What is an Emulator and What Can You Do With Device Emulation?by@wxaith
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What is an Emulator and What Can You Do With Device Emulation?

by Brandon AllenMarch 23rd, 2023
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Device Emulation is the process of simulating pieces of hardware or software. It's used to simulate hardware that’s older and hard to get ahold of. In other cases it’re used to test concepts of software in a safe and localized environment. Emulators are pieces of software that typically replicate hardware functionality in a digital environment.
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On Device Emulation: What is an Emulator and How Does it Work?

The problem with product life cycles is that they end at some point. Even the newest and shiniest piece of hardware like your brand-new Samsung Galaxy S23, or the fresh install of Windows 11 on your new computer will be outdated someday. And that’s okay, that’s how technology works, the old is replaced by the new at some point.

After spending enough time with tech, you get used to it, but just because older devices and content get replaced by newer products doesn’t mean that those products and devices have no usage. Emulation is the process of simulating pieces of hardware or software, in some cases it’s used to simulate hardware that’s older and hard to get ahold of. In other cases it’s used to test concepts of software in a safe and localized environment instead of implementing massive changes to an entire system without understanding what impacts those changes will have. In this article I'll be answering the question: "What is an emulator?" and giving an overview of what device emulation is.

What is An Emulator?

Emulators are pieces of software that typically replicate hardware functionality in a digital environment. A good example of this would be the PS5. It has built-in PS4 emulation and PS3 emulation to be able to play games from almost the entire PlayStation family of video games. So instead of having to dig out a PS4 to play Uncharted 4, or a PS3 to play Asura’s Wrath, the PS5’s built in device emulation allows you to play games from both previous generations on one console.

The PS5 isn’t the only console that takes advantage of emulation though, the Xbox Series X uses it to play games from all previous Xbox generations. The Nintendo switch uses it to play games from previous Nintendo generations, and the PC modding scene has gotten incredibly innovative over the last few years. Full emulators for the Nintendo Switch, PSP, and other consoles, including retro consoles are available for free, so just about anyone can use them so long as their computer is powerful enough.

What is Device Emulation?

Device emulation is also heavily used in software development, especially when it comes to large companies that are developing important products or have code that is being deployed on company wide server. Being able to test software changes in a safe, and isolated environment where the impacts of those changes or new development decisions can be understood without having an impact on the project as a whole is key. There have been many cases where software updates or new code have caused serious problems with previously existing software, and without the ability to remove that code from the system or roll back the software update, those issues may not be able to be resolved in a  timely manner.

A great example of an emulator is a virtual machine. Virtual machines function as virtual computers running an operating system or multiple operating systems. For instance, if you are on a Windows computer and you want to develop a product for Linux, you can create a virtual machine that is running the Linux operating system. Once the virtual machine is enabled you can play around with the operating system and test how programs will run and respond on it, how many resources are used and how fully functional the programs are.

Benefits of Device Emulation

When developing products for pieces of hardware like phones or computers, recommended settings are always published to give the end user an idea of what kind of hardware they’ll need to have to be able to use that piece of software. As programs have increased in complexity, there are more demands on the central processing unit (CPU) and the graphics processing unit (GPU).

Video games especially are notorious for this, now that things like ray tracing that increase visual fidelity at the cost of performance have become industry standards. The PS5 struggles at times with PS4 emulation and PS3 emulation because of the graphical demands of the games on those systems. It may be tempting to run a video game at max settings with ray tracing enabled, but if the hardware being used to run it isn’t powerful enough to handle it efficiently, instead of having a good gaming experience, you could be left unsatisfied. The same goes for intensive programs such as 3D rendering or modeling software that are necessary for content creators to do their work.

Or virtual machines that are used to test out new pieces of software or lines of code.  Before device emulation became popular, it was necessary to buy as many pieces of hardware as possible and test the product or software being developed on all of them, one at a time, to ensure compatibility. Now that device emulation is so widespread, buying so much hardware isn’t necessary anymore, because it’s easy to test things in an emulated environment. Which leads to device emulation being a valuable tool for developers because it can save lots of money in a research and development budget while still ensuring high levels of quality.

Device emulation also allows developers to save time, because by testing in an emulated environment it is possible to change setting configurations with just a few clicks. Compared to having to set up and take down test benches this is a godsend, which makes development much easier.

Device Emulation Concerns:

For all the benefits of emulation, there are a few drawbacks. It is completely plausible that emulation of computer hardware won’t always be a 1:1 recreation, and therefore a simulated test environment won’t always be as beneficial as a real world test with the actual hardware. Virtual test environments not accurately representing a real world test could lead to potential instability or incompatibility of the product when it is being used by consumers.

There are also concerns about the legal and ethical concerns of emulation, particularly when it comes to video games. Device emulation is extremely popular with people that enjoy retro games from consoles like the NES and Neo Geo, that may not physically have those consoles. So people go online, find digital copies of their favorite retro games, find an emulator that allows them to play those games, and they start playing.

But there are legal concerns about those emulators, and the emulation process as a whole, as to whether or not it its legal to emulate those games if you do not have a license to play them or permission from the copyright holder. So while emulation does have its benefits and can be extremely useful, there is an argument to be made about its potential legality, or lack thereof.

Final Thoughts:

We hope this article helped you understand what an emulator is. Device emulation is an extremely useful part of both hardware and software development. Being able to simulate an environment and test different variables and possibilities without the need to procure multiple different types of hardware and test them all individually is invaluable.

Emulation saves time, it saves money, and it allows developers to allocate money that would have been spent on buying new hardware on further research and development, which in turn could lead to a much-improved final product.