Some free and low-cost apps make your Android phone and your Windows PC work together as a team.
Use these tools to optimize your home or office Wi-Fi setup, remotely control your PC from your phone (or your phone from your PC), share and transfer files in either direction, create and edit full-blown Microsoft Office documents on your phone, and much more!
First, however, I have a confession to make: I was a reluctant convert to smartphones — in large part because I’m fad-phobic. When I see crowds of people standing in line, glassy-eyed, waiting to get their hands on the latest smartphone offering, my natural inclination is to back away and run in the other direction.
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Part of it is seeing how fragile and fussy many expensive smartphones are. And part of it is that I just didn’t initially see the need for many smartphone functions.
Android changed that for me. My Android smartphone isn’t flashy or expensive, but it’s survived mishandling that surely would have cracked the glass of an iPhone. It makes calls reliably, no matter how I hold it. It gives me instant access to e-mail, messaging, my calendar, contacts, news, and weather. It’s handy to have a camera always available for snapshots. I love having always-up-to-date, GPS turn-by-turn navigation available, no matter where I am or in whose vehicle I’m riding. It’s great to have instant access to my music collection, and I’ve enjoyed being able to live-stream my favorite hometown radio stations when I’m on the road.
But one of the biggest surprises I got from my Android phone was the way it could work with and improve my Windows PC use, both at home and on the road. I never expected that.
In the rest of this article, I’ll show you some of the most interesting and promising apps that I’ve found for making an Android phone a highly useful adjunct to a Windows PC, and vice-versa.
All the apps I’ll describe here are either free or low-cost, and none requires high-end phone hardware. In fact, my phone is an ordinary, mainstream unit currently running Android 2.3.3 (a.k.a. Gingerbread). Chances are, no matter what Android-based phone you have or may get, all the apps I talk about in the following paragraphs will run just fine for you.
Analyze and improve your Wi-Fi connections
The first Android app that made me realize that my phone could actually improve my Windows experience was FarProc’s Wi-Fi Analyzer (free; site; see Figure 1).
Figure 1. FarProc’s free Wi-Fi Analyzer is a five-function tool that lets you identify and explore the Wi-Fi signals in your area. The app’s basic Channel Graph mode is shown.
Before I go on, a word about these screen shots. Taking a photo of a pixelated smartphone screen with a pixel-based digital camera is not a happy experience; moiré patterns and other artifacts are almost inevitable. I also had to block out personal, identifying information in some photos. I apologize for the uneven quality of these screen shots.
Back to the software at hand: Wi-Fi Analyzer, as you’d expect, shows you all available access points in your area. But the main attraction of this as a Windows helper app is that it also will figure out what the best and clearest channel is for your home or office Wi-Fi router. It might be able to do this better than your router itself can. It did, in my case! (See Figure 2.)
Figure 2. The Wi-Fi Analyzer’s most useful function as a Windows helper app is its Channel Rating that can automatically tell you the least interference-prone channel available for all your Wi-Fi devices, including Windows laptops and PCs.
I used this app to help overcome intermittent interference from my neighbors’ setups. I followed the app’s advice and locked my router on the channel it recommended, which was not the one my router had chosen automatically for itself. From then on, my connection speed and reliability improved for all my Wi-Fi devices, both Windows and Android.
In addition to the Channel Graph and Channel Rating functions just mentioned, the app also includes a Time Graph (signal strength over time), a simple list of all Available Access Points, and an analog-style Wi-Fi Signal Strength Meter.
Smartphone tethering and hotspotting
Twice last autumn, my home office lost power and communication for a number of days during separate extreme-weather events. I have a generator, so I could produce electricity, but with no functioning phone or cable modem, I had neither ordinary means to go online to research my Windows Secrets columns nor the usual way to submit them (by e-mail) when I was finished.
So I used my smartphone’s standard (and built-in) hotspot/tethering function, in which the phone acts as a temporary Wi-Fi access point or router to let PCs get online via the phone’s data service and plan. It offers many of the same security features of full-blown routers or access points. I completed and turned in a Top Story and two columns this way. (See Figure 3.)
Figure 3. Tethering/hotspotting lets your smartphone act as a standard access point for any Wi-Fi–capable devices (such as Windows laptops).
In addition to emergency use at home, I’ve also used tethering in motels, restaurants, airports, and other places where the offered Wi-Fi service was poor, nonexistent, expensive, or suspect.
Almost all Android smartphones from 2.2 onward support Wi-Fi tethering; check your owner’s manual for specifics. For general information, see this AndroidCentral article or this Wikipedia article.
View and control your Windows PC by smartphone
LogMeIn’s join.me Viewer (free; site) lets any Android phone securely view any participating Windows desktop. (See Figure 4.)
Figure 4. The free join.me viewer lets you see anything displayed on a participating Windows PC’s screen, via your Android smartphone.
You can use join.me to remotely view presentations, documents, or anything on a remote PC’s screen. (You and the person at the remote PC both use the free software to establish a secure viewing channel.)
But it’s only a viewer: you can’t use join.me to create new documents, nor can you remotely control the Windows PC.
When I need those functions, I use join.me’s more capable sibling, LogMeIn’s Ignition (U.S. $30; site). It’s a smartphone-based remote-control and remote-desktop app that securely gives you total control over any PC that you’re authorized to use, as long as that PC is also running any version of the standard LogMeIn software — even the free version (site)!
Ignition comes with special functions that let you emulate right and left mouseclicks, various keystroke combinations (such as CTRL+ALT+DEL), and so on — from your phone.
Of course, putting a full-sized PC screen on a smartphone can be problematic, but Ignition’s zoom and scroll functions make it manageable.
View, control your smartphone from a Windows PC
Damian Kolakowski’s Remote Desktop (free; site) works in the other direction. It lets you remote-control your phone and access its contents. You get direct access even to your smartphone’s root file system from any Windows PC, using Internet Explorer, Chrome, or Firefox. (See Figure 5.)
Figure 5. The free Remote Desktop app lets you use your Windows PC and any mainstream browser to view, organize, and retrieve documents, photos, videos, mail logs, MP3s — anything — on your Android smartphone.
This app makes sharing and organizing the files on your phone much easier — you don’t have to use the phone’s tiny buttons or screen keyboard. Instead, you can use your standard Windows desktop or laptop system’s hardware to manage the phone.
And, if you know Linux/Android, you also can use the app’s Terminal function to interact directly with the phone’s operating system, for near-total control. (Yes, it’s potentially dangerous. Be careful!)
Use native MS Office documents on your phone
It’s hard to imagine until you see it, but Quickoffice Pro (free trial; $15 to keep; occasional sale prices as low as $5; site) lets you access, create, edit, and share genuine, native-format, Microsoft Office documents, spreadsheets, and presentations on your smartphone. The app supports the file formats used from Office 97 onward, including Office 2010’s .docx and related formats. The app also includes a .pdf viewer. (See Figure 6.)
Figure 6. Quickoffice Pro puts a mini Office-compatible suite into your smartphone.
After you’ve created or edited a document, you can e-mail it right from inside Quickoffice. Or you can share it through a variety of built-in connections to your accounts on Google Docs, Dropbox, Box, Evernote, Catch, Egnyte, Huddle, SugarSync, MobileMe, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, SlideShare, Docstoc, Scribd, Yammer, and other services.
The app also includes a file manager that lets you create, copy, move, delete, rename, and sort files and folders in your phone’s memory. Quickoffice’s other features are far too extensive to list here; see the site for the full spiel.
When you use this app with a tool such as Remote Desktop (discussed previously), you can drop live Office files created on your Windows PC to your phone (or vice versa) and always have current, editable versions of your important files available at your fingertips. In some cases, this means your smartphone can take the place of a laptop or netbook on a trip.
As of this writing, a $15 price is current — a remarkably modest amount for an Office suite. However, there’s a free trial available, and I also recently picked up a copy of QuickOffice on sale for just $5, which is positively astounding. At either $5 or $15, I think this is a truly great app.
An app in development that bears watching
BlueStacks is a free Android emulator/virtual machine that lets you run your Android apps directly on your Windows PC. It’s in late alpha, so there are many rough edges, but when it’s finished, it will complete the circle. You’ll be able to use BlueStacks to run Android apps on your PC. You’ll also be able to use the apps I described previously to access or remotely run your Windows apps from your phone as well as to seamlessly pass documents back and forth.
BlueStacks has two components: Cloud Connect (free; site) runs on your Android phone, and the BlueStacks virtual machine itself (free; site) that runs on your Windows PC.
Definitely worth watching!
These Windows helper apps are only the beginning
Android use is growing exponentially now, and new apps — free and commercial — are pouring into the marketplace. Some pundits are predicting that the number of Android apps will surpass the number of iPhone apps this year.
You can choose from among many places to scope out what’s available, but the sites I find most useful are Google’s own enormous Android Market, with some 400,000 apps currently available; AppBrain, which filters, reviews, and rates Android Market apps to help you separate the wheat from the chaff; and Amazon’s Appstore for Android, available in the left-hand navigational bar on Amazon’s home page. In addition to offering some apps unavailable elsewhere, Amazon also offers one normally commercial app free each day.
Windows is a great OS, and Android is very good and getting better. Together, they make an awesome combination.
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Fred Langa is a senior editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He was formerly editor of Byte Magazine (1987-91), editorial director of CMP Media (1991-97), and editor of the LangaList e-mail newsletter from its origin in 1997 until its merger with Windows Secrets in November 2006.