This is the first part of a two part blog on running Android on a laptop / desktop computer. This first post will focus on the “how to” and the next post will concentrate on the actual experience itself.
A History Lesson
A few years ago, Forbes published an article announcing Microsoft’s Market Share Drops From 97% to 20% In Just Over A Decade. What was the cause of such a downfall?
Personally, I agree with the author of the article – I think it’s an unfair comparison that relies on the definition of an “internet connected device”. In 2000, an “internet connected device” was a desktop or laptop computer; today the definition has been expanded to include smartphones, tablets, watches, televisions… the list is growing.
In a nutshell, Microsoft focused on the desktop / laptop market and missed the boat on mobile technology, allowing the public to become familiar with mobile operating systems like iOS and Android. Microsoft are still the main player in this “traditional computing” market (over 90% according to NetMarketshare), but statistics are showing a decline in this market at the expense of the rise of the tablet (according to Canalys).
As an IT professional, I don’t believe that a tablet can provide me with everything I need to do my job in the way a desktop computer can. I need a physical keyboard. I need a mouse. I need a big screen.
That said, a number of manufacturers are now shipping computers that run on Android rather than Windows – you can see efforts from Lenovo, Acer and HP here. It’s not a bad idea from a business perspective – it’s an operating system that millions of people are already familiar with (reaching 1 billion activations last year); and as it’s free, there is no OS license fee to pay allowing the manufacturer to sell devices for less or just get a bigger profit margin.
But is Android ready for the “traditional” computer yet? I decided to give it a try. Step forward Android x86.
For those not in the know, Android x86 is an open source project aimed at bringing Android to the “traditional computer”. The team download the source code for Android versions as they are released, compile it to run on x86 architecture, and then publish the OS image for public download. It’s very much a community effort with users installing the OS on home computers and submitting any issues / patches as they are found / developed in the spirit of open source software.
I found the latest release of Android 4.4 to be quite stable, although not without issues (mostly minor). This post will outline how to safely install the OS onto a bootable USB stick if you fancy giving it a go. If you don’t like it, just reformat your USB stick and you have lost nothing.
Installing Android on your Computer – Preparations
First things first. You will need the following:
- 2 USB ports
- 1 USB stick to create an Installer disk (4Gb should be fine)
- 1 USB stick to install Android onto (as big as you like – this will be your system disk. I used 16Gb)
- Install a partition manager tool that will allow your to format your USB drive as EXT3 (I used EaseUS Partition Master Free)
- Install software to write an ISO to bootable USB (I used Win32 Disk Imager)
Step 1: Creating an Installer Disk
Go to the Android x86 download page and download the ISO:
Insert your would be “Installer disk” USB stick and run Win32 Disk Imager.
Change the extension of the file from ISO to IMG before selecting the image file, and select your USB drive to write the image to.
Step 2: Formatting the System disk
Run your partition manager tool and format your second USB stick as EXT3.
Note, NTFS will not work, and other formats will limit you to having a maximum disk size of 2Gb.
Info: BIOS – a Primer
As part of the install, we need to change some BIOS settings. If you know what BIOS is, feel free to skip this part.
Simply put, BIOS is the software that tells your computer to start Windows (or whatever OS you use) when the computer is switched on.
It’s often invisible to the common user. You switch on the computer, BIOS searches any attached disks for an OS and then runs what it finds.
By default, most computers have a single operating system already installed on the computer hard disk.
If nothing is found on the hard disk, all other attached media (CD drive, USB) are checked in order until an OS is found.
It is possible to have multiple operating systems installed, but that’s a story for another day.
Step 3: BIOS Settings
We need to change the BIOS boot order to read from our USB stick before the computer hard disk.
Restart your computer. As soon as you see the manufacturer’s logo (Dell, HP, Acer…whatever), note where it says “Press [key] to enter setup” and press the named key.
The most common keys are F2, F10, and Del.
Once you have loaded the BIOS, you can use your keyboard to navigate to the boot menu.
Change the boot order so that USB is ahead of your hard disk.
Plug in your “Installer disk” USB stick and exit BIOS.
Step 4: Installing Android to USB
After exiting BIOS, the following screen should appear:
The first option – “Run Android without installation” – will allow you to try out Android, but you will lose all data on reboot. Try it if you like, but follow on for the proper install.
- Select “Install Android to harddisk”.
- At this point, plug in your “system disk” USB stick and chose “Detect Devices”.
- Select the newly plugged in USB stick as your target install directory.
- The next screen will ask you what format the USB stick will be. Select “Do not format” (the disk is already formatted).
- Select “Yes” for “Do you want to install boot loader GRUB”.
- Select “Yes” for “Do you want install / system directory as read / write”.
- Once completed, you are prompted “Run Android x86” or “Reboot”. Select neither; instead, switch off your computer.
Step 5: Booting into Android
Before powering on, unplug your “installer disk” USB stick. All being well, you won’t need this again (although your could lend it to a friend to save him doing Step 1 here).
Plug your “system disk” USB stick into the port the “installer disk” USB stick was just removed from. (If you don’t, you get “Error 17” on boot. Simply reboot with the stick in the right port).
Switch your computer on.
Very shortly, a screen like the following appears:
Select the first option to boot into Android. There’s an initial setup process just like when you switch on a tablet for the first time.
As long as your Android USB remains in the USB port, you will boot into Android (reboot and remove to boot into your normal OS).
That’s it. You now have an Android PC.
Part 2 of this post will be a summary of my experience in using my Android laptop, covering the apps I use, what works well, what doesn’t work well, and what doesn’t work at all.
If you don’t like what you see, remove the USB stick and reboot. You will boot into your normal OS as if nothing ever happened. Reformat the USB stick if you want it back.