We’ve been keeping an eye on the development of Android-x86 for a little while now, with the release of 4.4 seemingly imminent for some months now. In the past we’ve managed to use dodgy hacks of Android on proper computers or an emulated version via the ADK, but this promises to be one of the first complete ports of the mobile operating system to x86.
Android-x86 is straight-up Android. There are no extra Linux repositories or a custom desktop to accommodate a mouse and keyboard on a standard computer or laptop. What you get is the standard Android 4.4 interface that can be used by touchscreens along with mouse and keyboards. Android actually has some level of mouse support already included in its code anyway, so the main changes revolve around the actual porting of the kernel and components, along with support for the kind of hardware you only get on PC such as wired networks.
The live disc is handled quite differently from a usual Linux distro. Starting it live will get you into an instance of Android that you can easily play around with: it acts exactly like any Android device would if you’d turned it on for the first time, asking for settings and login details. All of this will not be saved so it serves well as a test of the system more than anything else.
The installation is handled by a custom installer with limited options – it only really helps you get the hard drive set up as a lot of the user info is done on Android itself. It doesn’t give many recommendations and lets the user decide on what kind of file system should be used – it’s not a big deal as all the available file systems will work, but something like ext3 works a bit better for Android than FAT32. Either way, not everyone will know what to pick and there’s very little reason to use any of the other file systems.
Otherwise it’s quite quick and gives you the option to go straight into the Android installation without restarting – quite a novel concept. GRUB can be edited to allow easy dual-booting as well, so there’s no need to forgo Linux or any other operating system just to install Android-x86.
The account and settings process on first boot is the same as any Android device, although in some cases you’ll have to ignore wireless settings and just hope a wired internet connection is working, as there’s no indication on the UI for this.
With something so heavily Android-based, you’re going to run into some issues quite early on. In a virtual machine you may have trouble getting a mouse cursor to show up, and across all installation you’ll need to wrestle with the Android display options. There are some third party apps installed to the OS that allow you to get around some of these issues with an extra download or two though, so it’s something the devs have definitely thought about.
Otherwise it basically runs like any Android device. You can install apps from the Play Store for the moment, although whether or not this will be removed from images in the future (like on Cyanogenmod) is another matter. You may get issues with scaling for some apps depending on your resolution, but Android has a pretty decent method for compensating for that anyway with pixel-doubling and such. Games with fixed resolutions may not be so lucky though.
If you’re used to modern Android you’ll be able to quickly get around the workflow, especially as the basic operation of the interface has not changed. You’ll need to drag down the notification bar with a mouse and do the same with swiping away items or between photos on an app.
Measure of stability
For a port it is surprisingly stable. We haven’t really encountered any huge problems and have been able to use it for extended periods without much issue. It has crashed on us though and usually for no discernible reason, so we definitely wouldn’t recommend it for a primary distro.
As it’s designed for low-powered smartphones it can run quite light. It only requires a couple of gigs to install properly and a recommended minimum of 512 MB of RAM. It will run better with more but is still very functional at that level.
It’s definitely an interesting use for Android, especially if you’re a fan of the way some of the apps work, or if you like the second-screen apps but don’t want a tablet to make the most out of them. For development, it doesn’t beat a native device but it’s a good way to test for more extreme hardware types.
Android-x86 delivers what it promises but it’s not quite free from the kind of bugs you’d expect from such a port. The extra features for a desktop work well and it has a number of improvements over the many development versions.