Android on Your Netbook!

Like the idea of the ASUS Transformer, but don’t want to splash out on a new netbook? Well, I recently stumbled across an article written by Web.AppStorm editor Matthew Guay on How-To-Geek, describing how to run Android on a Netbook. I was intrigued and tried it out as an experiment. Since it runs off a flash drive, nothing is installed or written to the hard drive. Read on to learn about how you can run Android on your netbook, and how it fares.

What You Will Need

  • A USB Flash Drive – 256MB+ (with no data on it, otherwise it will be lost). Some devices may support SD cards too.
  • A Compatible Device (see Step 1 below)
  • 30 minutes of your time

The Steps

The overall process for getting Android on a Netbook is simple. I was expecting a load of hassle, but it took me about fifteen minutes.

Step 1

Check that your device is supported: go to http://www.android-x86.org/download and see whether your device type or model is a part of a download name. If it is, download it! I can vouch for the Asus EEE Netbook series. Make sure you download from the Stable section, rather than Deprecated. The download should be entitled something like android-x86-2.2-r2-eeepc.iso.

Step 2

While Android is downloading, grab UNetbootin from here. This tool allows you to unpack and transfer the .iso file onto a memory stick in a format that your device’s bootloader can recognise, and start up.

Step 3

Once the Android-x86 download is complete, open UNetbootin, click the radio button next to ‘DiskImage’. Ensure that ‘ISO’ is selected from the drop-down box, and then click the ‘…’ button at the end of the text box. Browse to the android-x86——.iso you just downloaded, and select it. Check that the USB Drive settings at the bottom are correct, then click OK. Wait a minute or two for the data to be written.

Step 4

When Android has been put on the USB device, plug it into your Netbook. When you first turn on your computer, you see a BIOS readout screen. Most modern Netbooks have a sentence saying ‘Press ESC for BBS Popup’, or something similar. Press ESC, select your USB stick from the menu and press Enter to boot from it. Then choose how to boot Android – I always choose ‘Default’.

The Bios-Boot-Selection or BBS.

If Default doesn't work for you, try the alternative modes, or start with the one you think may be best for your system.

If you do not get a prompt telling you which key triggers a boot menu, enter your BIOS settings when you boot up (probably F1, F2, DEL, or F10), then re-arrange the boot priority of your devices, put ‘USB’ or ‘External Peripherals’ before your hard drive, so the computer boots from the memory stick instead of the hard drive. Don’t worry about changing this back after this guide. So long as a bootable USB stick isn’t plugged in, your Netbook will boot up off the hard drive like it always has.

Step 5

Don’t be alarmed by the brief [email protected] terminal prompt. Everything is ticking over in the background. You should soon see the Android splash screen, and then the Android lockscreen!

Nearly there...

Once it's fully loaded, you should see the lockscreen.

Step 6

Grab a cup of coffee or tea, and enjoy playing with Android on your Netbook!

This is the same version of Android that a lot of lower-end tablets are running.

Applications!

It seems weird having a Netbook offer Airplane Mode.

What Is Available, and What Works

Using a Mouse and Keyboard

Using a mouse was a little odd at first, seeing a cursor on Android was even odder. You quickly get used to it though. Typing with a keyboard is fantastic, none of that slow touchscreen-typing!

Wi-Fi

The Wi-Fi was a bit odd; it didn’t work for me in Android-X86 2.2, but it did in 2.3 pre-release. Whether this is a problem in just the EeePC build I don’t know. If your wireless connection doesn’t seem to work, or times out, try putting Android-X86 2.3 on the USB stick instead and restart. The internet browser which is included is fast, and it supports Flash.

Ethernet Support

I didn’t try it, but the Wireless and Networks configuration page allows you to use your ethernet port. This may be a viable alternative if the Wi-Fi isn’t working.

Fast Boot

The whole system boots off a memory stick in about 20 seconds, so I bet that booting from a hard disk would be even faster, more like 10 seconds! This makes the idea of Android on Netbooks very attractive to people who are on and off their Netbooks all day.

Camera

The camera application which comes with Android-x86 worked perfectly for me, both in Camera and Video mode. But since most netbook cameras as front-facing, they’re not very useful for taking photos.

So What’s the Point of Android X86?

I guess the overall point is to find an old Netbook you no longer use, and jazz it up. Perhaps make it something of a travelling machine you aren’t afraid to lob about and take everywhere with you, unlike a new Android tablet.

The Android port can be installed to your harddrive permanently. This would ensure a very shoot boot time, and make an excellent on-demand platform. If you have a touchscreen device that Android-X86 supports, even better!

Should you be interested in keeping Android-X86 on your hard drive and manage to get the Android Market to work, you are sorted! This link may help with the Android Market, but I am not 100% sure about that.  If you have an EeePC like me, then you have a 1.6GHz hyperthreaded processor with a 128MB Intel GMA950 to run Android 2.2 on. There is no lag whatsoever, and you can see what Android is like on hardware which is a lot more powerful than in phones and tablets. The Opera web browser would look great, and if you get bored, you could try to play Fruit Ninja with a cursor!

Since Android is already very streamlined, I expect the x86 build is extremely generous with battery life, making the idea of a travelling machine even better.

Limitations

The Android build I was running is 2.2 and it is considered stable, the x86 website only offers up to 2.3, considered unstable. At present, getting Android 3 or higher – and some of great tablet-style functionality which comes with it – just isn’t happening.

Getting the Android Market to work properly seems to be a little laborious and tricky. So getting new applications is a little bit of a problem. An ‘App Store’ is included in the X86 distribution, but it’s not the same.

Final Thoughts

The Android-X86 project is well worth a look if you fancy tinkering or playing about with Android on a Netbook. As for installing it to the hard drive, unless you know Wi-Fi works for sure I wouldn’t bother. If Wi-Fi works you could consider it. Otherwise you have a Netbook which can’t really do much and would be better if you stuck a proper operating system on it.

There is an article posted a few days ago describing how Google and Intel are teaming up for Android x86 support! This team up, combined with this news about battery life, means we may have some fantastic devices to look forward to in 2012 or 2013.

If you like the idea of Android on a Netbook, have a look at the ASUS EeePad Transformer. It is both a beautiful tablet, and a super-slim Netbook!