Wednesday, 29 July 2015
Posted by Gary Newell |  at 22:03 6 comments
Android x86 has been riding high in the Distrowatch rankings for the past 6 months. I haven't looked at this distribution since July 2012 which if my maths serves me correctly is 3 years.
Why so long between reviews? When I last looked at Android x86 it simply didn't work very well. It wasn't a case that the developers had done a bad job of porting it across but more an issue with regards to how Android works.
The main problem I had with Android on my netbook was navigation. Netbooks and laptops require the use of a keyboard and a trackpad. Android has been built for touchscreen devices.
The lack of scroll bars was a major issue, especially if you wanted to read a long article as it relies on you continually dragging up the screen with the trackpad.
The fact that Android is such a popular download however has led me to believe that people really want this and are keen to give this a go.
You can get Android x86 by visiting http://www.android-x86.org/.
The website has a mixture of some really useful information and some out of date information which makes it a little bit painful to decipher.
For instance the latest release is Android x86 - Release 4,4 r3 which can be found by reading the "What is new?" section on the front page.
The downloads page only has Android x86 - Release 4.4 r2 available. The downloads page is also a little bit over complicated.
There is a 2.3 release for the eeePC and then a 2.2 release for a number of different devices. Scroll down a bit further and there are download links for the 4.0 release (again for different devices) and finally you get the 4.4 release.
Below all that are a whole load of deprecated release links.
There is a lot of good information on the website but some duff stuff as well. For instance the instructions say that the "Play Store" isn't available for Android x86 but it clearly is.
So here are the two download links you need for the latest release which is Android x86 4.4 r3.
The links are stored on Google Drive so may take some time to download. It is worth using a download manager such as uGet so that you can continue the download should it fail half way through.
I have written guides showing how to install Android x86 within VirtualBox and also how to create an Android USB drive.
Installing Android isn't particularly difficult. Steps include detecting the hard drive, creating partitions and installing GRUB.
After you have rebooted into Android you will have to go through the Android setup screens which ask you to choose your language, sign in to your Google account, choose whether to link to Google Services, set the date and time and enter your name as the user of the tablet.
Initially I tried Android within VirtualBox and for good reason. It is unlikely that I would want to use Android on a computer all of the time and so setting it as my sole operating system didn't seem like a good idea.
There are certainly some important gotchas that will hit you when you try Android x86 within VirtualBox.
For instance the screen resolution is locked to a fairly small window. There aren't any simple settings for solving this issue. You have to set the resolution using the command line for virtualbox and then you have to adjust the GRUB settings for changing the resolution within Android.
Another issue which will wind up first time users is the auto rotation. Remember that Android is designed for handheld devices. On a phone or a tablet it is ok for the screen to rotate so that the application can be used in the optimum way. On a laptop it is definitely an undesirable side effect.
The first thing you will want to do therefore is turn off the auto rotation. If you find that you are stuck in a rotated screen press the F9 key twice quickly.
Whilst locking the rotation works for the main Android system it doesn't work for all applications because some applications have been designed to work in portrait mode. Even though you have locked the rotation when you install some games they will remain on their side.
If you can play games with your head tilting to one side then this might work for you, especially if you have great trackpad skills.
The resolution is actually quite a simple one. There is an application called "Smart Rotator" that lets you set whether the application runs in portrait or landscape mode.
Whilst good, the "Smart Rotator" isn't a perfect solution. Take the small VirtualBox window I referred to earlier for instance.
When you turn a portrait screen on its side into a landscape window that is too small it can have disastrous effects, especially when you are trying to play a bat and ball style game like Arkanoid. The bat basically sits above the first row of blocks and the ball just flies off knocking down all the blocks. The game is rendered unplayable.
I found a better solution to this is to edit the GRUB file and have multiple Android menu options with different resolutions. (Some made to be portable and others landscape).
The next issue I found is how to control games. Android as mentioned previously is made for touch screen devices and therefore many games either work by tilting the screen or by pressing on screen buttons.
Whilst this is ok for slower games, it is a disaster when you are trying to play "Retro Racing".
The best solution I could find for this is to use a bluetooth controller such as a WII remote or an OUYA controller.
The instant thought occurs, why bother using Android on a laptop to play Android games when you can use the actual OUYA which is designed for playing Android games.
Within VirtualBox it is not possible to use the built in Bluetooth controller from your laptop. Instead I used a USB Bluetooth dongle.
The same frustrations remain with scrolling but to be honest if I wanted to use Android on my computer it would be for playing games rather than to use the web browser or to read books.
I have written an article called "5 tips and tricks for using Android x86 within VirtualBox" which covers most of the information I have given above in more detail.
I found that many applications installed from the Play Store within VirtualBox crashed, which is a shame because it is probably the best way to use Android x86.
After I had exhausted many hours within VirtualBox I decided it was time to try it out as a live USB to see if the issues I was having running certain applications would go away.
For instance Google Maps failed within VirtualBox and I can't believe the developers wouldn't have tried Google Maps out before releasing it into the wild.
The Live USB worked well and I can confirm that more of the applications installed from the Play Store worked without issue.
Within VirtualBox there is a 60/40 split of what works and what doesn't work whereas on a live USB it is more 90/10.
My main issue with using the live USB is that it was a bit sluggish.
I decided to install the latest version on a netbook, the same one in fact that I used last time in 2012. This was by far the best experience of using Android x86.
Most of the applications worked and I was able to play games using a bluetooth controller. The sound is also better natively on the netbook than via VirtualBox.
Obviously reviewing Android x86 is very different to reviewing a standard distribution.
After 1 hour I was ready to throw it away and never look at it again. I found the mixture of auto rotation issues, screen resolution issues and controller issues to be a real frustration.
I found myself searching around for other reviews of Android x86. There aren't many up to date reviews but this one by Dedoimedo back in 2012 lists many of the problems that I experienced even on the current version.
I didn't want to give up however. I wanted to persevere. Android is a good way to play games casually and anybody who has bought an OUYA will testify to this fact. I love my OUYA, it has brought the world of retrogaming and homebrew games back firmly into the now. The OUYA isn't for hardcore games but great for casual gamers.
The OUYA is built on top of Android and so it makes sense to try and use Android x86 for casual gaming.
This review might not be very long but I have spent a long time playing and experimenting with Android x86 and if you stick with it and are willing to play with settings then you may get something close to desirable.
Those who will get the most out of Android x86 will be using a computer with a touchscreen.
Thankyou for reading.
About the Author
Gary Newell started the Everyday Linux User blog in 2010 and has written reviews on dozens of different Linux based operating systems. He has also written a number of tutorials.
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