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Do Android Emulators for Windows solve your problem?

By Shreya Bose, Community Contributor -

Before proceeding with the article, let’s establish the “problem”. What we’re asking is “Are Android Emulators for Windows good enough to test your Android apps before their release to production?”

Short answer, no. 

Android Emulators for Windows are quite useful in the software testing funnel, but they are not reliable enough to offer final results that determine an app’s readiness for public usage. 

This article will take you through the process of setting up an Android emulator for your Windows workstation. It will discuss the common disadvantages of using emulators for software testing, and discuss an alternative that allows you to get real-world-verified results without breaking the bank to purchase real Android devices. 

Let’s dive in. 

What is an Android Emulator for Windows?

Note: In this article, we’ll mainly be talking about the emulator provided by Android Studio, the official Integrated Development Environment (IDE) for Android app development. There are multiple other Android emulators available, with varying system requirements. However, most of them share similar limitations, which is why it is not recommended to solely rely on them for testing your apps. 

An Android Emulator for Windows basically simulates or mimics the hardware and software configuration of different Android devices on your Windows workstation. This allows you to test Android apps on different Android devices and API levels without having to purchase/acquire physical devices. 

How do Android Emulators work?

If you want complete platform-virtualization (hardware and software emulation), you’ll have to use Quick Emulator (QEMU).
QEMU is an open-source tool, able to run on a large variety of host (workstation) CPUs/OSs and emulate an even larger range of guest CPUs/OSs.
QEMU powers most Android emulators (including the one by Android Developer Studio). It mimics an Android device’s hardware by translating the Application Binary Interface (ABI) of the device to match the host device. You install an OS on top of this and run it on your computer like any other program.

The actual process of translating CPU architectures is a complex, time-consuming process that makes emulation almost painfully slow. You can skip this protocol with a hypervisor if the guest and host CPU architectures are the same.

What’s a hypervisor?

In the event that the guest and the host devices have the same instruction architecture (eg., x86 Android system images and x86 Intel processor), QEMU can skip the ‘binary translation’ part and run the guest device directly on the host CPU. This is called hardware-assisted virtualization and requires a hypervisor to work.

Popular hypervisor components are Intel’s HAXM (Hardware Acceleration Execution Manager) for Windows and macOS and KVM (Kernel-based Virtual Machine) for Linux.

x86 Android ABIs (Application Binary Interface, or system images) can support hardware acceleration on most computers. If your CPU supports it, the Android emulator will prompt you to enable or install the hypervisor to accelerate virtual device performance.

If you do get to use hardware acceleration, the Android emulator can run at speeds similar to that of your workstation CPU. But again, that’s a big IF. 

System Requirements for Android Emulator for Windows

Since version 25.3.0’s, you get the Android Emulator separately from Android SDK tools.

Hardware Prerequisites to use Android Emulators for Windows

  • SDK version 26.1.1 or above and a PC/laptop with a 64 or 86-bit processor. 
  • To work with Android 8.1 or above, you’ll need a webcam that can capture 720p frames.
  • If the emulator prompts you to enable hardware acceleration, you’ll need HAXM version 7.2.0-the Intel hypervisor.
  • Windows and Linux users may require more components, specific to their processor family:
  1. Intel: Intel VT-x and Intel EM64T (Intel 64) support; Execute Disable (XD) Bit capability.
  2. AMD (Linux): AMD Virtualization (AMD-V) support; SIMD Extensions set 3.
  3. AMD (Windows): Android Studio v3.2 or above; Windows Hypervisor Platform API.

How to install the Android emulator for Windows

  • Go to you Android Developer Studio console. 
  • Next, go to Configure -> SDK Manager -> Android SDK
  • Within this screen, under the ‘SDK Tools’ tab,  you’ll find the Android Emulator. 
  • Check the box and click OK to install it.

Once you’re done with the installation, you’ll arrive at the Android Virtual Device (AVD) Manager. It helps you set up and configure your virtual Android devices. But, it’s important to be aware of the following pointers before you start using it.

  • Device Type: This contains pre-configured, manufacturer-specific device profiles for TV, Phone, Tablet, and Wear OS. You can customize screen size and certain external capabilities or import your own profile.

    Note that the Google Play Store and the Compatibility Test Suite are available for a very limited number of devices, only the ones that meet the Android Compatibility Program criteria. It is not possible to add this capability to a cloned or custom device profile.
  • System Image: This feature allows you to populate the virtual device with a system image/ABI and an Android OS version. ABIs come in ARM, x86 and x86-64 variants for different Android OS versions/APIs. Each ABI has a file size of about 900 MB.

    The emulator will recommend ABIs that match and/or are similar to the architecture of your workstation processor. You can pick other ABIs, but you’ll have to deal with lowered emulator performance. Again, only certain system images have Google APIs, which is what will give you access to Google apps like Maps, Gmail, etc.
  • Verify Configuration: This lets you change previously assigned hardware/software profiles and configure startup settings for the virtual device (name, orientation, etc.)

Adjust the above variables, click ‘Finish’, and the emulator will launch a virtual device instance with your  specifications. It will be equipped with extended controls to adjust device rotation, geolocation, camera, fingerprint sensor, network latency, battery state, and more.

Now, you’re ready to test your web app, a project from Android Studio or upload an APK file from your device.

Note: By default, virtual device instances are saved in the state they were in when you close them. You can also choose to save snapshots of the device state (including OS, your app/project, and user data) and restart working from the exact point where you previously stopped.

Alternatives to Android Studio Emulator

There are certainly other Android emulators like Bluestacks, Nox, MeMu, and the like. They are largely used by gamers who want to run Android games on their PC – popular games run on these emulators are PubG, Battle Royale Mode, Iron Throne…you get the drift. 

However, before the release of Android Studio version 25.3.0, most developers didn’t bother to use the frustratingly slow Android emulator that came with Developer Studio. Instead, they used emulators like Genymotion for early-stage testing. 

Some developers continue to use these alternatives. You can try some of them yourself, but fair warning, they will have fewer extended controls. This might make the process of creating and launching virtual devices much faster, but you won’t be able to test your app in different user conditions, such as during incoming calls, text messages, from different locations, in different languages, and network connectivity states, etc. 

There have also been reports of unauthorized access and modification of user workstations because of such emulators. A few examples:

Disadvantages of using Android Emulator for Windows

  • A majority of Android smartphones in the market use the ARM v7a chipset while most PCs or laptops run on Intel (x86). For Android emulation to occur fast and efficiently, the CPU architectures of the target device and the tester’s workstation must match. Often, it does not and you have to deal with terribly inadequate, laggy emulation of Android devices.
  • The AVD Manager creates separate directories within your hard disk to store each virtual device’s user data, SD card data, and cache. Just one of these virtual devices can take up as much as 3.5GB of disk space. Over time, a library of virtual devices will become a ridiculous burden on your workstation. It will also cause emulations to crash and burn more often since your own device is hard up on disk space.
  • You could enable hardware acceleration to improve emulator performance. But setting this up is, in most cases, complex enough that even experienced devs need time and help to get it done. It’s not uncommon to encounter complete system failure during setup or initiation.
  • Android emulators are decidedly not reliable for monitoring app behavior in nature user environments. A few essential aspects you could never know with emulators:
    – Which background processes your app runs
    – How the UI appears in different brightness levels
    – How the app responds to a complete range of touch-gestures

The Solution? Use a Real Device Cloud as an Alternative to Android Emulator for Windows

You test an Android app’s performance to ensure that all user interactions go smoothly, that there is no jank (dropped frames), and that the app doesn’t use device resources (memory and battery) excessively. To get accurate results for such tests, results you can actually rely on, you have to realize that emulators cannot replicate any Android device, one cannot depend on Android emulators alone. 

Emulators will NOT deliver native results, which means any result you get from testing on emulators will not reflect an app’s real-world usability and/or performance levels. On top of that, you also cannot use Android emulators to test native or web apps at scale because the more virtual machine instances you trigger, the more your workstation suffers due to demands on it’s storage capacity. This is not a sustainable or expandable practice. 

But you can make testing much easier and more seamless without compromising on results. All you have to do is test your Android apps on real Android devices.

But QA teams and the organizations behind them don’t have to empty their coffers to purchase thousands of popular Android devices. They can simple buy a plan that grants them access to a real device cloud, like the one offered by BrowserStack. 

With a single plan, you can access thousands of real Android devices on BrowserStack’s cloud. All you need are the login credentials, and you can run cross-device tests to verify every single functionality. 

Be it functional testing, performance testing, accessibility testing, localization testing, or responsive design testing, the BrowserStack cloud is designed to implement all forms of quality assessment. 

Bear in mind, the cloud allows you to run manual and automated app tests. 

Additionally, BrowserStack comes with a plethora of integrations for easy, hassle-free testing. Some of these integrations include:

  • App Live (for manual app testing): Gradle plugin, Fastlane plugin, Jira, Trello, GitHub, AppCenter, TestFlight
  • App Automate (for automated app testing): Appium, Espresso, XCUITest, EarlGrey

For more details, have a look at the complete list of integrations on BrowserStack.

Try BrowserStack for Free

If you sign up for a BrowserStack account, you can also expect the following capabilities when running app tests on the cloud:

In case you’re just getting started with Android app testing, why not have a look at BrowserStack Test University? Get access to real devices for a hands-on learning experience, and acquire real-world expertise on the fundamentals of software testing.

Summing Up

Don’t risk your app’s success by releasing them on Play Store without comprehensive testing on real devices. Every experiment and real-world QA experience has indubitably proved that you’ll miss out on bugs often major ones, if you do not run your apps through a gamut of real Android devices in different user conditions. 

Given the specificity and high standards of present-day app users, you can’t really get away with releasing faulty, bug-ridden apps. Your competitors are waiting for a slip-up on your part, as it gives your users a reason to switch to a different app. Ensure that they never have such reasons, and capture bugs before your users do by testing your apps in real user conditions

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