Little-known fact: By using a virtual PC, you can set up and run a free, fully legitimate copy of Google’s Android on a standard Windows system.
This gives you a way to safely experiment with the Android operating system — or to re-create the layout of an Android device you already have.
Android, without a phone or tablet
Google’s Android operating system is meant for use on phones and tablets. But with a properly set up Android virtual PC (VPC), you have an Android installation you can use for a variety of purposes. For example, if you’re new to Android, you can experiment with the OS, downloading and running apps from the Google app store and elsewhere. Most apps will run the same way they would on a true Android device.
If you already have an Android-based phone or tablet, you can use the Android VPC to augment whatever backup service you’re now using. For instance, Google’s free, built-in Android backup service preserves your data and apps, but it doesn’t save the device’s visual layout — the way you have things arranged on the device’s screens. Use the PC-based virtual version to more or less duplicate the layout of your Android phone or tablet — you’ll then have a handy visual reference, should you need to reset and reinstall your portable device’s software.
Again, running Android in a VPC is completely free and 100 percent legitimate. You need only three things to make it all work.
Requirement 1: A virtualization-capable PC
To run Android on a virtual machine, your PC must provide hardware-level support for the required virtualization technology. The odds are good it does. Most PCs of reasonably recent vintage have hardware-based virtualization built in. Intel calls its technology VT-X; AMD calls its version AMD-V.
But some older PCs may not support hardware-level virtualization; these PCs will not be able to run Android in a virtual machine.
There are three ways to tell whether a PC has hardware-level virtualization support. The simplest method is to install VirtualBox, as described later in this article. Step 6 will show you at a glance whether you can proceed with the rest of the setup. (No harm will come to your system if you install VirtualBox and the hardware lacks the required virtualization support — you just won’t be able to run Android.)
If you’d rather find out ahead of time, free tools from Intel and AMD can detect your processor’s capabilities. Neither site is especially intuitive, however.
The Intel support page, “Does my processor support Intel Virtualization Technology?” offers links to a list of processor types that support Intel VT, plus a free “Processor ID” utility you can download.
An AMD support page offers a link to its “AMD Virtualization Technology and Microsoft Hyper-V System Compatibility Check Utility.” The same software is also available through download pages on sites such as MajorGeeks and Softpedia.
Requirement 2: Virtual PC software
The key to running Android on your Windows PC is to set up a virtual PC (also called a virtual machine) that emulates — entirely in software — the hardware that Android typically needs.
For this article, I use VirtualBox, an open-source virtual machine project overseen and supported by Oracle. The VirtualBox software runs on all current versions of Windows — XP and onward.
To download a free copy of the software, go to the VirtualBox site and look under the VirtualBox platform packages subheading for VirtualBox for Windows hosts. As of this writing, the current version is 4.3.8, but VirtualBox is frequently updated; you might see a different version number.
Once you’ve downloaded the software, install it with the default settings. (In the unlikely event that you run into trouble, or if you’d just like additional information on installing and using VirtualBox, head over to the end-user documentation page.)
Requirement 3: Compatible Android software
Linux is open-source software, which means no one developer or company owns it. Anyone can make his or her own flavor of Linux. (For more on Linux, see its Wikipedia page.)
That’s what Google did. To create its Android operating system, Google adapted and customized Linux for compatibility with the special-purpose chipsets used in phones and tablets. Google also made Android (site) open-source.
Recently, a group of enthusiasts formed the Android-x86 Project (site). The result is a free, fully legitimate, custom version of Android that runs on standard Windows PCs.
An Android-x86 project page has a long list of current and past code builds. As of this writing, the latest release (and the one this article is based on) is Version 4.3; it’s listed on the site as android-x86-4.3-20130725.iso. Make note of where you save the downloaded .iso file so you can later find it easily, when it’s time to install it.
Now you’re ready to configure VirtualBox for Linux/Android. One note of warning: There’s a wide range of PC hardware. You might encounter warnings or error messages when setting up Android in a VPC. But you should be able to step through them and complete the installation process. Sometimes simply restarting the Android VPC will help.
Configuring the virtual PC for Android
It’s point-and-click simple to configure a VirtualBox virtual machine to run Android-x86, as this step-by-step guide will show. But again — if you run into trouble, check out the full VirtualBox end-user and technical documentation (site).
Step 1: Start the process by launching VirtualBox and clicking the New icon (the blue starburst) to create a new virtual machine.
Step 2: When the Name and operating system dialog box opens, give your virtual machine a name. (I prefer the obvious: Android 4.3.)
For Type select Linux and for Version select Linux 2.6/3.x (32-bit) — or the 64-bit version, if that’s your only option. Click Next when you’re done.
Step 3: In the Memory size dialog box, assign at least 1024MB to the virtual machine, if possible. Do so by either moving the slider or by typing directly in the selection box. Click Next when you’re ready.
Step 4: In the next four dialog boxes, you can simply accept the default settings. Specifically:
- For Hard drive, accept Create a virtual hard drive now; click Create.
- For Hard drive file type, accept VDI (VirtualBox Disk Image); click Next.
- For Storage on physical hard drive, accept Dynamically allocated; click Next.
- For File location and size, accept 8GB; click Create.
Step 5: When the main VirtualBox setup screen appears, click on the Settings icon (the yellow gear) to make a few more configuration settings.
Step 6. In the System section, under the Acceleration tab, verify that hardware virtualization is enabled.
Hardware virtualization: Enable VT-x/AMD-V should be checked, as shown in Figure 4. If it isn’t, click the box to enable it. If that item (or the entire Acceleration tab) is grayed out and unavailable, your system does not support hardware virtualization and you will be unable to run Android.
Step 7: Click the Motherboard tab to adjust the Boot Order. Select Hard Disk from the boot-order list and then use the up arrow to move it to the top of the list.
Step 8: Next, point VirtualBox to the Android-x86 .iso file you downloaded earlier. Still in the Settings dialog box, select Storage and then click the add CD icon, marked in Figure 6.
Step 9: A small popup box will ask whether you wish to choose a virtual CD. Click the Choose disk button.
Step 10: In the next dialog box, you specify the virtual optical disk file to use. Navigate to and select the downloaded Android-x86 .iso and click Open. The .iso file will then show up under IDE controller in the Storage dialog box. Click OK to finish.
The setup process for your new virtual machine is now complete. You’ll be returned to the VirtualBox main menu. The next step is to configure Android for the new virtual hardware.
Configuring Android to run on the virtual PC
Step 11. Start the Android virtual machine by clicking the green Start arrow in the VirtualBox main window.
Important note: The initial Android-x86 setup CD uses a DOS-like, character-based Linux interface. For the next series of steps, do not use the mouse! (You’ll enable the mouse later.) Instead, navigate with the keyboard’s arrow or Tab keys, as directed, and use the Enter key to “click” on a selected item.
Step 12. On the initial Android setup screen, use the arrow keys to navigate to Installation — Install Android-x86 to hard disk and then press Enter. (Note: There’s a slow countdown timer that will automatically boot the Live CD version of Android if you don’t make any selection; you don’t have to rush, but make your Installation selection without undue delay.)
Step 13: When the Choose Partition dialog opens, the default Create/Modify partitions and OK choices should be preselected (you also can manually select them with the arrow keys, if necessary); press Enter. The Linux disk partitioning utility will open.
Step 14: Use the keyboard’s arrow keys to select New, and then press Enter.
Step 15: For the next three partitioning dialog boxes, simply accept the default settings. Specifically:
- Accept Primary; press Enter.
- Accept the default drive size (whatever is shown); press Enter.
- Accept Bootable; press Enter.
The partitioning dialog box should now show the Name set as sda1, the Flags as Boot, the Part Type as Primary, and the FS Type as Linux. If everything’s set as shown in Figure 9, use the keyboard arrow keys to select Write and then press Enter.
Step 16: When you’re asked to confirm your choices, type yes and press Enter. The virtual drive will then be partitioned; it should take only a few seconds.
Step 17: When you’re back at the partitioning dialog box, use the arrow keys to select Quit and press the Enter key. A new box will open.
Step 18: The default selections on the Choose Partition dialog — sda1 Linux VBOX HARDDISK — are fine. Press the Enter key to select OK.
Step 19: In the Choose filesystem dialog box, use the arrow keys to select ext3 and then press Enter.
Step 20: Select Yes on the confirmation dialog box and press Enter. The virtual hard drive will take a few seconds to format.
Step 21: The next option box will ask, Do you want to install the boot loader GRUB? Again using the keyboard, select Yes and press the Enter key. (In case you’re wondering, GRUB stands for GRand Unified Bootloader.)
Step 22: When asked whether to install /system directory as read-write, select Yes and press Enter. The Android-x86 software will now be written to the virtual machine’s hard drive.
The Linux hardware setup is now complete! A “Congratulations” box will appear; you can now run Android. With “Run Android-x86” and OK selected, press the Enter key one last time.
Setting up Android: Down to the final steps
Step 23: Android will now load for the first time. You’ll see an animated Android logo screen followed by a Welcome screen. Don’t click anything yet!
VirtualBox normally allows for seamless mouse pointer integration between the host and guest systems. But Android is a touch-oriented operating system. To use your PC’s mouse within the Android virtual PC, you need to disable mouse integration.
It’s easy: when the Welcome screen appears, click on the Machine menu (in the upper-left corner of the virtual machine’s window) and select Disable Mouse Integration (Figure 12). This will allow normal, plain-vanilla mousing in the Android virtual machine.
You can now click the Welcome screen’s Start button to complete the Android initial setup. Note: the first full boot of Android may be unusually slow; subsequent boots should be faster.
Important Note: Once you click inside the Android virtual PC, your mouse cursor will stay there, bounded by the edges of the Android window. When you want to use your mouse outside Android, press the right Ctrl key (if that doesn’t work, try the left Ctrl key); VirtualBox will release the mouse from the virtual machine, letting you use it normally in Windows. To resume using the mouse in Android, just click back inside the Android window.
Step 24: Skip the Wi-Fi setup. Android is a phone/tablet operating system, but you’re now using it in a virtual PC, which automatically has access to your PC’s normal Internet connection. No separate Wi-Fi or other networking configuration is needed. Therefore, on the “Select Wi-Fi” and related screens, click Skip. Your Android virtual PC is already connected!
Step 25: Follow the on-screen prompts for the rest of the setup.
If you already have a Google Account with another Android device, use the same Google Account on your virtual Android setup. This way, your new Android setup can import your email and other settings and will automatically “know” which apps you’ve previously downloaded or purchased from Google Play. You can also download and install new apps, as you wish.
Note that not all apps work on all hardware (tablet-specific vs. phone-specific, for example); Google Play will tell you in advance if any new or previously downloaded apps are not compatible with your new virtual Android PC.
If you’re just getting started with Android, it’s a good idea to set up a Google Account when offered, so you’ll be able to take advantage of Google’s automatic backups and other services. You might also wish to check out many of the available Android new-user guides online, such as the How-To Geek page, “Beginner’s guide to getting started with Android.”
Also, Android varies according to the device it’s installed on (phone vs. tablet, hardware brand, software version, etc.). So some information in the online guides will vary from what Android-x86 4.3 presents. But the basics will be the same.
Final note: By default, Android times out after two minutes. The VPC screen will go blank and you won’t be able to wake up Android with your mouse or keyboard. It’s a problem with VirtualBox’s mouse integration. You can change Android’s timeout to up to 30 minutes in the operating system’s Display settings.
When you’re done, you’ll have a free, functional, and fully legitimate Android installation running on your Windows PC!
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