Surface 3 + Android Apps?

Posted on April 14, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Microsoft Surface with 0 Comments

Surface 3 + Android Apps?

While the ability to run Windows desktop applications is a huge win for Surface 3, it doesn’t help at all with the mobile app gap. But what if you could run Android apps on Surface 3? That might put Surface 3 over the top.

As you may know, there are various options for running Android apps on Windows, and these solutions would seem to make particular sense on touch-first devices like Surface 3. The one I’m most familiar with is called BlueStacks, an Android emulator that lets you run Android apps and games on Windows. But in just a bit of testing on Surface 3, I’m reminded that while BlueStacks “works,” it’s not ideal. That is, it doesn’t work very well.

The problems are all technological, I guess. Most appear to be limitations of BlueStacks, not Surface 3.

As an Android emulator, BlueStacks loads like a virtual machine, and while you can run it full-screen or in a window, what you can’t do is run Android apps individually, on the Windows desktop. This is a capability of virtualization solutions such as Parallels on the Mac—which is how I run Windows inside OS X on my MacBook Air—and would make an Android solution like this more seamless on Windows.

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(That said, you can at least pin installed Android apps to the taskbar, since BlueStacks provides standard Windows shortcuts to those apps. So you do get the first step towards true integration.)

The next issue is that the BlueStacks UI is needlessly confusing. There’s no settings interface to be found, and while you can stumble your way into the Google Play Store after a series of sign-ins, my first attempts at installing apps failed with an inscrutable error message. I had to reinstall BlueStacks to fix it.

play-store

As odd, there is a shortcut to an “app store” in a Windows folder—but not in BlueStacks—which loads the Amazon AppStore for Android: and its apps also install and work fine. But why doesn’t BlueStacks just look and work like Android, and provide clear app store links?

As problematic, performance is a bit slow. I tried a few games as an obvious test. The puzzle solver Five Nights at Freddie’s 3 Demo seemed to work fine. The Maze Runner—yep, designed for phones—runs in a weird not-quite-full screen (and only in portrait) mode and lags a bit, but is playable.

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My standard game test, however, is Asphalt 8: Airborne. This game is available on all popular mobile platforms (even Windows 8 and Windows Phone), and it generally holds up well everywhere, even on low-end Windows Phones. The game looks great, and tilting Surface 3 in space did indeed steer the car in the training track I think I’ve run about 100 times on different devices. But the performance was terrible, making controlling the vehicle very difficult.

asphalt

Since some Android apps are still designed only for phones—including pre-installed apps like Facebook—they scale oddly on a tablet screen.

fb

Some apps work fine, of course. Gmail, for example, provides a standard tablet UI with multiple panes in landscape mode.

gmail

The thing that really bothered me about BlueStacks—and this could be me just missing something—is that tapping in a text field in an Android app or experience never triggered the Windows Touch Keyboard. So I had to window Bluestacks, manually engage the Touch Keyboard in the Windows taskbar, and then manually dismiss it—and return BlueStacks to full screen—each time I needed to enter credentials or type any text at all. It wasn’t just annoying, it was a deal-breaker. (It was so bad I just started using Type Cover instead. Which sort of ruins the whole tablet thing.)

Given the availability of x86-based Android emulators, and the popularity of Android generally, I have to think this type of solution will only get better over time. But, BlueStacks just doesn’t seem quite viable to me right now, not on this device.

Are there any Android app solutions for Windows that I’m missing? BlueStacks works, but I’m surprised this isn’t a lot better.

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