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Bluestacks 2 - The Android Desktop!
Ken in Regina
This is really an update of an old thread I started here.

For anyone who has not tried Bluestacks, it's an Android app player. It actually creates a pretty complete Android experience in a window on your PC desktop. You can find some basic information that is still relevant in the referenced discussion above.

To put a wrap on that old thread, after messing with the original Bluestacks for awhile I eventually discovered that there were enough incompatibilities and quirks that it had become more annoying than interesting or useful. There were no apparent plans for an upgrade any time soon and even some question whether they could figure out how to make money out of it and stay around for the longer haul. So I uninstalled it and forgot about it.

Today I stumbled across news that there is a new version. It's a major upgrade and the initial reviews are pretty good. I've downloaded and installed it and have been playing with it for the past hour or so. The news is good!!

For reference, the new version is installed and running on the same computer I was using for the old one. It's a homebuilt computer with an Intel Core2 Quad Q6600 2.4GHz CPU with 4GB of RAM and ATI Radeon 4800 series video card. It's running Windows 7 64-bit Ultimate SP1.

For your own comparison, this computer has a Windows Experience Index of 7.1. The slowest items are the Processor and RAM. It's getting pretty old but it's still fast enough for anything I do with it. I have no idea how it compares to anything with newer technology.

There are many differences from the original version of Bluestacks. First, the performance is hugely improved. There is simply no delay at all. Apps launch and run exactly as I am used to Windows apps running on here.

Second, you can now find the preinstalled apps more easily. The first row ("Recently Played") in the default Game-Pop launch screen has a circled plus sign at the right end of the row with the label "All Apps" under it. Poking the plus sign will get you to the All Apps drawer.

I've installed the Nova launcher and set it as my default. So far the only thing I've changed from its default behaviour is the number of icons in the dock and the number of icons on the grid of the home pages.

This version of Bluestacks operates very much like a browser. When you launch an app, a new tab is opened at the top of the window and the app takes up the entire window. You can switch between apps and the home/launcher screen by clicking on the appropriate tab at the top of the screen. Just like a browser.

This time around I'm taking a different approach. Since the last time I used it I've been exposed to Windows 8, 8.1 and 10 on a desktop system and a tablet (Microsoft Surface Pro). I've also been using my Android phone and tablet for many more months. So now I know what I want my user experience to be.

I want a Windows 7 desktop with access to the Android apps that I'm used to, and addicted to, on my tablet and phone. For me this is the perfect system.

Time to take a break now. If anyone is interested I'll post some more as I experience more use of the latest version and see how my favorite/indispensable Android apps work in this new version of Bluestacks.

...ken...
Ken in Regina
I've discovered a couple of things. One is a minor irritation. The other might be a showstopper.

Bluestacks does not handle scrolling with the mouse wheel well. In fact it handles it quite poorly. Turning the mouse wheel even a single click will make the information in the scrolled window go shooting up or down the screen as if you had made an aggressive vertical swipe on a touch screen. I have not found any way to change this behaviour. So you have to use the mouse to do gestures as if you were doing them with your finger on a touch screen. To scroll vertically you have to click and drag the content on the screen up or down.

It's a minor nuisance since I don't plan to use Bluestacks for consuming a lot of onscreen information. I have PC apps for that. But it's damned annoying when I have other Android devices that know how to use the scroll wheel on a mouse properly.

The potentially bigger issue is that Bluestacks has figured out how to monetize the app player. I left it running last night to see how it handles email and other notifications. When I came down this afternoon to use the PC I noticed there were email notifications from the GMail app running in Bluestack. When I click the Bluestacks icon on the task bar to open the Bluestacks window I got a splash screen that gave me two options before I could continue. I could subscribe to Bluestacks for $2 per month (it didn't say whether that was US or Canadian). Or I could allow it to download trial versions of four (4) ad-supported games.

I have no intention of subscribing at this time. Perhaps if a longer period of use suggests it's worthwhile, but not right now. So I clicked to allow it to download the games. We'll see what happens next.

I don't plan to actually run any of the games so hopefully they will do nothing except clutter up the All Apps drawer. I can live with that. I'm not sure whether Bluestacks will try to enforce at least a trial of each of the games. That could get tedious if it's necessary to try each of the games.

I'm also not sure how often it will nag to download more games. If it's once a month in lieu of the monthly charge I can live with that. If it's more often it could be a deal breaker.

Otherwise, things are still working well. I have installed and set up all but one of the apps I want to use and they all seem to work as expected.

When Bluestacks is running it places a notification icon in the System Tray (right end of the Task Bar). Any time there are notifications from Android apps they are displayed in a popup from that icon. It's strictly a notification icon and serves no other purpose. It allows me to minimize the Bluestacks window and still get notifications as I work on PC stuff.

...ken...
Ken in Regina
It installed 11 games!! Not a big issue if I never need to do anything with them, and even better if I can uninstall them sometime.

I discovered another significant issue. At least one of the apps I use all the time uses a hamburger menu to access some of its features, like import and export of data for backups. On my phone and tablet the hamburger menu appears at the bottom of the screen on the same line as the Back, Home, and Recent Apps buttons. Bluestacks does not have a line with those buttons so at least this particular app has no place to put that menu.

I've tried everything I can think of to find a way to access those other functions. Unfortunately this is an app that the developer abandoned in 2011 so no help there. I'll have to see if there are any of my other apps that have the same problem.

...ken...
Ken in Regina
Another eye-opener that I should have thought of. I checked the permissions on a couple of the games that were installed. They have permissions for nearly everything. Because of the way Bluestacks invokes the Play Store app to install them you never get asked if you want to grant those permissions. Bluestacks seems to be able to spoof the Play Store app into thinking you've agreed to those permissions. All of the downloading is done in the background so unless you launch the Play Store app while the download is going on you would never know.

The worst permissions are that they have full access to your Contacts and permission to discover all of your accounts. There are a bunch of others that could also cause some mischief, like sending/receiving SMS messages.

I uninstalled all of them as soon as the downloads were done. I hope none of them had time to do any damage.

I'm tempted to wipe Bluestacks 2 just on the basis of this kind of sneaky behaviour.

...ken...
Ken in Regina
I've got one other app that uses the bottom line of the screen to display its menu for additional functions. All the rest have all of their functions and menus displayed within the apps own screen space.

The tabbed browser-like user interface of Bluestacks has the Back and Home functions on the top line, like most browsers. It has no Recent Apps function. I guess they figure that you will see the tabs for any currently open apps so they don't need a Recent Apps function. So they probably figure there's no need to copy the behaviour of stock Android and waste a line at the bottom of the screen for those buttons. That's probably reasonable and it looks like there are not very many apps that will be affected.

In my case, I don't need any of the functions that are lost in one app but it makes the other app useless because I can't import the data I need and there's too much to manually enter. It's an app that I don't really need on the PC but it would have been very nice to have.

...ken...
Ken in Regina
Widgets are a Good News/Bad News deal. The good news is that they work. The bad news is that they only work for some widgets. I've got widgets for the Google Calendar and GMail working just fine. But I have another email client, AquaMail, for my non-Google email accounts and the widget won't work at all.

This is with the Nova launcher. I don't know if the choice of launcher has any effect or not. Perhaps I'll try a different one to see. Any suggestions on personal favorites? I have Nexus devices (tablet and phone) and I'm quite happy with the default Android launcher so I really haven't messed around with alternative launchers.

I mentioned yesterday that I uninstalled all the garbage games that were installed as my "fee" for continuing to use Bluestacks. So far Bluestacks hasn't made any attempt to reinstall them or otherwise block my usage. Hopefully it was satisfied by just installing them and doesn't require anything more. We'll see how long this lasts before it starts to nag me again.

...ken...
Ken in Regina
I decided to try the Google Now launcher because that's the default launcher on Nexus devices and I quite like it. Unfortunately there appears to be some incompatibility. It installs and when you launch it it pops the launcher selection list to allow you to select which launcher to use if you have more than one installed. That's just what you expect to happen.

But the Google Now launcher does not appear in the list so you can't select it. I don't know whether this is an incompatibility or if it's intentional on Bluestacks part. Too bad because that would have solved my issues with selecting a suitable launcher. So I'll stick with Nova launcher for now.

...ken...
Ken in Regina
You can't resize the main Bluestacks desktop window. You can have it full screen or very slightly smaller than full screen. When it's not in full screen mode you can't drag the edges or corners to make it smaller.

But it's actually worse. When it's not in full screen mode there is a menu down the left side of the screen with some quick settings icons. When you switch to full screen mode that menu disappears. You can probably get at all ten of them some other way through the Settings app but it's a really silly oversight.

...ken...
SpadesFlush
I tried the Beta version of the original Bluestacks and used it a bit but quickly tired of it. I had no appetite for the heavy game-focus although I did manage to get past that. What fried my interest was a particular app that worked only in portrait display mode which is fine on a phone but not so fine on a landscape PC monitor. Your concerns, Ken, about spying on my contacts and who-knows-what-else strike a chord with me, too.

However, I am downloading BS-2 right now (will take about an hour door-to-door after which I probably won't want to play with it doing things like binning the games I am too old for). And tomorrow I am off on a S&T-designed trip (yes, I still use it) so it might be a few days before I am prepared to register some observations on BS-2.

At the end of the day, I am not convinced there are things I want to do on my PC as a preference to my phone.
Ken in Regina
There are still a few of the most common things I would like to do on my PC in a similar fashion to how I can do them on my phone and tablet. Specifically:

1. I want to start with a Contacts database that is available to integrate with any apps where it makes sense. On all devices that is a minimum of my email and calendar. And it has to sync reliably with my GMail contacts so I can add/delete/edit contacts on any device and it propagates automatically to the rest.

2. I want an email client that can handle all of my email accounts, including my ISP, GMail, Yahoo, and Outlook. It should have a "smart" inbox view that shows me a list of all new messages regardless of which account they are in. And it should integrate with the single Contacts database so I don't have to manage email contacts separately.

3. I want a calendar app that not only syncs with my GMail calendar but has a certain level of "integration". That is, it should mirror at least most of the basic features of the GMail calendar. In other words if it's something I can do directly on the GMail calendar and I use the feature regularly I should be able to do it in the Calendar app on the device. I also want it to integrate with the Contacts database where that makes sense so I don't have to manually re-enter information in the Calendar that could easily be pulled in from the Contacts file.

I have all of that on my Android devices and have become thoroughly locked into it over the past few years. Getting such integrated capabilities on the PC is a whole different matter.

Thunderbird has some of what I'm looking for. I can force it to sync with my GMail contacts using an add-in. But it refuses to use the resulting contacts list as the default list. It just recently added some calendar functions that are supposed to include syncing with the Google Calendar. I haven't test it and probably won't because I've always been disappointed with Thunderbird's early implementations of such major features and occasionally burned.

I have hopes for the "tablet" or mobile mode of Windows 10. Their People app syncs nicely with GMail contacts. Most of the time. It's not uncommon for it to get broken in some updates. The Mail and Calendar apps integrate nicely with the People app. When they work.

The Mail app has some really nice features. But it doesn't have a smart, or consolidated, Inbox view so you have to manually switch between accounts to check new mail. And every so often it stops showing attachments. This is a real deal breaker.

The Calendar app syncs nicely with other calendars (Google, Outlook, etc.) and lets you select which calendars to sync with and display. It mostly behaves but it's actually part of the Mail app ... sort of a mini-Outlook. So it's difficult to troubleshoot when things go pear-shaped.

I have a Windows 10 system (my Surface Pro) right next to my Windows 7 system, monitors side by side and using the incredibly useful Windows Garage "Mouse Without Borders" app so I can use a single mouse and keyboard to control both systems as if they were one. I'm trying to just leave the Windows 10 system in Tablet mode with the mobile apps running to see if that, in combination with my Windows 7 desktop, gives me what I want.

It's frustratingly close, but every time I think they've nailed it something else that matters to me breaks. Again.

Bluestacks 2.0 gives me another way to approach the same thing, only this time the "mobile" stuff runs in a window on the Windows 7 desktop and lets me use the same proven Android apps as I use on my phone and tablet.

I'll compare the two approaches over the next few weeks to see if either of them is superior to just keeping my phone or tablet nearby.

After a couple of days I've managed to scale my expectations with Bluestacks 2 back to something more modest than I originally hoped for. If I can simply duplicate the usefulness and reliability of the Contacts, Mail, and Calendar functions on my phone and tablet I might find that sufficient. It looks like I might also be able to use a couple other apps that work better than their PC alternatives, specifically Twitter and my newsreader (NewsBlur).

Sorry for the novel. I just wanted to share what I'm trying to accomplish so folks will have some understanding of why I'm even bothering with it. Again. I look forward to your reactions when you get back.

Have a great trip! I hope you have as little winter as we do. We have no snow on the ground anywhere around here and day time temps have rarely been below freezing. That's extremely unusual for this time of year. Much of the grass in my back yard is still somewhat green!

...ken...
Ken in Regina
Here's an update on my second go-round with Bluestacks. It is now gone from my system. There are two significant reasons for the uninstallation.

1. Bluestacks 2 has proven to be, if anything, even flakier than the original release. In fairness, the second point might have had some influence.

2. I had to do a clean install on my main desktop PC that I was running Bluestacks 2 on. It's a really old installation of Windows 7 and operating system rot has become increasingly evident over the past few weeks. My initial plan was to do a clean install of Windows 7 but that didn't work out so I had to do a clean install of Windows 10.

That is proving to be a positive thing. It is forcing me to use Windows 10 seriously instead of just fiddling with it as I was when it was just on a test system. Now I have to try to use the default People, Mail, and Calendar apps as my main apps to see if I can reliably get what I was describing in my previous post.

In order to force the situation I have decided I will not reinstall Thunderbird unless absolutely forced to and I won't reinstall Bluestacks. I'm going to see if Windows 10 is ready for me for prime time. So far, after more than a week, it's proving to be pretty much what I need. There is still an issue with the Mail app occasionally deciding not to show attachments but that's easy to work around.

So Bye Bye Bluestacks 2. It was interesting but I've got what I need with native Windows now.

...ken...
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