Make a Handy Little Android PC for Light Lifting

As many of us are gearing up for Windows 8’s imminent release, it may well be worthconsidering some alternatives. I don’t know about you, but after XP to Windows 7, viaVista, the idea of another OS from Microsoft, while not yet causing night sweats, isengendering some trepidation.

For one, there are its networking quirks — XP didn’t talk to 7 at the Windows network level inmy case. There are also expensive driver and program compatibility issues for older programs andequipment.

I’m thinking I’ve got better things to do with my time than spend days migratingfrom one MS OS to another — even if the interface in this incarnation does look rather seductive.

Here’s an idea then: Get rid of Windows forever — and I’m not talking about switching to Mac orUbuntu.

In this case, I’m suggesting a potentially satisfying act of rebellion with amini-PC stick running Android, hooked up to spare parts. Total cost including cables and bits is as low as 55 bucks — less than a Windows 8 upgrade.

Here’s how to approach this sedition:

Step 1

Be realistic — it’s a tiny PC, the size of a memory stick. The device I’ve been using,the CX-01, runs a 1 GHz Cortex A5 ARM processor — like the chip you’d find in a phone — and only supplies 512 MB of RAM, so you won’t be performing molecular modeling or quantum physics.

However, this setup could be perfect for kids’ homework, kitchen counter-top menuresearch, workshop manuals display and such — in fact, anywhere you need light wordprocessing, Web and video.

Plus, you get all of the Ice Cream Sandwich apps you want from the Google Play store.

Step 2

Gather the parts. You’ll need the Chinese-sourced mini-PC stick-like device, which Ifound on Amazon in the U.S. There are a few of these sticks to choose from. Search with the terms “Android” and “Mini PC.”

Look for the most processor and RAM for the money. Mine has 4 GB of storage, enoughfor a shop manual PDF or 20. Some devices have been appearing very recently with8 GB storage.

Purchase or find a monitor, keyboard, mouse, micro-USB power supply and USB hub.

Old monitors can work, but you need one with an HDMI input. Built-in speakers are amust for any audio. Likewise, older keyboards and mice are fine if they are USB-driven.

Tip: My monitor, although it had HDMI in, couldn’t handle the physical characteristicsof the stick. The monitor’s case had protrusions that obstructed the device from seatingproperly in the monitor’s HDMI port — the CX-01 has a built in male HDMI plug. I hadto find an HDMI cable and buy a female to female HDMI adapter for about six bucks.

Step 3

Make the hookups. Your stick will have built-in WiFi . There will be HDMI, micro USBpower and one USB port. Power the device with a standard smartphone wall adapter –the CX-01 is supplied with the cable.

Run the USB hub to the stick and then plug a mouse and keyboard into the hub. Thedevice will find both mouse and keyboard. You will have to go into “Settings” and tweaklanguage and input settings.

Step 4

Download software. Google’s Play store is pre-installed and works splendidly on the CX-01. At a minimum, you’ll need Adobe Acrobat or an Office-like product — I chose paidQuickOffice Pro. Both are available in the Play store.

Set home printers up as Google cloud printers from within a regular desktop PC’sChrome program. Then print from the CX-01, or similar, using the Cloud Print app. I’vewritten about Android cloud printing before. The app is available in Play.

Want to Ask a Tech Question?

Is there a piece of tech you’d like to know how to operate properly? Is there a gadget that’s got you confounded? Please send your tech questions to me, and I’ll try to answer as many as possible in this column.

And use the Talkback feature below to add your comments!

Patrick Nelson has been a professional writer since 1992. He was editor and publisher of the music industry trade publication Producer Report and has written for a number of technology blogs. Nelson studied design at Hornsey Art School and wrote the cult-classic novel Sprawlism. His introduction to technology was as a nomadic talent scout in the eighties, where regular scrabbling around under hotel room beds was necessary to connect modems with alligator clips to hotel telephone wiring to get a fax out. He tasted down and dirty technology, and never looked back.

2 Comments

  • Basically you are creating a tablet without the costs. Just use your android phone with always on connected power to a hdmi monitor (have phone that supports hdmi connection). Connecting bluetooth keyboards, mice and even speakers are not really a hassle anymore since ICS and JB rolled out. Plenty of apps also that can help with this both free (ad pop-ups) and paid versions.

    Best thing is that you can easily disconnect and take the phone with you without lugging the monitor and extra hardware meanwhile you can show off the files stored on it using just the phone. Easy.

  • You’re right, this is much simpler than upgrading to Win8, and cheaper as well…

    It’s a nice tutorial for building such a device (if it makes sense is another topic, but irrelevant). I just can’t follow your reasoning for switching to this…

    If you really need just a little portable "computer" for some light text processing and the likes, then this might be ok (provided you have the peripherals incl. monitor). I would still argue that a tablet is a better solution (e.g. Nexus 7 is cheap).

    For anything else, this is just a joke.

    I never really had your "problems" with networking between XP and Vista/7 (although, as XP is an old piece of junk, it does require some network configuring anyway, regardless of other OS’s in network). And the compatibility issues, well, you will get rid of those with android, as virtually nothing will work with it (most of my peripherals don’t really work well, or don’t work at all, even on Linux – like Logitech stuff for example). You also get rid of all programs, have to replace them with mobile android apps (you keep the sw compatibility issues between diff. versions of android as a bonus).

    Upgrading in itself does require some time/cash, but it’s a one time investment and saves trouble in the long run. Besides, like you don’t need to upgrade/update other OS’s (can always stay on the old OS though if upgrading is that much trouble, like most people do anyway)…

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