Android on the desktop

Over the past year or so there has been a great deal of speculation online over whether or not Google will bring Android to the desktop. I personally don’t think that Google will do it1. I decided that I would have a play around with the Android-x86 project last weekend to see what it is like and whether or not one could use it as a full time desktop environment. My logic was that people use tablets as their primary computer, so Android 4 should be usable as desktop OS too.

Installation and booting

I decided to try out two Android versions; Android 4 (a stable release on Android-x86, originally released by Google in December ’11) and Android 4.2 (still in development, Google released it in November ’12). I was impressed by the small download size (300MB each). I installed both of them by booting from a memory stick, and the installation for both only took a few minutes (the Android x86 guys seem to have done a good job with installation and drivers). From there on you set it up like a regular Android tablet2, logging into WiFi, setting locale and most interestingly logging into your Google account.

Applications

Both versions had full access to the Gmail app and Google Play, which I was very surprised by. Unfortunately Android-x86 doesn’t include Chrome, but the stock browser was actually quite a bit better3. I had a go at installing Chrome, but I got a message in Google Play that told me ‘this app isn’t compatible with your device’. I managed to get Google Drive on Android 4 but not on Jelly Bean.

The main problem with apps at the moment is the fact that the vast majority of apps are designed to run on ARM devices rather than Intel devices. Intel devices get round this by using a bunch of libraries (which can be installed in Android-x86 but I failed completely at doing so) to emulate ARM. This makes it very difficult to install games on Android-x86 unless you install the ARM emulation stuff. If you do get it working, you can play games like Angry Birds.

Oddly I couldn’t install apps at all in the Android 4.2 installation. This is probably because it’s using development keys because it isn’t a stable release yet, but I should imagine it was probably me doing something wrong.

Performance

It’s actually really fast. Boot times were generally sub-30 seconds on a netbook and application switching (in Jelly Bean especially) was very quick. Web browsing was comparable to using a regular Linux distro with Firefox or Chrome installed. I disliked, however, the lack of screen space visible for the web page because you have the black bar across the bottom and the notifcation bar across the top, along with action bars and any other chrome an app may have.

The general speed is probably a credit to where Android has come from; it was designed originally to run on smartphones with less than 128MB of RAM, whereas modern OSes often require at least 2GB.

General experience

Aside from a limited range of apps (or at least limited on my machine) it actually proved to be a pretty good desktop OS. I wouldn’t use it as a full time OS because I spend most of my time using a keyboard rather than a mouse, which Android-x86 is designed to be used with. Android is still a touch OS, so no usual desktop shortcuts work, which is a shame.

Another slightly odd problem I had was the lack of a shutdown option in Android 4 (since added in Jelly Bean) although you can install an app (originally designed for rooted devices) that will shutdown for you.

If you are planning on playing around with Android on your computer it is probably worth noting that Android-x86’s Android 4.0 builds are a lot more stable than the 4.2 build, which will probably be worth getting after it has come out of development.

Conclusion

In general Android-x86 is a very functional, lightweight desktop OS. It’s good if you want to browse the web, do email and read books (the Kindle app isn’t great in landscape though), but not so good if you want to code, play games or do other intensive tasks. The main disadvantage it has is that Android is a touch OS, and Android-x86 hasn’t quite made it a desktop OS. Google’s alternative offering, Chrome OS, does all of these things better and it is designed as a desktop OS rather than a tablet OS. It’s the same reason that it doesn’t make sense to have the same OS on your 27″ desktop as your 10″ tablet (*cough* Windows 8 *cough*). A real benefit is for developers because you can debug apps via VirtualBox, although the latest emulator with the Intel image is actually pretty good.

Ultimately I don’t think that Google will bring Android to the desktop because it isn’t what they are aiming Android at. I can see Chrome OS coming to mobile (because it is such a lightweight OS as it is) on the other hand so it can compete with Firefox OS.

You can use Android on your computer now, but that doesn’t mean you should.

  1. Probably worth noting the difference between an Intel version of Android and Android on the desktop. Google and Intel have both worked on porting Android to Intel smartphones, however the Android-x86 has further adapted it so that you can install it on a desktop PC.
  2. I was a little annoyed that my *computer* was referred to as a tablet throguhout the installation process. I assume Android has a string somewhere for ‘tablet’ or ‘phone’ but it would have been nice to see ‘computer’
  3. Whilst Chrome is a very good browser on mobile and desktop, stats show that the stock Android browser is actually faster
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