We’ve been looking at Google’s new Android 6.0/Marshmallow over recent months, what’s new and, thanks to the developer community, how you can get it working even on older devices like Samsung’s Galaxy S3 smartphone.
Meanwhile, the team from Android-x86 has been doing impressive work porting our favourite OS to Intel architecture over the last couple of years, going all the way back to Ice Cream Sandwich/Android 4.0.
We showed you recently how to run Android 5.1.1/Lollipop as a virtual machine on your PC, but just before Christmas, the Android-x86 team pushed out their first Android 6.0/Marshmallow ‘release candidate’ for Intel-based PCs.
We’ve taken ‘RC1’ for a spin, and here, we’ll look at how to install it on actual hardware.
From our experience, it still needs a few tweaks, but if you have an old PC holding up one end of your coffee table, here’s one option that might just give it a new lease of life.
What you’ll need
You’ll need a few things to get this working, starting with UNetbootin, a 4GB USB flash drive (even a 2GB drive will do) and, of course, the 430MB Android-x86 6.0/Marshmallow distro ISO image, which you’ll find here. Just aim for the latest ‘android-x86-6.0’ ISO file.
You’ll also need that old PC or notebook. We recommend if it still has a working hard drive with installed OS and software that you remove it and replace it with a spare drive you don’t mind reformatting, preferably a small-size solid-state drive.
That way, if Marshmallow doesn’t float your boat, you can put back the original drive and your old system is as it was.
The replacement drive doesn’t need to be much — phones run Android with as little as 8GB of flash, so anything 8GB to 64GB would be perfect.
The last time we looked at installing Android on PC hardware a couple of years ago, we had a few reader questions concerning driver support, with reports some integrated peripheral devices weren’t working.
Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about that, since, unless apps include their own device drivers, you’re limited to the drivers built into the Android-x86 image.
That said, we tested this Marshmallow RC1 on an old Compaq Presario CQ42-135TU notebook from 2010 and, from a hardware perspective, it worked really well.
We had the internal Wi-Fi up and running from the start, full-screen pixel resolution, built-in audio, USB —
even the notebook’s function keys controlling screen brightness and audio levels worked beautifully, right down to the Print Screen button grabbing screenshots we’ve used here.
The CQ42-135TU doesn’t have built-in Bluetooth, but we had no trouble plugging in an el-cheapo generic Bluetooth USB dongle we picked up online for $2 — Marshmallow found it and automatically linked to it through the Settings/Bluetooth menu option.
But as with everything, your mileage will vary — that’s why we recommend using a spare drive, rather than overwriting a working system drive. Marshmallow might not work for you.
In our test system, we swapped out the original 250GB Seagate system drive for an old serviceable 64GB OCZ Vertex 2 SSD we had lying around.
Flash ISO to USB flash
The Android-x86 Marshmallow ISO is similar to most Linux distros in that it has two operating modes — you can boot it up into ‘live’ mode straight off the bat, where nothing is installed to the PC’s hard drive, the OS just loads into memory and it’s good to go.
However, we think the better option is ‘installation’ mode, which installs the OS to your device’s internal storage — it gives your setup persistence (meaning changes stay when you reboot).
To get the OS onto your USB flash drive first, plug the drive into your Windows PC and backup any important files.
Next, launch UNetbootin and, when it pops up, press the press the browse (‘…’) button on the far-right of the ‘Diskimage’ radiobutton and locate the Android-x86 ISO image you downloaded earlier.
Make sure the ‘drive’ entry at the bottom of the app window is pointing to your USB flash drive and, when you’re ready, press the ‘OK’ button.
It’ll take about a minute or so while your flash drive is made bootable and the ISO image is unpacked onto the flash drive. When completed, exit UNetbootin (don’t select ‘reboot’), remove the flash drive and plug it into your old notebook or desktop box.
UNetbootin doesn’t specifically support Android-x86 in its ‘distribution’ listing at the top of the app window, but this method we’ve just outlined works perfectly well.
Now boot up your old PC into the ‘select boot device’ menu, choose the flash drive and boot up. You should end up with the UNetbootin boot-screen menu.
Quickly scroll down to the ‘Installation’ option and press the Enter key.
The next screen will ask you to select a partition to install the OS to — check for ‘sda1’, which should be the primary boot drive (not the flash drive) and check the filesystem format next to it. If it doesn’t say ‘ext4’, scroll down and choose ‘Create modify/partitions’.
On the next screen, you’ll see the drives listed — select ‘sda’, which should also be labelled ‘harddisk’.
Next, select ‘No’ when asked if you want to use GPT (GUID Partition Table) for the drive. After that, if you get a big black warning screen about ‘unsupported GPT found’, just press Enter.
This should take you into the cfdisk disk partitioning tool.
Remember, you’re about to erase everything on this drive, so be sure to back up any files you need before you install the drive into your PC — there’s no retrieving lost data beyond this point.
The key to having Marshmallow work is ensuring your system drive is formatted to EXT4; if you don’t, Marshmallow will still install to the drive, but you won’t be able to download and install any apps. (We know because we tried EXT3 and that’s what happened!)
Using cfdisk, you need to delete any existing partition, create a new ‘primary’ partition, make it ‘bootable’ and finally, write the partition table information to the disk using the menu at the bottom of the screen.
If you don’t do the ‘write’ bit, the changes won’t commit. After that, select ‘Quit’ from the menu, you’ll go back to Marshmallow’s install process and you now choose the new partition as the installation drive.
When asked, you want to install the ‘GRUB’ boot loader, not ‘EFI GRUB2’ as this will fail on older systems. And select ‘No’ when asked to make the ‘/system’ folder read-write.
Once the image has been copied to the system drive, select ‘reboot’ on the new window, remove the flash drive and your PC should reboot into the GRUB boot menu. Choose the top menu entry (or just wait a few seconds) and Android will begin booting up.
The good news is that because Android-x86 6.0 is based on Google’s AOSP (Android Open-Source Project), the first-boot process should be pretty familiar. Just follow the prompts through to the end.
What works, what doesn’t?
First off, one of the ‘good bits’ is that it comes with Google Play, Gmail and YouTube pre-built into the ISO image.
This is nice because it gives you the basics you can build on with Google Play access, without having to hunt down an appropriate GApps pack to side-load first. We tested both Google Play and Gmail and they work a treat from the get-go.
Unfortunately, there are some things that didn’t work, starting with the YouTube app. While it launches and displays the usual still-image catalogue of videos, try to play any of them and the app just bails.
We tried setting the ‘App Compatibility’ option in Android’s Settings menu to no avail. We also had the same problem with iView — the app launches, it’ll even play a video for about a second and then bomb.
The more significant issue, however, that might be related is external USB storage seemed to be broken — we found USB flash drives mount, but to an odd ‘MEDIA_RW’ location. Most file managers we tried also can’t see the drive and the few that do show no files.
Our CQ42 test notebook also has an SD card reader, but again, Marshmallow recognises the card, but can’t see
There’s also no root access — and at the moment, there doesn’t appear to be a working solution yet either, but we suspect that’s more a problem with Marshmallow being so new.
However, the thing that surprised us the most is just how little x86 CPU performance you need to get some decent fun happening.
The CQ42-135TU packs a 1.9GHz dual-core Celeron T3100 CPU and integrated Intel GPU, so it’s nothing flash, yet it handles all the usual gaming suspects from Clash of Clans to Beach Buggy Blitz and Angry Birds with ease.
Speaking of gaming, another surprise was built-in support for USB gamepads. We plugged in a basic Logitech GamePad F310 and had it instantly up and running on Beach Buggy Racing with all controls working as designed.
We also tried a Spartan PS3 USB controller, but while steering worked, the accelerator triggers weren’t mapped correctly and we went nowhere.
Bottom-line, you may find it a bit hit and miss depending on the hardware you have on hand. As we said before, there’s no real way of telling what will and won’t work until you try it out.
We tried using MX Player in conjunction ES File Explorer’s network/SAMBA access but unfortunately, couldn’t make it work. However, KODI, in combination with ES File Explorer, got the job done nicely.
On the other hand, chromecasting — streaming the system screen to your Chromecast dongle for display on your telly — didn’t work in our case, but that is likely more to do with lack of casting support in the Wi-Fi hardware of the CQ42.
And just for fun, we also tried the CQ42’s built-in Ethernet port — turning off Wi-Fi, Marshmallow auto-switched to Ethernet connection and continued on as normal.
If Marshmallow RC1 isn’t stable enough for your needs, you can always go back to Android 5.1.1/Lollipop or 4.4/KitKat and give them a try.
Android-x86 has versions going back further than Jelly Bean, but given some of the security issues floating about, we recommend starting at KitKat.
They’re available as ISO images from the Android-x86.org download page, just follow the same installation method as shown above.
However, regardless of which version of Android-x86 you try, one tip we do recommend very early on is to install a rotation lock app.
You’ll find that some apps will anonymously, automatically and annoyingly swing the screen orientation around to portrait mode.
You can imagine the fun trying to move a mouse cursor in one axis when your eyes and brain are trying to move it in another. Lock the screen in ‘landscape’ mode and you’ll be right as rain.
Still worth a go
All up, our experience was mostly good, with just the external USB storage mounting giving us a bit of grief.
But the great thing about Android is that it’s a current-generation OS with a busload of software that doesn’t require the latest hardware to make good.
Android-x86 6.0 still needs work, but there is plenty of potential and we’re hoping the Android-x86 team will release more RCs shortly that iron out these bugs.
In the meantime, it’s still good enough to play games, watch your own streaming video, work on cloud documents, browse the web, do your email, listen to USB audio.
Of course, your mileage will vary, but if the more traditional Linux distros don’t do it for you, here’s a way to keep your old hardware on the front line with an OS you’re more likely familiar with.