Ten next-level Android hacks
No ROM flashing, no root access required — Darren Yates reveals our 10 favourite hacks to take your Android device to the next level.
We keep saying it because it’s true — Android smartphones are the ultimate personal computers. Multi-core chips, wireless capabilities and a pretty decent operating system allows these devices to do much more than make phone calls and play games. To prove it, this month we’ve rounded up our 10 best next-level hacks showcasing just how good phone hardware is — and best of all, there’s no ROM flashing or root-access required.
TURN IT INTO A LINUX DESKTOP
Android is built on Linux, as is Debian. So why not get some desktop Debian Linux on your Android device? Thanks to a couple of excellent free apps on Google Play — GNURoot Debian and XServer XSDL — you can download and install your own fresh copy of Debian Linux onto your Android device as if it were just another app. Granted, it’ll chew up a decent amount of storage (I’d have at least 3GB free if I were you), but it’ll give you a genuine desktop experience and depending on your device’s SoC CPU, you should get more than passable performance. What you won’t get is 3D graphics support, so don’t expect to fire up Steam, but for desktop-grade office applications like word processing and spreadsheets, we’ve found it to work surprisingly well. Provided your device supports Bluetooth, you can even quickly add in a keyboard and use it as a desktop on-the-go. We covered the full setup process back in APC 449 (page 98) and while it’s ideal for tablets, it’ll even work on phones if you have good eyes. Oh, and despite the ‘GNURoot Debian’ name, your Android device doesn’t need root-access for this to work.
WATCH TV DATA-FREE
If you have access to all-you-can-eat Wi-Fi, watching free-to-air TV on your Android device is a no-brainer, thanks to Freeview FV and the free-to-air TV networks. However, if you’re on anything else or anywhere else, it’ll cost you data. But there is an ultimately cheaper option — and that’s to plug in a USB DVB-T dongle. You’ll need an Android device with working USB-OTG port, a USB-OTG adapter cable, low-cost USB DVB-T dongle with Realtek’s RTL2832U chip and the ‘Aerial TV’ app from Google Play. Most tablets have USB-OTG available, so too, most mid-range or better phones. The USB-OTG adapter cable will cost you a dollar or two on eBay and an RTL2832Ubased USB TV dongle should be around the $10 mark. Since the TV dongle is picking up free-to-air TV signals, there’s no extra data involved, so you can run your device in airplane mode and it’ll still work. As your phone has to now also power the DVB-T dongle, battery life will take a hit, but you should still get several hours of viewing.
READ YOUR CAR’S ENGINE
Almost all cars sold in Australia since 2002 include an On-Board Diagnostics II (OBD-II) interface, a port that allows connection into your car’s computer or engine control unit (ECU). With that connection, you can read all sorts of vehicle data from speed to engine revolutions per minute (RPM) and bucketloads more. What makes this even more useful is the myriad of lowcost plug-in receivers available that
provide a Bluetooth connection to the ECU. They sell on eBay for as little as $5 and in Australia for usually much more, but combined with one of the many free Android apps available, you can tap into ECU data and learn more about what your vehicle is doing. Many of the sub-$20 devices available are based on hacked firmware from an ELM327 chip create by Canadian manufacturer ELM Electronics. There are no guarantees these knockoffs won’t do damage to your vehicle, so research before you buy. Still, we bought two cheap units from eBay, had success with both and no adverse reactions. Torque is our app of choice — it’s available on Google Play. The free version is great, the paid-for version even better.
CODE YOUR OWN SPEECHRECOGNITION APPS
Smart speakers, like Google Home, are taking the world by storm with their speech-recognition capabilities, but swapping hats for a moment, there’s another way you can tap into speech-recognition tech — and that’s by learning to create your own apps. Python is one of the world’s favourite programming languages and also one of the easiest languages to learn. Now, yes, Android apps are usually coded in Java, but with the free Qpython3 app from Google Play, you can code some impressive Android apps with Python instead. For example, you can tap into your device’s Bluetooth and speech-recognition functionality. The trick is using the Scripting Language for Android (SL4A) plugin built into Qpython3 — we covered this recently in our Learn to Code Python masterclass series (see issue 446). Combine Bluetooth with speech recognition and you can use your phone to turn on gadgets using your voice, or you can forget the Bluetooth and just code voice games like ‘guess that number’ using binary search. Coding is fast becoming a prerequisite in many jobs, so you could just combine Qpython3 with one of the many Python e-texts on Google Play and learn to code on your way home from work.
MAKE YOUR OWN GOOGLE HOME CLONE
Speaking of smart speakers, devices like Google Home and Amazon Alexa might well be all the rage at the moment, but why spend money on
“Android devices are great for streaming video or playing video files, but with a little work, you can turn yours into an analog video monitor.”
one when you could (almost) make your own out of your left-over tech? You just need an old phone or tablet with at least Android 4.4/KitKat and the latest version of the Google app. We tried it on an old Boost/ ZTE B816 phone I bought for $19 from Coles a while ago, allowed the latest updates and it worked. However, the KitKat/4.4 OS requires you keep the Google app front-andcentre otherwise, the “OK Google” voice detection stops. By contrast, Lollipop/5.1 gives you the option to have voice detection on any app screen. For example, say “OK Google, play some music,” and KitKat launches Google Play, playing any suitable music file located on your device. Lollipop does likewise, but it also lets you interrupt the music to ask something else, such as what day it is, whereas KitKat doesn’t. On some occasions, Google Search will show rather than say search results, so it’s not an exact replica of the Google Home experience. Still, depending on your needs, it might be enough. Try it — it’s not as if it’ll cost you much to find out (apart from some bandwidth).
TURN IT INTO AN ANALOG VIDEO MONITOR
Android devices are great for streaming video or playing video files, but with a little work, you can turn yours into an analog video monitor. We’re giving the USB-OTG port a real work-out this month and here again, if your device has one of these ports, you should be able to connect up one of the many ‘EasyCAP’ USB analog video capture dongles that sell on eBay this side of $10. You just need to make sure it has one of the supported video chips — UTV007, HTV600, HTV800 or STK1160 are known to work (these are the most common chips on the market anyway). Yep, its analog video, but we’ve read of some hobbyist pilots using this technique to view through-the-lens video from their drones. You’ll need one of these USB dongles, plus a USB-OTG cable and the EasyCap Viewer app from Google Play — from our experience, we suggest you plug in the USB dongle before you launch the EasyCap Viewer app, otherwise, the app may crash. The latest version of the app now supports video recording, but we recommend you have at least a quad-core CPU SoC chip on your Android device to limit the risk of dropped frames. Like all USB-OTG hacks, your Android device now has to also power the USB dongle, so battery life will be affected somewhat. Still, if you need a compact monitor and the budget is tight, this is one way to repurpose your old Android tech.
HOOK UP A USB MICROSCOPE
Microscopes were once the exclusive domain of commercial laboratories or school science departments, but thanks to low-cost optics and image sensor technology, that’s no longer the case. If your Android device has a USB-OTG port, you can pick up a low-cost USB microscope, try out one of the many free microscope camera apps from eBay and display all sorts of objects in all their magnified glory on your device’s screen. Sure, a $20 USB microscope from eBay isn’t going to have the optics to compete with a professional unit, but there’s still a truckload you can learn from having one of these devices, even if it’s as simple as magnifying the pixels on your smartphone or tablet screen and learning how they work. Given the price, the quality actually isn’t too bad, even if you’re only typically getting a 640 x 480-pixel video view. Most USB scopes also include six to eight white LEDs surrounding the lens with a variable control built into the USB cable to light up your objectunder-view. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics are must-have skills and if you want to introduce your kids to science in a fun, low-cost way, you could do a lot worse than a USB microscope.
BUILD A CD-QUALITY DIGITAL AUDIO RECORDER
Audio recording on most Android phones is pretty hit-and-miss. Most offer the on-board microphone or a single input via the TRRS (tip-ringring-sleeve) headphone socket at best. But if your phone has a USB-OTG port, you can bypass the on-board audio tech and turn it into a genuine high-quality stereo audio recorder. The key is grabbing USB Audio Recorder Pro from Google Play. The app comes with its own USB device drivers, allowing it to hook into many of the external USB audio sound modules available, such as Behringer’s Xenyx 302USB — there’s a well-populated device support list available at the app maker’s website ( tinyurl.com/ycmzaau9). What’s excellent about this hack is that the audio quality recorded now has almost nothing to do with your phone — it’s simply recording the PCM audio stream coming down the USB cable. It’s the USB audio module doing the hard work of accurately capturing sound in digital form that determines the quality — and you’re not necessarily limited to 44.1kHz/ 16-bit sampling and stereo channels either. If your device can sample 192kHz/24-bit and it’s supported by USB Audio Recorder Pro, that’s what the app will record. This is the best digital audio recording app we’ve come across on Google Play — it’ll cost you about $10, but we reckon it’s worth every penny.
GET OLD-SCHOOL HI-FI AUDIO
When I was a kid growing up, listening to music was an event — you carefully slid out vinyl discs from their protective sleeves, desperately trying to avoid putting finger marks on the tiny grooves, or you pulled out a fancier plastic 5-inch disc from its case and slid it into a CD player. You then sat back and enjoyed larger-than-life sound coming from your (or your parents’) Hi-Fi system. Yep, it’s ‘old-school’, but kicking back for an hour or so of ‘classics’ is still an excellent recipe for de-stressing. Google first introduced USB audio support for Android in Lollipop/5.0, so you can avoid your high-priced headphones, plug your phone into a high-fidelity audio system via a quality USB digitalto-analog converter (DAC) and listen to rips of your parents’ CDs you’ve stored on your phone. Shielded audio DACs using excellent Burr-Brown PCM2704 DAC chips with S/PDIF and analog audio output sell for as little as $15 on eBay. Sure, phone audio is improving, particularly with chipmaker Qualcomm’s new Aqstic audio hardware on the latest Snapdragon SoC CPUs, but for older phones with at least Lollipop/5.0, external audio DACs are well worth a look.
Yep, Android is pretty good at playing music, but these days, it can also be pretty good at making music. Grab a USB-MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) device, plug it into a USB-OTG adapter and into your phone. Next, follow it up with a good MIDI sequencing app like n-Track Studio 8 Music DAW from Google Play. Now your phone can actually make music via a musical keyboard. If your device has Marshmallow/6.0, you may be able to tap into ‘ Wireless MIDI’, or MIDI over Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). There are reports Yamaha’s MD-BT01 Bluetooth MIDI device works on Android, but it’s not yet officially supported by Yamaha. The other caveat is that MIDI is an optional extra in most Android devices, so we can’t guarantee MIDI will work on all devices, but the n-Track Studio 8 Music DAW app is free, so it won’t cost you anything to find out if you already have a USB-MIDI device. Still, if you’re a musician and you have access to USB-OTG and USB-MIDI devices, you could well be able to carry a digital audio workstation and sequencer around in your pocket. Now that’s pretty cool.
Your phone will need USB-OTG support, plus a USB-OTG adapter cable.
Turn your Android device into a Linux desktop with free Google Play apps.
Add an RTL2832U DVB-T dongle and the Aerial-TV app to watch TV data-free.
Tap into your car’s computer with a Bluetooth-enabled OBD-II dongle.
Samsung Galaxy S2 subpixels captured by USB microscope on a Galaxy S3.
Get Qpython3 from Google Play and code your own speechrecognition apps.
Your Lollipop/5.0 Android device can make a passable Google Home clone.
A Burr-Brown PCM2704 DAC may improve audio output on USB-OTG phones.
Turn your Android device into a monitor with a USB video capture dongle.
Plug a USB microscope into your phone and see the world in miniature.
Make music with your Android device using USB or Bluetooth MIDI.
Capture Hi-Fi audio from Behringer’s Xenyx 302USB mixer on your phone.