Although smartphones are available with Windows, as the most popular operating system for handheld devices most of us are using Android while we’re on the move.
Many of us are used to sharing data between these devices - either by synchronising in the cloud or transferring documents locally via Bluetooth or USB.
But what about sharing software? If you have apps you like on your phone, why can’t you use them on your PC? Conversely, if you have a package that’s useful on your PC, why shouldn't you be able to use it on your Android tablet? The good news is that you can.
Running Android apps and games on Windows
You can run Android apps on a Windows PC or laptop using an Android emulator app. BlueStacks is one solution, but it's not entirely intuitive in use. YouWave and KoPlayer are alternatives for emulating Android in Windows.
The BlueStacks App Player is free to use. The program will allow you to run Android apps on your Windows machine, but as it’s not a full Android emulator you won’t get the full Android experience.
In order to use BlueStacks you'll have to sign-in with a Google account; if you don't have already have one you'll need to sign up for one as you would on any Android device.
A key emphasis of BlueStacks is on playing Android games under Windows, so when you run BlueStacks most of the screen will be taken up with game suggestions.
However, unlike some similar packages, BlueStacks includes Google Play, so you can search for and install apps in just the same way as with a true Android phone or tablet.
We did experience a few problems, though, such as when we ran the Wind-Up Knight there were texture problems meaning we couldn't properly see our game.
Secondly, with some apps, the screen looked very pixelated although this is probably inevitable on a large PC screen when you’re using an app that had been written for a small low-resolution screen.
Thirdly, on a non-touchscreen PC, zooming with apps that expect pinch- and reverse-pinch gestures can be problematic. BlueStacks’ support pages suggest that Crtl + and Ctrl - should work, but we didn’t find that to be the case and it seems that it’s probably app-dependent.
A solution that claims to provide you with a full Android emulation on your PC is YouWave. Whether the issue of full Android compatibility is an asset compared to the app player approach of BlueStacks, we’re not so sure. YouWave uses Oracle VM VirtualBox as the emulation engine but, paradoxically, if you already have VirtualBox installed you have to uninstall it before installing YouWave.
There are two editions, the Free Edition, which currently runs on Android 4.0.4 (ICS), whilst the Premium Edition runs on 5.1.1 (Lollipop) and costs $29.99, where you'll need to apply the Activation key within 10 days of purchase.
We found YouWave very similar to BlueStacks, even down to the issues of pixilation and zooming, but whereas BlueStacks seemed like a fully-working Android experience, YouWave reminded us more of an Android Tablet screen on our Windows machine. Either way, both will provide an acceptable Android experience, but if you’re tempted to take the YouWave route, we would definitely suggest you make good use of the free version before deciding whether to buy it.
There are other Android emulators out there, which are specifically designed to run Android games, such as KoPlayer that is aimed at those looking to play their favourite Android games on PC. However, you will need a graphics card that supports OpenGL 2.0 in order to run the program.
Use Windows programs in Android
To run Windows on an Android phone or tablet you'll need some virtualisation software and a strong internet connection, and to keep your PC running at home. Microsoft's Remote Desktop app does the job with certain versions of Windows, and soon we'll also be able to use CrossOver with Android devices running an x86 processor.
Solutions for using Windows applications on an Android device tend to involve accessing a Windows PC or a virtual PC via the cloud rather than running the software directly on your smartphone or tablet. While this is undoubtedly a reflection on the more limited resources available on most Android devices, it’s a perfectly workable solution.
The first method is to connect to your home PC using the Microsoft Remote Desktop app on your Android device. We mention this here because it will appeal to some users, and it has the advantage of giving you access to all the software you use on your PC, but there are some serious drawbacks that limit its usefulness.
For a start, although you don’t have to install any software on your PC, it will work only if that PC is running certain editions of Windows. In particular, for Windows 8 you need Enterprise or Pro while for Windows 7 it’s restricted to Professional, Enterprise or Ultimate. Given that most home users have basic or Home editions, it's not an option. The option is not natively available for Windows 10 users, where there's no support to run the Remote Desktop Client on Android.
Second, for this to work your home PC has to be switched on while you’re away from home. Needless to say, this will increase your electricity bill and doesn't do much for the environment.
Finally, although you can run the Remote Desktop app on any Android device, if you’re going to be using it to any great extent, a tablet would make a lot more sense than a smartphone. After all, trying to navigate a Windows desktop on a small smartphone screen is going to involve a lot of zooming and panning. Read next: Windows 10 Review.
Soon we'll be able to run Windows programs without any problems through CrossOver by codeweavers. Although this option will be limited to certain Android devices (as it will require an x86 processor) and potentially be buggy depending on what will be running. Nevertheless, the option is always worth having.
Dual-boot Android and Windows
A small but growing number of platforms have been designed to natively run both Windows and Android. Industry experts are divided on whether these all-in-one machines will really take off, but it’s a potentially interesting solution to the Windows-Android dichotomy.
Laptops, PCs and hybrid laptop-tablets that run Android and Windows are worth tracking down if it appeals. We've found devices like these are popular in China, and you can look on a site such as GearBest for more details (but be sure to read our grey-market tech buying advice before you make a purchase).