Real Devices vs. Emulators for Reliable Mobile App Testing

  July 22, 2019

You can’t build efficient DevOps processes without a mobile app testing strategy. A perfect balance of manual and automated testing, proper choice of testing methods, an experienced team – all of these components are vital. But there’s one thing missing. Your testing strategy has to be clear about how you choose to test your mobile apps: on emulators or real devices? Will you be clicking a mouse or buying several different smartphones? Or, maybe, cloud-based devices are the way out? Perhaps, this breakdown of the pros and cons of testing on real devices vs. emulators will help you make the right decision.

Don’t Underestimate Mobile App Testing

With mobile device usage growing each month, business-critical solutions experience a shift to mobile as well. Retailbankinghealthcare, entertainment, aviation are just some of the industries that put mobile apps at the vanguard of their engagement with customers. At the same time, high-quality UX, smooth performance and security are the essentials that users seek in apps, both entertaining and business ones.

With all this in mind, you should put special efforts into testing your mobile applications. The choice of tools and methods will affect the quality and terms of mobile app deployment and updates fundamentally. You need to ensure timely and cost-efficient testing while taking into account the evolving user needs. And if we talk about the ways to test a mobile application, there are two ways to go: real devices and emulators.

What is an Emulator?

An emulator is a piece of software that imitates the features of hardware or software systems and behaves in the same manner as a real hardware or software system would. Developers often use on-screen iOS and Android emulators to test their apps in a digital environment.

There are three categories of emulators:

  • device emulators take the place of actual hardware and simulate real smartphones or tablets
  • browser emulators are in use to simulate a mobile browser environment
  • OS emulators that run within a simulated mobile environment and allow accessing apps within a specific operating system

Emulators often are a part of the developer’s SDK.

Pros and Cons of Testing on Emulators

Many teams see actual value in using emulators for both manual and automated testing. They are a great starting point and are less expensive than purchasing real devices (which come out regularly). You also don’t need to maintain emulators and keep them charged all the time. More than that, emulators allow developers to catch the majority of common bugs.

Here are some more advantages of using emulators:

  • They may be most valuable when the application is in the very early stage of the software development lifecycle (SDLC)
  • In most cases, emulators are open and free to download
  • They provide some basic analytics for your app performance

However, there are disadvantages to using emulators as well:

  • The software cannot emulate battery issues, network connectivity and other real-time data: GPS, sensors, gestures, touch force, etc.
  • It cannot emulate the performance of an app in terms of incoming calls, SMS, etc.
  • There’s no way to check the color/contrast of display under different weather conditions
  • Touchscreen issues cannot be emulated either
  • Not all mobile apps can be tested on emulators

The bottom line is there are many conditions developers have to consider to ensure high-quality UX and customer satisfaction when testing mobile apps on an emulator.

How About Testing on Real Devices?

Although one may think real devices aren’t a panacea either, due to that they are expensive and time-consuming to acquire, testing on real devices is the ultimate way to truly understand the user experience. There’s no better approach to checking the user-app interaction than installing it on a physical device and giving it to beta-testers.

  • No worries about false positives and negatives, just real results and a live network.
  • Any performance defects related to the device or the environment are visible;
  • All real-life scenarios are taken into account: from network failures to various weather conditions, to hardware issues.

As your application moves into a later stage of the SDLC, testing on real devices is the only trustful approach to producing reliable results and feedback for developers and confirming a great user experience.

The Optimal Strategy

Both emulators and real devices have their pros and cons. How do you minimize the effect of their disadvantages and make the most out of the advantages then? Simple: using a mobile testing cloud throughout the software development lifecycle.

Cloud-based mobile app testing allows developers and testers to connect to a vast range of mobile devices in the cloud, regardless of their location. Cloud devices are an excellent solution for manual and automated large-scale mobile testing. They offer tens of hundreds of options, combining different OS versions, screen resolutions, frameworks and so on. Cloud devices support parallel testing, record the results, are available 24/7 and are perfect for agile development. More than that, security issues are not a concern anymore since you can choose a private cloud over the public one.

So, the winning strategy looks something like this:

  • Although it’s best to rely only on real, you may use emulators at the initial stages of the SDLC
  • Turn to real devices as soon as you move into a later stage of your SDLC
  • Scale-up your mobile app testing by addressing a device cloud provider and run your tests on as many devices as you need


The percentage of users running your mobile app on an emulator is zero. Real-life testing is essential since emulators simply cannot cover all the issues that may occur during a real user experience. Everyday things like battery usage, compatibility with other apps on the phone or even a search bar that is inconvenient for tapping can make your customers turn to other solutions. On the other hand, emulators are cheaper and can provide you with decent analytic reports on the testing carried out.

In the end, it looks like combining the two approaches and complementing them with a device cloud for testing is the best way to go. Bitbar is here to help you make testing more cost-effective and scalable with hundreds of devices we offer in the cloud. Try them out for free today.