The Android desktop scene is relatively new, with a handful of distributions like the early days of Linux. These distributions provide the kind of desktop and window manager PC users expect, usually with Google Play handling software. In theory, Android desktops provide a new way of using your PC, with a conventional desktop harnessing the enormous Android eco-system. Given that Android apps are written for less powerful machines, old PCs can be made useful again, and you can even multi-boot between Windows and Linux for a powerful combination.
That’s the idea at least. But how do they stack up really? We put the four main players to the test to decide which Android desktop is the best in 2020.
It used to be said that although you can use Android on a PC, you just wouldn’t want to. It was Android-x86 they were talking about. Android-x86 is the vanilla build, the bare-bones, no-frills choice. Current Android-x86 is based on Lineage OS and makes no attempt to hide it, with giant Lineage logos appearing throughout its setup. Android-x86’s cool splash screen adds a little panache.
Android-x86 used to be difficult to navigate without a touch-screen, but now it comes with Taskbar as standard, a desktop menu popularized by Bliss OS. Users can still choose a touch-style interface if desired (Trebuchet), which breaks down your apps into a nice alphabetical system, and adds a close button to apps when multi-tasking.
App-wise, there are AudioFX and a small browser, but this is still a pretty bare bones system. You won’t get very far without logging into Google Play and grabbing what you need. We’re unsure of its Sleep function. There’s no obvious Sleep button anywhere, and although it at least disabled the screens of our test laptops when we closed the lids, their fans were still running. Other reports suggest it suspends fine, though, so we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
In the last few years Android-x86 has gone from being just a smartphone x86 port to becoming a viable desktop. It is still bare bones, it still has no frills, but it works. There are no nasty surprises waiting for you, no junkware, and it should work on any virtual machine without too many problems.
2. Bliss OS
The Bliss team has been at the forefront of Android desktop development for a number of years. Run by a team of volunteers, they have a vision of a synchronized OS spread across multiple devices and form factors. If you want to know what features will be in other Android distros in coming years, try Bliss.
Its interface is innovative and extremely likable, letting you switch at will between a desktop system and a touch-style interface. Experimental Vulkan support is also available along with a “Blissify” option that lets you fine-tune your GUI in minute detail. Firefox is also pre-installed, and joy of joys, it suspends properly.
Unfortunately, we’ve never found a release that was stable enough to use on a daily basis. Maybe things work fine on specific hardware, but we’ve often been stuck with a broken GUI or repeated intrusive error messages. In recent versions the desktop menu breaks almost immediately, forcing you to use the touch-style Lawnchair interface instead. That said, the current release seems more stable than last year’s, so the Bliss team may be reigning back the innovation a little in favor of tightening up their code.
Bliss certainly has its fans, and some hardware seems to work well – especially touch devices like the Surface Pro – but if you’re just using a keyboard and mouse, you may want to look elsewhere. If you’re interested in Bliss, now is a good time to check it out – just don’t expect a solid desktop experience.
3. Phoenix OS
Phoenix OS is a difficult thing to rate. The OS is now full of ad-ware (it wasn’t previously) with the intention that you subscribe to their service to remove ads. It doesn’t appear to be open source. It’s also full of Chinese software that could be used in data collection (we don’t know), and occasional parts of the OS haven’t been translated into English.
But underneath all of this is the most solid Android desktop, with a familiar window manager somewhat like Windows 7, and a good set of desktop tools and keyboard shortcuts to keep Windows users happy. It also has a working Sleep function and seems to have a decent hit ratio for working apps. We won’t say how, but there are ways to remove ads besides subscribing, at which point Phoenix becomes very enticing.
Were it not for Chinese data concerns, it could probably be deployed on a large scale. Definitely worth considering, but that junkware makes us nervous.
Of all these systems, PrimeOS is the fastest and smoothest, giving the best first impression with an almost Scandinavian level of tasteful minimalism. Unique to PrimeOS is its Native Bridge feature, which uses native ARM libraries to allow better compatibility between ARM and x86 systems. This makes it the winner here when it comes to successfully running apps.
The Prime team have put an emphasis on gaming, with their DecaPro Gaming Centre. This has specific game optimizations to map touch-screen controls to the mouse and keyboard, which will be especially popular with those who like PUBG Mobile.
However, it is massively let down by its broken Sleep function. When we tried to suspend the machine, the screen simply went black while the backlight stayed on, and machines with mechanical hard disks emitted an awful noise that had us reaching for the power button. Furthermore, PrimeOS isn’t open source, and documentation is severely lacking.
On the off chance you don’t need a Sleep function, PrimeOS would make the nicest package. However, this is unlikely among Android users who will probably be using some kind of portable device.
And the Winner of Android Desktop Is …
Android-x86. But not by much. It’s not fancy, but it will provide the best result on average for the greatest number of people, and probably with the least hassle. If you want something more satisfying, try one of the other distros.
Landing on a stable release of Bliss, you may as well stick with it and enjoy its innovation. If you’re not bothered by Chinese data issues and are willing to either put up with ads or remove them yourself, Phoenix OS has the most mature desktop. And if only PrimeOS could suspend properly, it would easily be our pick. Should later releases fix the issue, then PrimeOS would be our recommendation, but for now, it’s plain old Android x86.
Not sure if an Android desktop is for you? What about emulation? Check out your options in our guide on Eight Awesome Projects that Allow You to Run Android on PC.
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