If Android has an Achilles heel, it’s the whole problematic OS update mechanism that relies on at least two (more probably three) different companies getting together to agree on whether a release for a particular device will happen. Google may well announce an OS update, but it’s up to the device manufacturer to add in the appropriate device drivers and the phone network provider to test it against the 3G/4G network before you’re any hope of seeing an ‘update available’ message.
But if you’re still waiting for KitKat to make an appearance on your favourite Android device, there’s no need to wait – just install it on a PC instead.
Thanks to the team at the Android-x86 project, the latest Release Candidate 2 (RC2) image of KitKat for Intel x86 CPU-based systems has been released – and it’s pretty darn good.
Some readers may remember we took a look at a test build of Jelly Bean/4.3 last year. The good news is this new KitKat version is greatly improved, fixes many of the issues we saw last time and is still easy to install.
Installing KitKat on real hardware
Android-x86 4.4.2/KitKat comes as a 330MB ISO image you can install on any system as a software-only build through a virtualisation app such as VMWare Player 6, but nothing beats installing KitKat on real Intel x86 hardware for getting the best Android experience.
Like we did last time, we tested this new release using an old Compaq Presario CQ42-136TU notebook with a 1.9GHz Intel Celeron T3100 dual-core CPU and 2GB of RAM. Yep, it’s hardly state-of-the-art – but we’ve chosen it specifically to show you how well KitKat performs, even on older hardware.
Because of its relatively small size, you can burn the ISO image straight to a CD-R disc or, better still, flash it to a 1GB or larger USB flash drive and create your own Android Live USB drive. Either way, you can try out Android without installing it onto your computer’s hard drive by using the distro’s built-in ‘live’ option that launches the OS into RAM. But really, you should install it onto a physical drive and run it as a real system. That, of course, means you either have to backup all of the important files from the computer’s existing hard drive (since installing Android will require a complete wipe and format), or you do what we do and replace the original drive with a new one.
Top Tip: Try an SSD
The fact KitKat comes as a 330MB ISO image and writes only around 700MB of data to the drive means this is a great opportunity to replace the old platter-drive with a small-capacity solid-state drive. It’s a good idea for multiple reasons – first, you get to keep the computer’s original drive in working order, without having to spend time backing everything up. Second, you don’t need a high-capacity SSD – even a 32GB version will be fine (few Android phones or tablets feature more than this, anyway).
We threw an old 64GB OCZ Vertex 2 SSD into the breach here – its capacity is too small for Windows, but perfect for Android and gives the system a nice boost in responsiveness. And yes, KitKat supports TRIM so there are no worries about abandoned block reclamation or system slowdown. (If you’re in the market, try a budget 60GB Kingston SSDNow V300 model for around $60.)
We’ve included guides on creating the Android Live USB drive plus how to install the OS onto your computer – if you’ve installed Windows or Linux previously, you won’t have too many problems here.
How does it perform?
When we tested Android-x86 4.3/Jelly Bean last year, we were impressed by its overall performance, despite the fact that our particular Intel x86 CPU wasn’t really in Android’s wheelhouse. But roll on near enough to 12 months later and the improvements are considerable. Not only does it feel like the Android-x86 team has gained considerable experience in the intervening period, the whole Android-on-x86 concept has gained momentum, thanks to Intel itself.
We’ve seen a noticeable rise in the number of new Intel Atom Z37xx CPU-powered Android tablets this year – ASUS’ latest MeMO Tab 7 releases a case in point. The chip giant has taken some time to get its low-power CPU strategy into place and while it’s still a long way off from knocking chief rival ARM off its perch, Intel looks like it’s starting to hit its straps in this arena.
Unlike the Jelly Bean/4.3 release, this new RC2 image has root-access baked in, which instantly makes it a far more interesting distro to use. We had no trouble getting Google’s Chrome browser installed and working, but there is now also far greater support for x86 within Google Play. Previously, we had to use a Market Helper app to trick Google Play into thinking our notebook was a Galaxy S3 smartphone in order to install games such as Angry Birds. This time around, these apps install as a matter of course.
And while we’re at it, let’s talk gaming. The Celeron T3100 mobile dual-core CPU is a 2008-vintage chip bundled with Intel GMA4500 integrated chipset graphics, so we’re not talking GeForce or Radeon here. But it handles Angry Birds Star Wars beautifully and if you’re a Clash of Clans fan, you’ll be trading gems and mining gold and elixir before you know it. Still, it has to be said, not every game worked – Rivals At War wouldn’t run, neither would iFighter. To be fair, we’d blame the ageing GMA4500 graphics engine for a lack of recent 3D functionality. The OS has OpenGL ES hardware acceleration for Intel and AMD Radeon GPUs built-in, but we doubt support goes back as far as GMA4500.
Android-x86 uses a code module called a ‘binary translator’, which converts ARM-class pre-compiled binary code into x86-compatible ‘speak’ for Intel CPUs. Rival chip designer ARM claims this binary translation adds an extra load onto gaming performance – and it very likely does, but you’ll never get Intel and ARM agreeing on just how much.
The beauty of the Java programming language used to make most Android apps is that it’s architecture-independent – you write once, run it everywhere. But for code that is pre-compiled (usually found in games for faster, more consistent speed), that code has to be translated since it’s normally compiled for ARM CPUs, not Intel. Again, we doubt the translator here has our Celeron T3100 CPU or its GMA4500 graphics engine in mind.
Device and video support
The good news is that the majority of the CQ42’s integrated devices worked out of the box – we had audio (including keyboard volume control), external USB, Wi-Fi and even power management all up and running, which bodes well for other notebooks. DHCP-configured Ethernet is also said to be available but we haven’t tried it yet.
The notebook’s 1366×768-pixel LCD panel also runs at native resolution but while the on-board webcam performance was fine for still images, it’s too slow for video. The only component of note that didn’t work at all was the on-board DVD burner but again, Android doesn’t do optical media in any case.
Video playback though was excellent – adding a decent video player such as MX Player is a must, but even so, we had no trouble playing 1080p MPEG-4 video from a USB flash drive on our notebook with no obvious jitter or frame dumping. That’s not bad for a dual-core Celeron CPU. The Android-x86 team has added the popular ffmpeg (libavcodec) codec engine to provide greater video codec support for Stagefright, the media player architecture inside Android. We couldn’t fault it.
What doesn’t work?
Apart from the non-functioning DVD burner and the slow webcam, we couldn’t get KitKat’s Cast Screen (Miracast) feature to run, but again, you need supported hardware for that, something you won’t get in a 2008-era notebook. Still, as we’ve seen recently, there are plenty of ways to create a Chromecast-like setup without actually using Miracast or a DIY Chromecast dongle. But there is one feature that is definitely a no-go.
One of the big-budget additions to KitKat is the new Android RunTime (ART) engine that Google plans to replace the ageing Dalvik engine with. KitKat has Dalvik as the default option, but you may be aware that by tapping five times on the Android ‘build number’ entry in the Settings/About tablet menu, you can activate the ‘developer options’ and enable the ART engine in place of Dalvik.
But here’s why you don’t want to try it here. We gave it a go and upon the mandatory reboot, all we got was a never-ending view of the Android logo with no way to repair it – except for a complete reinstall and considerable face-palming.
While the GMA4500 graphics engine may struggle with 3D gaming, the dual-core Celeron T3100 CPU has plenty of zip for an old chip. We ran a couple of generic benchmarks and the results are surprisingly decent. AnTuTu came back with a score of 21059 – faster than the Samsung Galaxy S3 and on a par with the Galaxy Note 2. GeekBench 3.0 returned a single/multi-core score set of 964/1723, which puts it ahead of the LG-built Nexus 4 phone and just behind the ASUS-made Nexus 7 (2013) tablet.
Running KitKat on this notebook has been a surprisingly enjoyable experience overall, but to help you get up and running faster, here are a few must-have additions:
- Adaptive Rotation Lock – stops apps from turning the screen orientation to portrait.
- Root Browser – lets you browse the complete filesystem, not just the user folders.
- MX Player (with x86 codec pack) – best app for playing 1080p videos.
- Root Checker – a good way to make sure you have root-access available.
Give it a go
This KitKat/4.4.2 release of Android-x86 is easily the best-featured and most stable we’ve seen so far. However, it’s small 330MB ISO image means it’ll probably be a bit of a lottery as to whether it’ll have every device driver needed to make your notebook or PC work to the fullest extent. While we fared remarkably well on that score, ultimately, your mileage may vary.
But if you have a notebook or PC gather dust or holding up a set of shelves, why not dust it off, fire it up and give this distro a go? Given how well it performs on low-power ARM-based devices, Android could well be the ultimate OS to keep your older hardware ticking over. And it won’t cost you much to find out, either!
STEP-BY-STEP: Create a Live USB drive
STEP 1: Download the Android ISO
Download the Android-x86 KitKat 4.4.2 RC2 ISO image from http://tinyurl.com/kitkatx86 and get the latest version of UNetbootin from http://tinyurl.com/winunetbootin. Grab a USB flash drive of at least 1GB, plug it into your PC and format it (backup any important files first).
STEP 2: Launch UNetbootin
Launch UNetbootin and make sure the flash drive appears in the ‘Drive’ list at the bottom of the window. Click the radiobutton next to ‘DiskImage’, ‘click the ‘…’ browse button on the far right and select the location of your ISO image.
STEP 3: Create the bootable drive
With the ISO image and USB flash drive selected, click the ‘OK’ button and UNetbootin will create your bootable Android Live USB flash drive.
STEP-BY-STEP: Install Android KitKat on your PC
WARNING – This process wipes the contents of your PC’s hard drive.
STEP 1: Boot Up
Boot your PC from the Live USB drive you’ve just made, select ‘Installation’ from the menu.
STEP 2: Create a Partition
On the ‘Choose Partition’ screen, select Create/Modify Partitions to launch the cfdisk utility. If there are any existing partitions, use the right arrow key, scroll to ‘delete’, press the Enter key. Repeat until all partitions are removed. With no partitions shown, select ‘New’, then ‘Primary’. Press Enter again to use the full drive capacity, and again to make the partition ‘Bootable’. Scroll across using the right-arrow key until you get to ‘Write’ (it auto-wraps), press Enter, type ‘yes’ to confirm and press Enter again to write partition. When you see the main menu again, scroll to Quit and press Enter.
STEP 3: Install Boot Loader
On the ‘Choose Partition’ screen again, select ‘sda1 Linux’ and press Enter. Now on the Choose Filesystem screen, select ‘ext3’, press Enter. Select Yes to confirm. When you see ‘install boot loader GRUB’, choose ‘Yes’. Next, you’ll be asked if you want the /system directory as ‘read/write’. Again, select ‘Yes’. Once the OS is written, choose ‘Reboot’ and remove the USB flash drive from your PC.
STEP 4: Follow the Prompts
Android 4.4.2 should now boot up on your PC. You don’t need to do anything until you see the Android ‘Welcome’ screen – from then on, just follow the prompts.