Android phones may boast more features than you can shake a stick at, plus a wide range of exciting software, but they're still a serious investment.

If you get one and subsequently find that you don't get on with the operating system, it could be a costly mistake.

It would therefore be a good idea to experiment with and learn to use Android in a safe environment first, rather than messing up the configuration of an expensive smartphone. The solution is to run Android on your PC.

You can do this with a version that runs from a live CD or USB drive. No changes are made to your PC, so you get a reasonable crack of the whip without serious commitment.

There's a Google project called Live Android that does just this.

Live Android

The project home is http://code.google.com/p/live-android. Here you'll find basic information about the project, as well as download links for the two-part ISO file. Select the 'Download' tab to find further versions of the release, including a torrent file for the full ISO download.

If you opt to download the two-part file, you'll need some software to knit it together. HJSplit will do the job nicely and it's free to use. You can get it from http://www.hjsplit.org/.

When the file has downloaded, install it and choose 'Join' from the initial screen. Click 'Input file' and browse to the first of the two files that make up the ISO image. If they're saved in the same folder, HJSplit will identify the other file and won't display it here – just select the first file and click 'Open'. Click 'Start' to join the two together.

Close HJSplit and browse to the folder where you saved the files. You should find a file called 'liveandroidv0.3.iso'. This is the ISO image that you can burn to CD or DVD.

Bootable disc

Use a CD or DVD burning program that supports burning discs from ISO files, such as CDBurnerXP. Most burning applications support ISO burning, but it's important to remember to select the option to create a disc from the image rather than burning a standard data disc. The resulting disc can be used to boot any PC that supports booting from CD, which is pretty much every laptop, desktop and notebook around.

You may need to enable booting from disc in the BIOS if you restart your computer with the Live Android disc in its drive and it isn't detected.

Check the boot sequence before entering the BIOS – some machines display a boot menu key during boot, which enables you to select the boot device. Otherwise, press [Del] repeatedly as the PC boots, or substitute this with whatever key is displayed during boot to enter the Setup utility.

In the CMOS utility, opt to change the boot sequence and ensure the optical drive comes before the hard drive. Save and close the BIOS.

USB booting

You can also set up Live Android to run from a USB drive. To do this, your PC needs to support booting from USB. Most do – it's simply a matter of setting the correct BIOS boot option. You also need to download a slightly different version of the ISO, which you can find here.

Choose the files 'liveandroidv0.2usb.iso.001' and 'liveandroidv0.2usb.iso.002' to download. As with the live CD version, you'll need to use HJSplit to join the two files. Copy the ISO file to your USB drive, ensuring that it's bootable.

As with the live CD, you can't simply copy the ISO file to the drive; you need to use a dedicated utility to make bootable USB sticks. The simplest option is UNetbootin. You can download a Windows version from here.

Launch UNetbootin and connect your USB drive, then select 'Disk image' and browse to your USB ISO image. With this opened, ensure that your USB drive is selected correctly and click 'OK'. Once all the data is written to your USB drive, you'll be able to use it to boot a PC.

screen resolution

If everything is working correctly, your PC will boot from the CD or USB drive and display the list of available screen resolutions. Select one and press [Enter]. At this point your PC will then go through the Android splash screens and you should end up at the Android desktop.

If you haven't managed to get this far and the CD/USB stick doesn't appear to be damaged in any way, there's a chance that the hardware you're using won't support Live Android. In theory it should work with any 32-bit PC, but in practice it can be a lot pickier.

It typically hangs during boot on incompatible hardware, and you might end up stuck at one of the splash screens. If this is the case, restart your computer, remove the CD and go into Windows. You can try again using some standardised hardware.

Virtual machine

default desktop

The simplest way to standardise your hardware is virtualisation. Get a copy of VMWare Player from www.vmware.com/products/player. You need to register, but it's free.

Download and install the program. Launch it and opt to create a new virtual machine. Choose to install from an installer disc file and browse to your ISO file for Live Android. Choose 'Other' for the guest OS and select 'Other' from the dropdown list. Give your machine a name and stick with the default hard disk size.

Opt to start the machine and it will boot from your ISO file. Select the screen resolution and it will boot to the Android desktop.

You may get a warning notice telling you that the battery is running low; click 'OK' to ignore this or press [Enter] if you can't see a pointer. There isn't a version of VMWare Tools available for Live Android, so you'll need to capture the mouse pointer whenever you want to switch focus to the guest machine. You can do this by clicking anywhere in the guest window. To switch back to your host PC, press [Ctrl]+[Alt].

Simple exploration

You should now be able to find your way around Android. The OS is optimised for touch screens, so you may find navigating using the mouse and keyboard a little clunky, but you should soon get used to it.

The mouse pointer, if present, appears as a slightly darker triangle onscreen, which means you may have difficulty following it. If necessary, you can use the arrow keys to move around instead, and press [Enter] to select items.

You can also use two shortcuts to enter and leave the command line. [Alt]+[F1] turns off the graphical interface and drops you at a command prompt. [Alt]+[F7] returns you to Live Android's graphical interface. You may need to use these to make configuration changes.

If you're using VMWare Player, it should share your host computer's internet connection with Live Android, so you'll be able to run Google searches from the search bar or launch the browser to get online. You'll need to configure the email client and any other internet-based programs that you want to use, though.

manage applications

Bear in mind that any new settings you enter here won't survive a reboot, because the live CD isn't writeable.

Network connection

On some hardware, you may find that the internet connection isn't up and running straight away. If this is the case, you need to configure it before you can continue.

Live Android doesn't support DHCP yet, so you'll need to set up its IP address manually at the command line. Press [Alt]+ [F1] to exit to the command line and enter the following:

ifconfig eth0 192.168.0.4 netmask 255.255.255.0

Substitute '192.168.0.4' for the static IP address that you want to use in Live Android, and make sure that it's in your network range.

Windows has a similar command – 'ipconfig' – so try not to get the two confused. You'll also need to set the internet gateway and DNS server details if you're going to browse the web in Android.

Start with the gateway. This is the IP address of your router, which is typically 192.168.1.1, but it can vary so check your documentation if in doubt. In Live Android, at the command line, enter:

route add default gw 192.168.1.1 dev eth0

Replace '192.168.1.1' with your router's address.

Your domain name server details are usually set by your ISP. They may be stored in your router's configuration, or your ISP documentation. Most ISPs also provide these details somewhere on their support pages. You need the IP address of one of its domain name servers.

At the command line, enter: setprop net.eth0.dns1 127.54.225.228

Enter your DNS server address in place of '127.54.225.228'. Press [Alt]+[F7] to return to the GUI and launch the web browser. You can now take the opportunity to explore Live Android.

Click the tab to bring across a screen full of applications, then select one to launch it. Some, including Dialler and Messaging, won't do very much without a phone and SIM installed, but there are several other programs that can keep you amused while you get used to how Android works.

There are several games preinstalled, or you could explore Android VNC, which could give you the recursive experience of connecting to another desktop while emulating Android on a PC. You can set up email accounts, add contacts and change phone settings. You can install other Android apps with a little ingenuity.

Live Android won't connect to the Marketplace, but there are ways to get apps working so you can test them out and get a feel for what's possible. You're unlikely to choose Live Android as a substitute OS at this stage, but it's a useful way to take the mobile OS for a test run.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 302

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