Get some Nougat in
Don’t wait to get Android 7.1.2 on your phone — install it on your PC instead! Darren Yates shows you how with the new ‘Nougat’ release candidate of Android-x86.
Unless you’re prepared to drop some dollars on the latest phone — or you’ve just done so recently — the only other way to grab hold of the latest Android release is to get your developer’s hat on, some Android Studio downloads and run a Nougat virtual machine. But thanks to a new release from Android-x86.org, you can now run Android 7.1.2/Nougat on your x86 hardware. What’s more, it comes with root-access baked in, plus Google Apps (Gmail, Play Store) to run many of your favourite apps and games.
INSTALLING ON REAL HARDWARE
We’ve been playing around with this new release for a bit and found two different methods of operation that work — creating an Android virtual machine (VM), which runs Android as an app on top of your Windows PC, plus installing Android on actual hardware. The VM option is less messy (and potentially cheaper), but in our view it’s not as fulfilling an experience, particularly on gaming and video. It’s still a worthwhile option for everything else, but to get the best results, we’ve decided this month to look at installing it on x86 hardware.
SOFTWARE YOU’LL NEED
In terms of software, we’ll assume you have access to a Windows PC somewhere about and can grab UNetbootin ( unetbootin.github.io). This free tool takes ‘ live’ distro ISO images and turns them into bootable USB flash drives.
Next, you’ll need the Android 7.1.2/ Nougat RC1 ISO image, which is available free from Android-x86.org or OSDN ( tinyurl.com/y824wzeh). It’s only a first ‘release candidate’, so consider it better than ‘ beta’, but not ‘retail’ — that means expect to find the odd glitch or feature not working fully. We recommend the 32-bit ‘android-x86-7.1-rc1.iso’ download, unless you’re sure you’ve got 64-bit hardware to throw at it, in which case, grab the ‘android-x86_64-7.1-rc1.iso’ file instead.
As for hardware, you’ll need a USB flash drive. Regardless of the Android ISO image you opt for, they’re all less than 1GB in size (the 32-bit ISO image is about 680MB), so any USB flash drive that’s 1GB or larger should do the trick — great for those freebie flash drives floating around in your drawer!
Finally, you’ll need something to install it on. Personally, I don’t recommend dual-booting this release on your existing PC, so it’s the opportunity to resurrect that old laptop you’re using to hold up your shelves. I have a 2010-era Compaq Presario CQ42-136TU laptop for just such occasions — it’s a 1.9GHz dualcore Intel Celeron T3100 with 2GB of RAM and a 250GB hard drive running Windows 7. It’s old and seen better days, but for Android, it’s perfect.
1 REPLACE THE HARD DRIVE
Given that warning about dualbooting, plus the fact I don’t much like obliterating a working hard drive install of Windows, I’d suggest replacing the laptop’s original hard drive with an old smallish SSD instead. There are a couple of reasons for doing this. First, I reckon Android runs better off an SSD and just seems a bit more responsive, but second, if you find Android isn’t your cup of tea, you can replace the SSD with your original laptop hard drive again and everything is back to the way it was.
We replaced the original 250GB hard drive in this Compaq Presario
laptop with an old 64GB OCZ Vertex2 SSD. Would we purchase a new SSD to try Nougat out? In a word, no. Being a ‘ release candidate’, we found in our experience a sufficient number of things just not quite right yet — that’s why using your old hardware would be a better way to go. Of course, if you only have a spare hard drive you don’t mind erasing, that’s better than nothing. Android-x86 is designed as a ‘ live’ distro, meaning you can create a ready-to-go USB flash drive or CD and preview the OS live on your PC without installing anything. In that regard, it’s similar to many Linux distros like Ubuntu. But the same flash drive or CD can also install the OS onto a computer and since you can’t get the full experience without persistent storage (which you don’t get with a preview), we think a proper install is best.
To create an Android USB installer, plug your USB flash drive into your Windows PC and make sure you copy off any files you want to keep — there won’t be anything left of them after we’ve finished this process. Once you’re done, crack open UNetbootin. Towards the bottom-left of the app window, you’ll see a radiobutton next to ‘Diskimage’ — click on it. Next, press the browse (...) button on the right and locate the Nougat ISO image file you downloaded before. Make sure you select the USB flash drive letter and, when you’re ready, press the OK button and Nougat will install as a ‘ live’ bootable distro on your flash drive.
3 INSTALLING ON YOUR OLD LAPTOP
If you have your old laptop ready to go, plug your Nougat USB flash drive into a USB port, boot up the laptop and press whichever key sequence you need to bring up the boot options. Select to boot from the USB flash drive. Within a few seconds, you should get a blue text-based menu screen with a few choices. Scroll down to ‘Installation - Install Android-x86 to harddisk’ and press Enter. Follow these six steps for the rest: A few seconds of whizzing command logs later, you should see a ‘Choose Partition’ screen with a few options. The first should be ‘sda1’ — that’ll be your SSD or hard drive, ‘sdb1’ will be your USB flash drive. Ensure ‘sda1’ is selected and press Enter. Next, you’ll need to choose a filesystem to format the drive with — select ‘ext4’ and press Enter. Note, this will erase everything on that drive and format it with the ext4 filesystem. After that, you need to install the GRUB boot loader, select Yes and press Enter. Now you’ll be asked whether to make the ‘/system’ folder read-write. Choose No and press Enter. Android will now write itself onto the laptop’s drive and take about 30 seconds. If all goes well, you’ll see a ‘congratulations’ window. Select ‘Reboot’, press Enter and remove the USB flash drive. The one thing you’ll notice is just how fast Android-x86 installation is. After doing this a few times, we were
able to get this process done in well under two minutes.
4 SETTING UP
Your laptop should now boot up into a black-and-white text menu showing ‘Android-x86 7.1-rc1’ as the first entry. If it doesn’t automatically select it and launch, do so by pressing Enter. Once you see the big ‘android’ logo, you’re on your way — from here, the setup procedure is the same as if you just bought yourself a new Android phone. You can create a new Gmail account specifically for testing, rather than install your real Gmail account if you prefer.
THREE OUT OF FOUR
“The fact that RC1 comes with the four major Google Apps — Gmail, YouTube, Chrome and Play Store — means that, despite the fairly short apps list, you’ve got all the basics you need to operate.”
than 360p (480 x 360-pixel) resolution on our CQ42-136TU laptop, yet this 7.1.2-RC1, when it worked, had no dramas at all with 720p (1,280 x 720-pixel) YouTube video at full frame rate. Your mileage may vary.
Otherwise, we know this laptop was capable of playing back local 720p video and it worked well with MX Player — given RC1’s decent built-in codec support and the MX Player codec pack, there shouldn’t be too many files you can’t play. We also installed the latest version of Kodi (17.3 Krypton) and while the user interface ran perfectly with no glitches, we had an odd frame-order jitter occur on all video files we tried, files that showed no issue when played with MX Player.
Out of the box, Wi-Fi was up and running, so too were the laptop’s built-in webcam and audio. Keyboard volume control shortcuts for the audio also worked. We were able to connect up a USB microscope (with appropriate software) and even USB flash drives automatically mounted into the system. The real surprise was that provided you booted up with the optical disc in place, you could even read CD-ROM and DVD-ROM discs. You can’t play DVD movies or audio CDs, at least not with the internal drive, but there are apps now available that claim to offer audio CD playback via external USB drives (we weren’t able to test this).
WATCH OUT FOR...
The most troublesome issue we faced occurred on three separate occasions and that was an unrecoverable boot-loop. It happened once when we used the power button-reset option. It also happened again after we allowed Root Browser file manager to gain root-access to install Linux utilities. It happened a third time when downloading a game from Google Play. We don’t think these actions were the root cause, but we’re also not sure what the problem was, other than maybe some form of filesystem mounting issue.
We did find a solution that fixed it without losing any files, but only temporarily. What we did was follow the mini six-step install guide in Step 3 back over the page, but this time, when we got to selecting a filesystem, we chose ‘do not format’ instead of ‘ext4’. We installed GRUB as before and followed the rest of the steps, even to writing the Nougat ISO to the drive. When we rebooted, the drive came up as normal with all of the previously installed apps. However, on the following reboot, the system boot-looped again.
Another thing, you’ll want to get hold of a decent screen rotation-lock app — it only takes one app switching into portrait mode and turning your screen sideways to get sick of it. The best app we’ve found for this is Set Orientation, it’s free on Google Play. Launch it, set it to ‘ landscape’, problem solved.
To be fair, Andfroid-x86 7.1.2-RC1 is called a ‘ release candidate’ for a reason and despite the glitches, we still think it shows lots of potential.
We tested Nougat/7.1.2 with gaming classics Beach Buggy Blitz and Angry Birds — both worked a treat on our laptop, offering fast gameplay and decent frame rates. On the other hand, Candy Crush Saga wouldn’t start. But we also had success with more recent releases including Critical Ops, which can be operated by mouse. Critical Ops’ built-in frame rate counter at topright of screen showed frame rates of between 42 and 59fps at native 1,366 x 768p resolution, which isn’t bad for a dual-core Celeron and integrated Intel GMA4500 graphics. In the end, though, Android gaming on a laptop mostly requires support for gamepads and keyboards, plus the ability to either run code natively on x86 hardware or use Android’s App Compatibility option in Settings.
If you’ve got an old laptop floating around and a spare SSD you’re not using, it won’t cost you anything to try this new version of Android-x86. As we’ve said, we found this RC1 release well-named, with a few issues that still need to be addressed before Nougat-x86 is really ready for primetime, including that bootloop issue. That said, most things are fixable and we think this RC1 is the most advanced RC1 we’ve seen from the Android-x86 team — it feels fast, responsive and more things work out-of-the-box than we’ve experienced previously.
Bottom line is: while your mileage will probably vary, from what we’ve seen so far, Nougat-x86 has the potential to be an excellent way of bringing your old x86 hardware out of retirement and turning it into the very latest Android experience. We eagerly await the next release.
When installing MX Player, remember the x86 version of the codec pack.
Angry Birds runs nicely on our test laptop with Nougat-x86 RC1.
This Compaq Presario CQ42-136TU served as a testbed for our RC1 run.
This RC1 build features a recent version 4.9.31 of the Linux kernel.
Android-x86 lacks a file manager but there’s no shortage of options.
Nougat-x86 RC1 includes Gmail and Play Store apps.
UNetbootin turns your flash drive into a bootable Nougat USB installer.
Kodi installed and ran on our test laptop, but had a frame-jitter issue.
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Critical Ops played well with frame rates in the low-40fps range.
The first boot after installation should present the standard welcome screen.
We found the YouTube app ran well, but a bit temperamental.