Over the last couple of years, we’ve been keeping tabs on Android-x86, the open-source project bringing various iterations of Android to Intel-based x86-PC hardware.
Built on Google’s Android Open Source Project (AOSP) code, Android-x86 is hitting its straps to such an extent that you’re more likely to get Android 6.0/Marshmallow running on PC hardware than you are on all but the most recent smartphones and tablets.
Android-x86 is available in multiple flavours from 4.0/Ice Cream Sandwich to 4.4/KitKat, 5.1/Lollipop and now 6.0/Marshmallow, all free of charge and available from android-86.org.
We’ve showed you how to install it on real PC hardware or run it as a virtual machine on your existing Windows PC via VMware Workstation Player or Oracle VirtualBox hypervisors.
But in recent weeks, we’ve seen two revolutionary new commercial forks of Android-x86 arrive with the potential to turn the PC market on its head.
These new releases, ‘Phoenix OS’ and ‘Remix OS’, are both built on Android-x86’s version of 5.1.1/Lollipop, but add in a desktop window manager, allowing genuine multitasking with Android apps as resizable windows on the desktop.
Now, if you’re thinking this sounds a lot like Chrome OS, it’s not quite the same thing. In fact, this is potentially much better.
Yes, Google released App Runtime for Chrome (ARC) to enable Android apps to run on Chrome OS, but this is native-Android — well, as close to ‘native’ as x86 hardware will allow.
That should mean less fiddling around getting more apps to work. Both of these new desktop Android variants also allow traditional full-screen app mode, giving you the best of both options.
However, the reality is they are still works-in-progress and not without issues, but we’ve given each a run and definitely recommend you keep an eye on these projects over the next year. The potential for desktop Android is huge.
Remix OS Beta
Chinese-based Jide Technology was founded by three ex-Google engineers (Jeremy Chau, Ben Luk and David Ko) in 2014 and announced the first developer-focused alpha of ‘Remix OS for PC’ in January this year. The first public beta followed on March 1st.
It’s available as a Torrent or download from the Remix OS website, which you can install onto a hard drive or USB flash drive, but not in the usual ‘live Linux distro’ sense.
Remix OS comes as a zip package with text file instructions, a 2.64GB ISO image and Remix OS Installation Tool.
However, unlike most Linux distros, Remix OS doesn’t allow standalone installation onto a fresh disk partition — you have to use the Installation Tool and create a virtual dual-boot setup within Windows 7, 8 or 10 (similar to Ubuntu’s old WUBI setup), or you install it onto a USB drive.
Depending on your work preferences, the USB install option could be more useful as it creates a genuine portable install, with its own built-in persistent storage for file saves.
However, the original Remix OS alpha caused a stir when users began examining its End User License Agreement (EULA) more closely.
Unusually, the EULA pops up on first-boot and one clause that set forums alight stated ‘you agree that you irrevocably waive any and all ownership, legal and moral rights to your user content’.
After copping flack online, Jide Technology reportedly came out with a statement in mid-January, saying the EULA was a standard Chinese agreement copied into the international release and that Jide’s legal team had removed the user content and moral rights language for future versions.
The explanation soothed some users, but we were surprised to see the same clause appear in the ‘B2016030106’ 64-bit beta we downloaded on March 6th (see our screenshot).
Needless to say, requiring your users to hand over all ownership rights to their content isn’t a great look and we hope Jide fixes this in a hurry.
That said, we still gave Remix OS a run and here’s what you need to know.
How to install it
First, grab the Remix OS zip file and unzip it to a folder in your PC.
The zip file includes the ISO image, .txt file instructions and the Remix OS Installation Tool.
It’ll allow you to install Remix OS as a dual-boot OS on existing Windows 7, 8 or 10 system drives or, alternatively, to a USB flash drive for use as a ‘live’ drive. Choose the latter option and Jide recommends a USB3.0-class flash drive with at least 8GB of storage and 20MB/second write speed.
Given this is beta software, we’d also recommend using a spare PC for this and not a mission-critical production system, just in case things go pear-shaped.
Launch the Remix OS Installation Tool and follow the steps provided. Rather than making a WUBI-like dual-boot setup, we chose the simpler USB flash drive install option to see how it performed.
Obviously, make sure you have backed up any important files as the flash drive will be erased during the install process. Further, make sure you also select the drive carefully.
This Installation Tool can install Remix OS to your Windows system drive and while Jide says it can be removed by launching the UninstallRemixOS.exe file inside the RemixOS folder on your PC drive, just be sure you know what you’re doing before doing it.
Once installed to a USB drive, you’ll only see any empty folder under Windows Explorer.
While it looks like a custom version of the popular UNetbootin ISO image tool, the Installation Tool actually creates three partitions on your USB flash drive — one for Remix OS, a second empty 3GB partition and a third, providing FAT32 filesystem storage using whatever space is left over.
The Installation Tool creates these partitions, but Windows Explorer only sees the FAT32 storage block.
Next, install the USB flash drive into a test PC, boot into the BIOS and set it to boot first from the USB drive.
Reboot and you should see the launch menu appear on screen. There are two options — Guest Mode, which doesn’t save any changes (all changes are lost on reboot) and Resident Mode, which does allow changes to be saved.
This is where things slow down a touch. The first boot in any Android system is always comparatively slow, but you’ll need a pretty fast flash drive not be left hanging here for a few minutes. Eventually, though, you’ll come up to the initial language choice.
How it looks
When it finally appears, Remix OS has the usual things you’d expect to see in a desktop OS — right-click context menus, start menu, desktop launch icons, taskbar, even pop-out right-side notification panel.
In fact, squint and Remix OS has a bit of a Windows 10 look about it (okay, so you have to squint hard).
But the novel thing about Remix OS is being able to view your favourite Android apps in multiple resizable windows rather than just one full-screen.
Sideload Google Services
Limiting Remix OS installation to virtual dual-boot and USB live drive options only is a drawback, but more of an issue is the lack of Google Services, which, among other things, means no Google Play app.
The good news is the fix just requires you to install a single .apk package file. Point your Remix OS browser to Google Groups, download the GMSActivator.apk file and launch it.
You’ll first need to set the OS to allow app installation from unknown sources (go to Settings > Security), but after that, it should install.
Launch the app, click the Download Google Services button and, within a couple of minutes, it should download and install the Google Play Services and Google Play apps into the OS.
Once done, you’ll need to reboot the PC for it to take effect, but after that, you should have Google Play in the Start menu, ready to load in your login details and start downloading apps. (Obviously, however, this does mean that it won’t work in Guest Mode.)
USB partition issues
Another potential issue appears if you decide Remix OS isn’t for you and you want your USB flash drive back.
The problem is that Windows can’t handle multiple partitions on USB flash drives — Windows Explorer can’t see them and Disk Management can’t do anything with them.
The only way to get rid of them on a Windows system is to use the Diskpart command-line tool, but you’ll need to use it with care — it doesn’t enumerate drives by letter, so you’ll need to know the capacity of each disk in your system in order to select the correct one.
It’s fairly easy to use, but keep a sharp eye because it’s all too easy to accidentally delete another partition instead and end up killing system storage or, worse, your PC.
Remix OS isn’t the only show in town, with rival Phoenix OS having popped up around the same time. It’s another Chinese release available free-of-charge, this time created by Beijing Chaozhuo Technology Co.
The website isn’t quite as slick as Remix OS, but overall, Phoenix OS has a good feel about it. We downloaded the current (at time of writing) v1.04 installer.
It’s about half the size of Remix OS beta, and while it has its own unique install process app (the download is a single .exe file), it still gives you more or less the same options as Remix OS; namely, install to a USB flash drive or virtual dual-boot to an existing Windows setup.
However, it lacks Remix OS’s temporary Guest Mode option and you must use the Installer Tool to remove the dual-boot.
It’s also missing Google Services but, unfortunately, the GMSActivator.apk installer that fixes this on Remix OS failed here.
What’s interesting is that the USB installation setup here is completely different to Remix OS. Whereas Remix OS creates multiple partitions on your USB flash drive, Phoenix OS needs only one partition, appearing to keep persistent storage in a virtual disk file.
On the up-side, the desktop layout, particularly the Start menu, feels more comfortable and has even more of a Windows 10 feel about it than Remix OS.
It’s also leaner and seems faster than Remix OS on USB2.0-era hardware (definitely on USB drives).
The drawback for now at least is the lack of Google Services. Still, it has WPS Office and MX Player already on-board and we had no trouble playing H.264 video from a second USB flash drive.
The main problem is we know nothing about Beijing Chaozhuo Technology Co, so we can’t recommend you start loading in your Google login details into this one just yet. If you have a test Google account, give that a go instead.
Which to choose?
There’s plenty of movement happening in ‘desktop Android’ at the moment, but as we’ve said, realistically, it is work-in-progress-grade stuff. That means they all have benefits and drawbacks.
We think Remix OS’s EULA needs work and we’d like to see that fixed, but being able to at least sideload Google Services sweetens the pot nicely.
Phoenix OS looks great, runs well, but lacks Google Services support for the moment, even as a sideload on our testing and is a bit of an unknown quantity at this stage.
Vanilla Android-x86 offers the greatest versatility of installation, but gives you only the standard Android experience on your PC hardware — no multi-window multitasking.
We think things have also been complicated recently by Android-x86 founder Chih-Wei Huang’s decision to partner up with Jide Technology.
In the recent announcement, Huang said Jide could help push Android-x86 along, but also stated the Android-x86 project “will continue to be an independent open-source project”.
Nevertheless, Android-x86 is now gaining some serious momentum and it’ll be very interesting to see how it progresses over 2016.
In the meantime, getting off the fence, my tip for the moment would be to go with Android-x86 4.4-r5 — it’s the most recent update and likely the most stable x86 build.
The fact you can install it as a standalone OS without dual-booting and run it on a hypervisor are pluses in my book.
But it’s also very likely Remix OS and Phoenix OS will offer better device driver support, given the apparent effort to make them into genuine desktop OSes.
Rather than narrow your options, keep an eye on both of these new desktop Android releases as well.
It’s still only early days, for sure, but a genuine Android desktop operating system could seriously become a thing of beauty.