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.

APC Australia - - Contents -

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.

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