Android on your Desktop
I’m a fan of all things Android. A few months ago, I bought a Rockchip Mini PC from Amazon. It’s small a portable computer running Android 4.2 (JellyBean). I was initially quite sceptical as a touch-centric OS does not necessarily translate well into a good desktop experience (I’m looking at you Windows 8), but at a mere £30, I thought I’d take a punt on it. What follows is a summary of my experience of using the device.
Under the hood
So what did I get for my £30? The device itself runs Android 4.2, has a 1.2GHz dual core processor with 1Gb RAM and 8Gb of storage space. There’s space for a Micro SD card, so I added a 16Gb flash I had lying around. It’s powered by USB, is WiFi and Bluetooth enabled. The output is HDMI, and there’s a single USB port.
I did add a few extra bits tho. I bought a Bluetooth mini keyboard to provide input, but it’s actually not necessary – there are apps that allow you to pair you Android phone or tablet with the PC via Bluetooth or over WiFi (incidentally, it does have access to the Play Store).
I had a USB hub (externally powered) that I added to the setup, as I wanted to add a USB hard drive alongside my controller. Lastly, my mancave at home has a poor WiFi reception, but does have an ethernet point, so I picked up a USB to ethernet adapter.
Any TV = Smart TV
That may have got your attention. The first obvious use for the device is a media centre. Portability and 24Gb of storage means I can take my favourite (ripped) boxed set with me if I’m cooped up in a hotel and need to put in an evening. The addition of an external hard drive means I can take a lot of my box sets with me (if not all of them).
As it’s an Android device, I can install many “catch up TV” apps, such as the iPlayer. Problem – how to watch iPlayer when not in the UK? Solution – install a VPN app and spoof UK as your location. Weirdly, the 4oD app won’t work over my ethernet connection. Ho-hum. YouTube and Google Movies on a large screen are fantastic tho 🙂 It’s a better service than the equivalent apps on my xbox as there’s no fan noise.
You may also have heard of the Chromecast – Google’s HDMI dongle offering web streaming to any TV. Well, if you install the Cheapcast app, you can emulate a Chromecast and send to the Mini PC via Chrome or your phone. Pretty sweet!
A Computer for Casual Use
Connect the Mini PC to a HDMI enabled monitor. If it has USB ports, you can use those with a USB printer cable. Add a mouse and a keyboard to the USB hub and I’ve got a fast booting computer than can do a lot of everyday things. I’ve got Chrome to browse the internet. There’s a built in email client. I’ve got cloud storage with Dropbox and / or Google Drive. With Google Drive, I’ve got a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software available. I’d recommend installing Null Keyboard (free!) as this will prevent the onscreen keyboard from appearing (and taking up half the screen) when editing text. Install any file manager app (such as Astro File Manager) and you can browse the device just like windows explorer.
I’ve got Google Calendar to sync with all my appointments, Google+ to sync with all photos I take from my phone and Google Keep for all my to-do items. I’ve got my Google Music account to listen to while doing all these things as well. To top it all, multiple user profiles are supported.
I was able to get Skype working with webcam, though it takes up the whole screen. I’d say it’s better used for voice capability only, as a service running in the background. That said, Google Hangouts and even Microsoft Lync are available for this also and are free as well.
But I’m a Power User!
A few years ago I was working on an iPad app for a customer. It was a dashboard app intended for director types, but the customer had the grand idea of replacing everyone’s desktop machines with iPads. Could such an idea really take hold? I develop software – I need access to a development environment. I need to have a poke around a database. I use enterprise level software.
On my current project all developers have laptops, but we don’t actually develop on them at all. Instead, we remote onto Virtual Machines and develop on those. This got me thinking. If I need a proper windows box, why not use a remote desktop app to connect to a windows box in the cloud?
And that’s what I did. I set up a virtual machine in the Amazon EC2 cloud. It’s a micro instance that’s costing me nothing a month (free usage tier), and I have a Java development environment set up there for writing Android apps (among other things), as well as a webserver (I have the Amazon Machine Image available if anyone wants it).
If I wanted to, I could buy a more powerful virtual machine when I need it, and then turn it off when I don’t. There’s a debate here to be had about cost of ownership when comparing this to owning a physical machine, but in theory cloud VMs mean I have ready access to the latest hardware and software. I can toy around with any flavour of Linux if I feel like it.
Cloud solutions aside, it is possible to set up a development environment on the Mini PC itself. There are apps for Android IDEs, git clients, webservers (which you can host publicly!) and database clients for many flavours of SQL (including MSSQL and the latest darling MongoDB). I haven’t tinkered with these yet, but I’m keen to as they lend themselves more towards a desktop experience that a tablet or phone one.
Bonus Round – The 90s are back!
And now a favourite use of mine. My XBox USB controller is compatible with the device. So I’ve installed a number of emulators (Megadrive, SNES, MAME Arcade Emulator, Gameboy, PSP) and downloaded a number of ROMs (games). Again, all for free. Hadouken indeed. There’s an OnLive client if you already have an account with them (which I don’t as it’s not free).
It’s a versatile device that I keep finding new uses for, a digital Swiss army knife. It’s rooted as well, so I can tinker around with other ROMs if I take the notion. Will it replace my laptop? No, nor will it replace my Xbox either. But what it does do well it does very well, and on the whole I found it a really nice gadget to use.