on the Surface Pro's 1080p display. "Angry Birds," "Temple Run," "Meet the Press" and NFL 2012 all looked blurry and fuzzy. We also encountered a considerable amount of stuttering, especially in games. Certain apps, such as "Meet the Press" and BBC News, flipped 90 degrees.
When we switched to Tablet view, image quality and performance improved, but the picture was still blurry and grainy overall. The 90-degree flipping also ceased, but stuttering continued to occur regularly. When watching "Meet the Press" on BlueStacks, videos were blurry and heavily pixelated.
Another deficiency of BlueStacks is the lack of efficient multitasking. To switch from one app to another, you have to go all the way back to the Home screen and then open your desired app by tapping on it in the My Apps menu. If you're using BlueStacks on a Windows 8 device like we did, doing so will be a nuisance.
To go back to the Home screen in full-screen mode, we swiped inward from the bottom left corner of the screen and tapped on the Home button twice in Options. We had to do so twice, because swiping inward in that area also opened Windows 8's Charms menu. Tapping once closed this menu, making BlueStacks the active app once again. We had to then tap a second time to perform our desired action.
BlueStacks lets you sync apps from your PC to your phone and vice versa. To send an installed app from BlueStacks to our Android phone or tablet, we opened My Apps in the Home screen. Then we tapped a small, grey symbol that resembled a smartphone with an arrow on top of it, located on the bottom left corner of each app icon in the My Apps menu. Selecting this icon immediately started a download on the phone that we had connected to BlueStacks earlier.
Unfortunately, we were never able to send an app from our Android phone to BlueStacks. After installing the BlueStacks Android app on our smartphone, we then opened Cloud Connect in BlueStacks on our Surface Pro, then entered our phone number. This generated a pin number that we had to enter into the Android app. Then, the Android app showed us a list of all the apps we had installed on our phone. When we tapped the BBC News app in this list and tapped Sync, a notification appeared on our phone telling us that the app was successfully synced with the BlueStacks player on our Surface Pro. However, the app never appeared in the player. A call to BlueStacks failed to resolve this problem.
In the Settings-Manage Accounts menu, tapping "Add account" allowed us to set up an email account. We tapped Corporate, entered our Exchange address and password, and tapped Next. After doing this, we could configure how often our inbox would be refreshed, how much of our old mail we wanted to sync (options ranged from one day to one month), whether we wanted to sync our contacts and calendar, and enable/disable the option of receiving notifications every time we got an e-mail.
We were under the impression that the My Apps screen would soon populate with an icon for our mail account, but that never occurred. We emailed a test message to ourselves, and a notification appeared in the upper left-hand corner of the emulator about two minutes later, telling us that a new email was just received. We swiped downward from the top left corner of BlueStacks, tapped on the notification, and our fully synced Inbox appeared. However, we didn't see any way to access mail except when a new message arrived.
Considering the paucity of apps in the Windows 8 store, a desktop-based Android emulator sounds like a good idea. However, apps run too erratically to be of any use, and BlueStacks' other features also need some work. Making Android apps useable on any platform is smart, but BlueStacks has a way to go before it delivers on all of its promises.