Android-x86 4.0 review - Not impressed


Updated: March 24, 2012

A few weeks ago, Android-x86 4.0 RC Ice Cream Sandwich was released. For those of you wondering, Android-x86 is a project that aims to port Android to the IA platform. This is an interesting attempt, but more so because it allows testing the operating system on a device other than a smartphone.

My experience with Android is nil, so it will be interesting to see how I cope. I'm not a great believer in dumbphones, but perhaps the system has its merits regardless of the business case. Anyhow, I tested on my Asus eeePC netbook, which currently runs Ubuntu Lucid remix. Let's see how I fared, and what all the fuss is all about.

Teaser

Ice Cream Sandwich tasted

The nice thing about this distro, if I may call it that, is that it comes neatly packaged in a 180MB bootable image, with a live CD environment, so you can test without committing the image to your internal disk. Moreover, there are several ISO available, optimized for different brands of netbooks, including my own.

I started Android from an external USB. Before logging into a session, you are asked to setup your location and time and optionally enter your Google account credentials. This will allow you to use various Google services, sync your device with your online account and use the app market/shop. Moreover, you have the ability to join Google+, opt out of several geo-location-aware and user-profile-aware services. However, the bottom line is, to use the system to any degree of comfort, you will have to have an online identity that is periodically updated with your usage habits. So if you are looking for anonymous adult activities, this is probably not the best operating system for that.

Android has a very simple, dark futuristic interface with Star Trek icons limned in blue. Your desktop can feature both static shortcuts and widgets. You have multiple rotating desktop spaces, which you can populate with these. I haven't bothered, but for people who prefer a huge flat roll of icons, then they can comfortably do that.

In a way, it seems to be a weird culmination of three years of cultural experience with operating systems like Chrome OS, Jolicloud, Moblin, MeeGo, and similar. I apologize for too many hyperlinks, you don't have to click and read.

Desktop

Connectivity

Wireless and Bluetooth worked just fine, and so did the built-in Web camera. I was also able to connect to my Windows Samba shares after installing the right application, but more about that later. However, sharing using Samba did take some effort, as some of the apps available in the online shop rotated my screen, making the system unusable, while others refused to authenticate. In the end, I was only successful downloading files from Samba shares, but the protocol works just fine.

Webcam

Using Ice Cream

It's all about one huge iconified menu that seems to have taken over pretty much everything, including classic desktop incarnations of various interfaces.

Menu 1

Menu 2

The shop

This seems to be one place where Google wants you to spend most of your time. Signed in, all your base are belong to them, plus you can download programs and even pay for software, and most of the offerings cost something. So it's Apple's model all over again. However, that said, the Shop is fairly simple to use. You have a decent search with good suggestions, the programs are small and install and uninstall quickly, and you almost always get a nice little walk-through following every new installation. It's one happy family.

Shop

Browser

The browsing experience is not stellar. Perhaps it's the fact I'm using this thing on a non-touch device, but everything seems too big, including the tabs, fonts and everything else. The display size of web pages is too big to be comfortable for use on tiny devices, and this seems to be universal.

Browser

Multimedia

The masses will be pleased to learn that Youtube and music playback are available out of the box. However, your experience will be different from what you're used on a regular machine. More about that later.

Flash/Youtube

Other things

But you can also do normal things, like reading books, although reading books on an electronic device is an abomination, but it's preferable to updating your status on some failed social network. What's with Wuthering Heights, isn't that a song by Kate Bush?

Books reader

How to share data?

To be able to record my activity with the system, I had to install a screenshot utility. Now, this worked just fine, however, I had to disable the system privilege escalation prompts in order to keep the screenshots clean. All right, so I had a bunch of images now, but no way to copy them from the virtual /sdcard device to a persistent storage. As I've noted earlier, Samba sharing worked only in one direction. The internal hard disk in my eeePC netbook was invisible. And I did not want to upload my files to my Google account.

File manager

So what I did was connect an 8GB micro-SD card using an SD card adapter. Android automounted the storage card to /mnt/USB, however with root privileges. So I had to open the terminal emulator, su myself and then do a classic command-line copy from the virtual SD card to a real one. But this worked, and now you enjoy some lovely screenshots.

Performance, responsiveness

Android seems to be well-optimized for the relevant target devices. Running from a USB thumb drive, it was quite snappy overall, although that does not mean superior to the conventional Linux distro. We will touch that later.

Settings and security

Too many people place focus on security, so Google makes sure the security is well seen and acknowledged. And really, they've done a decent job. You are prompted when apps want to escalate privileges, although you can tweak prompts and popups down to a minimum, if you want. Moreover, you can configure every single installed program separately, granting or denying it various access privileges.

Security

You can also tweak many other facets of your desktop, as you see fit. The sub-menus are simple and clear. If there's one aspect where the lack of details does not impede the experience, it's definitely the customization part, within the pre-defined pre-approved limits, of course.

Settings 1

Settings 2

Problems

This is a Release Candidate, so some things are still flaky. Some programs would quit without a reason. The web camera tool would also stop now and then. The screen rotation issue bugged me even though I have explicitly unchecked the relevant display option.

Moreover, suspend & resume did not work as expected. I would put the computer to sleep by pressing the power button, but then it would wake spontaneously after a few minutes, probably due to some weird hardware interrupt. However, I was able to unlock the screen and resume using the distro. This experience is somewhat different from what webupd8 reported in their review.

But the biggest problem is multitasking. There isn't any really. Everything is oriented at having a single application in focus. Once you're done, hammer the Escape key a few times to navigate back up the menu hierarchy to a desired location and start a new activity that caters to your small single-threaded brain.

The most notable example was music. Playing an MP3 file worked as long as I did not click anywhere else, even the innocent screenshot utility. If I tried doing something else, the music stopped. This might make sense on a stupidphone, but not a wall-plugged netbook. Or even a battery-powered one.

And so it comes down to efficiency. There seems to be no way to do multiple things at the same time. Even simple things like copy & paste are a terrible burden. Starting your programs takes a lot of effort, as you have to go up and down the menu ladders, whereas conventional desktops, even a netbook remix of my Ubuntu, offers an immediate and superior experience with simple one-click shortcuts and a desktop-wide focus.

In a way, Android is a smart system designed for people with IQ around 90, give or take a few points. But the sheer volume of ads that pop everywhere, including inside programs and games, the ultra-moronic Youtube suggestions for the lowest-of-the-low common denominator of what can only be defined as a California's teens' vision of life, and overall idea of working like a dumb monkey one step at a time projects a very specific usage model for this operating system.

Conclusion

Visually, Android is pleasing. It's also quite fast. It's rather elegant. Stability needs improving, but then, this is not an official release yet. The human dynamics element has been carefully researched, it seems, too bad they chose oligophrens as the default model.

How can I sum my Android experience? Tiring. The fact I had to work like the average monkey really exhausted me. Click, click, click, escape, escape, escape. Is this what progress is all about? Ads and stupid tracking. Me not likey.

I guess Android might make sense on touch devices. But for anything with an external mouse and a full keyboard, it's definitely inferior to classic desktops. My Lucid remix offers so much more freedom and spatial visibility, it's as if you sprout wings and take majestic flight over the mists of Avalon all of a sudden. Well, I guess, from the purely technical perspective, Android deserves 8/10. But on the experience meter, 3/10. Peace.

Cheers.

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