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Mobile App Emulators: Convenience at a Cost

Mobile app emulators may seem like a quick and easy solution to the problem of testing. Yet that convenience can come with a real cost.

When mobile app development is such a complicated process, it’s unsurprising that developers would go out of their way to find whatever solutions they can to make their job easier.

For example, developers need to be able to evaluate their code on multiple platforms, but compiling it, migrating it to another machine, and then running it can result in a large amount of time that feels wasted. As such, many developers take advantage of tools like emulators.

Emulation gives DevOps professionals and tech decision-makers a reliable way to build and test multiplatform code, but it’s important that they understand the pros and cons of emulators before deploying them in real-world situations. It may come as a surprise, but in many cases, emulators can cause more harm than good.

What are mobile app emulators?

An emulator is a virtual machine that simulates a specific piece of hardware, allowing you to run software that is typically only executable on the simulated device. For example, consider the ability to run Mac software on a Windows PC. What would normally be impossible due to completely different system architectures can be accomplished by using an emulator. 

Emulation has been around for a long time and has traditionally been used to develop embedded operating systems and firmware. But today, emulation is used to deploy software in a variety of contexts, from video games to mobile apps.

Some emulators used in mobile app development include:

This is only a small list of the emulators available to developers, and each has its own supported architectures, capabilities, and use cases that can (ideally) simplify the process of application development and testing.

Why use mobile app emulators?

Emulators are used in a litany of use cases, but many developers use them to debug applications, allowing software engineers to collaborate on projects no matter what physical devices they have access to. This flexibility is great for testing new features and improving code in real time without the hassle and expense of procuring multiple devices and deploying various builds to each one. (Note that, although they sound similar, emulators are not to be confused with simulators.)

Emulators can also be used with automation services to create rapid testing pipelines. They provide users with a snapshot of performance capabilities early in production and can be much less expensive to do a proof-of-concept with than physical hardware.

But although emulators offer some advantages to app developers, they should only be used in certain situations, as we’ll see.

Why shouldn’t you use mobile app emulators?

Using a mobile app emulator can present unexpected risks for your organization. There are some issues that emulators simply won’t be able to catch, so relying on emulators alone will set you up for failure down the line.

To comprehensively test native code, it must be run on the target machine. Failing to test properly can result in unexpected downtimes and poor reviews. This can be bad news for app developers, especially for those just starting out.

Hardware compatibility

One of the biggest issues that emulators have is their lack of proper hardware compatibility. Mobile application emulators are limited by the amount of resources allocated to them by the computer and often can’t support the speed or performance that a native device would be able to handle.

Application testing is a resource-intensive process, so when using an emulator, apps will typically run slower than they would in production. This makes it difficult to get a clear picture of how the application would perform in the real world. Running it on a real device allows developers to consider the limitations that some users might face on lower-end hardware.

Poor UX testing

There’s a big difference between virtualizing the processes of an application and using it on an actual device. There are many factors to consider, from screen size to support for different operating system versions that may not be possible to do with an emulator.

With a real device, mobile testers can get a better idea of exactly how their applications will feel to users. This allows them to work out unexpected bugs, crashes, freezing, and other usability problems. Seeing the application perform right in front of you provides perspective and allows developers to fine-tune their software to meet user expectations.

Simulated environment

One of the biggest flaws of an emulator is that it runs in a simulated environment, separate from many of the functions that the app will use when installed on the actual device. Some things, such as poor network bandwidth and touch sensors, simply can’t be properly simulated on a non-native device. 

A physical device offers a full range of variables for testing that is hard to recreate in an emulator. After all, people do things on a phone that you wouldn’t think to do in an emulated system. Swiping quickly, moving apps around, and using voice commands may highlight some bugs that weren’t made apparent in the simulated environment.

Limited extensibility

When using various plugins and extensions for a mobile app, they may not be properly handled by the emulator, especially if it wasn’t designed for it. Because physical devices can have a full range of different specs, emulators are often incapable of offering a clear picture of how the app will ultimately perform when interacting with these services.

Emulators are limited in their ability to test more complicated applications. If a third-party library that’s used by your app isn’t supported by the emulator, for example, then it won’t be of any use to you at all. Emulators simply won’t be able to properly scale to your application’s capabilities as you add more features.

Lack of reliable support options

Another thing that’s important to note is that you’re essentially on your own when using an emulator to test your app. Although there are basic troubleshooting and tips available to users, they probably won’t be enough for those who aren’t already technically minded. If something isn’t working correctly, it’s hard to tell if it’s because of your application or the emulator itself. 

Testing on a variety of physical devices will give you clarity when troubleshooting problems and making corrections to code. By simplifying the process of app development with, say, a fully-supported no-code solution, you’ll be able to put your application into production without having to wait for fixes to be made by the emulator’s creators.

Major QA changes across the industry

As you can see, mobile app emulators lack the full range of capabilities needed to truly understand how your mobile applications will perform, especially in a production environment with real use cases. But this can be a problem for smaller organizations that need to do testing on multiple devices that they don’t have access to.

The solution to all of these issues—as will be obvious to most QA professionals reading the above list of issues—is to simply test on real devices. However, setting up a lab featuring a representative sample of current real devices has historically been too expensive for most teams to consider a viable option.

Fortunately, due to solutions provided by advancements in cloud technology, you can now test with real devices without the time and resources need to build and maintain a device lab. Sofy provides exactly this.

In fact, Sofy’s no-code platform for mobile app testing provides a single tool that can meet the demands of even the most rigorous QA requirements. Automated features allow your entire QA team—not coding wizards—to run tests and ensure a timely release cycle. Sofy Templates eliminate the need for scripting so you can validate your code changes as soon as they occur. With Sofy’s regression testing and DevOps features, you’ll be able to quickly develop, test, and deploy code from a single location.

Sofy’s Real Device Lab offers anyone the ability to test on real devices via the cloud—and that means you no longer need to settle for an imitation over the real thing.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed above are those of the contributor and do not necessarily represent or reflect the official beliefs or positions of Sofy.