Most Android smartphones today are more powerful than we give them credit for.
You use your phone for email, you type up notes, you probably do some image editing, you play games — and so much more. For all intents and purposes, this smartphone sitting in your pocket is a personal computer. It’s arguably as powerful as many devices sitting on desks in offices around the world. So why not use it to replace your desktop PC?
The Continuum and Convergence of Smartphones
The increased power and flexibility of smartphones means that we’ve now reached a stage where they can realistically replace our PCs. It’s already happening for Windows 10 Mobile, with Microsoft Continuum, in which the phone can be connected to a TV via the wireless HDMI standard Miracast.
Support for Bluetooth keyboards and mice means that you can sit at a desk with your phone beside you, its contents displayed on a monitor in normal Windows 10 style. Then you can type, browse the web, or do any other computer-based tasks — and the phone will still let you answer calls.
It isn’t just Microsoft offering this sort of technology, either. Canonical’s Ubuntu Touch mobile platform can also convert a compatible device into a compact portable PC with its Convergence system.
While iOS is some way behind, there’s now an option for Android called Maru OS. This is a custom distro optimized for desktop use, offering a similar (albeit wired) experience to Continuum and Convergence.
Getting Started With Maru OS
It sounds pretty good, but Maru does have a downside. Currently, it’s only available for the Google Nexus 5 (2013) phone, codenamed Hammerhead. If you have one of these lying around, then we would urge you to try out Maru OS, as it really is impressive.
If you don’t have a Nexus 5 available, skip to the next section to see some Maru alternatives.
To use Maru, you’ll either need to download a desktop installer (options for Linux, macOS, and Windows are available), or if you have already installed a custom recovery on your device, you can download an update.zip file.
Use the Desktop Installer
If you’re interested in installing a new version of Android on your phone, you’re probably already using a custom recovery. But if you want to use the desktop installer, it’s pretty straightforward.
After downloading the correct version for your desktop operating system, connect your Android device via USB. At this stage, you need to understand that the current contents will be completely wiped, so if there are any songs, photos, movies, or other data you wish to keep hold of, you’ll need to back these up first.
If you’re using Windows, you’ll need to enable USB debugging on the device. After this, download and install the Google USB drivers for Android, using these clear instructions provided by Google. Finally, navigate to the downloaded ZIP file, unzip it, then double-click Install.
For Linux, open a terminal in the unzipped downloaded file, and run:
If you’re using macOS, unzip the installer, right-click install, and select Open.
Whichever version you’re using, follow the on-screen instructions to install Maru OS on your Nexus 5.
Install Maru With a Custom Recovery
The easiest option for installing Maru on your Android device is via your custom recovery. Begin by downloading the update.zip option from the download page (at the time of writing, this is maru-v0.2.3-update-hammerhead-340b552a.zip) and copying it to your Android device via USB. Alternatively, just download it directly to your Android device; the download is 653 MB.
With the update.zip file copied to your phone’s storage, all you need to do is reboot into recovery, select Install, then browse for the update.zip file, and install. Wipe the Dalvik cache after, reboot into the Maru Android distro (currently based on Android 6.0 Marshmallow), and you’re good to go!
Using Your Maru Device as a PC
You’ve installed Maru. The next step is to maximize your productivity.
With your phone restarted and connected to HDMI with a dongle like the one above, all you’ll need is a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and you’ll be ready to start using Android as a desktop. To do this, open Settings and find the new section Desktop. Tap Dashboard, then flip the switch at the top to On.
On your TV, you’ll then see a version of the Linux OS, Debian, with the Xfce desktop environment. Work can commence!
What If I Don’t Have a Nexus 5?
So, you like the look of what is possible with Maru, but you don’t have a 2013 edition Nexus 5 — what can you do? Is it simpler to just use a Chromecast, or are there tools that will provide a desktop-like experience for Android?
Fortunately, a couple of Play Store apps are available for you to install on your current Android device, converting it into a literal pocket PC with minimum fuss. No TWRP recovery or installers required here!
Once installed, you’re ready to run with Leena Desktop UI, but note that this is essentially a desktop-oriented launcher. If you’re already able to cast your Android device to a TV, then you’ll be able to use Leena.
Of course, you’ll need a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard, but once these are connected and you’re casting the Leena UI to your TV or monitor, you’ll almost forget you’re using a phone at all!
As you may have guessed, this solution remains in beta, but you can install it and try it out via Google Play. The usual Miracast dongle is recommended for your HDMI TV, along with Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, although Andromium OS is only half the story. If you prefer, a device called the Superbook is also available, a sort of empty laptop that you can plug your Android smartphone to.
Is an Official Option Coming?
Given the lead that Android took in wirelessly casting mobile devices to a TV via Chromecast, it’s odd that it’s lagging behind in the dynamic form factor/platform convergence that is taking place. But perhaps we’re wrong about that; perhaps Android will have a fully built-in desktop-casting option by Android 8.0.
What do you think? Have you tried Maru, Leena, or Andromium OS? Are you familiar with Microsoft or Canonical’s mobile desktop options and want to see something better from Android? Tell us your thoughts in the comments!