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The Linux desktop-a-week review: Android as a desktop environment

How the world's leading mobile OS fares as a desktop environment.

android army
Credit: Image credit: flickr/Rick Marshall

Last week, I reviewed ChromeOS from a desktop environment perspective as part of my “Linux Desktop-a-Week” series (which, really, has become less of a weekly thing and more of a “Desktop-Every-Few-Weeks-Or-So” thing. But I’m sticking to my original title. Because I’m stubborn).

This “week,” I am spending time with another Linux desktop environment that isn’t exactly traditional. This week, I’m using Android.

See also: The Linux desktop-a-week review: ChromeOS

There are a lot of things I could say about Android as a platform. I could talk market share or application selection, diversity of hardware or maturity of the SDK. But I’m not going to touch on any of that, at least not in this article. Instead, I am going to focus strictly on Android as a desktop environment.

The big strike against Android as a desktop environment for Linux is, really, the same gripe I have with Ubuntu’s Unity, elementary’s Pantheon, and ChromeOS’s Aura Shell – it’s just not easy to get it running on other Linux-based systems. Once you get past that, it turns out using Android as a desktop environment is actually downright enjoyable.

First and foremost, Android is, at least by default, a single window interface. One application, full screen, all the time. This is simultaneously convenient (maximum screen real estate for web browsing), focusing (only one application in front of you allows you to laser focus on whatever you are doing), and maddening (switching to a different full-screen application every time you receive an instant message can drive a man to the very edge of sanity).

See also: The Linux desktop-a-week review: LXDE

In almost all other ways, Android is a pretty typical desktop environment. You’ve got a big, comprehensive application launcher, a dock, and a desktop filled with application icons. You can even Alt-Tab between running applications, something you don’t really notice until you use Android on a laptop or desktop.

The notification center is vastly more complete and robust than in most environments. Just about every type of notification comes through this one user interface, functionality that other desktops only dream of.

In the looks department, Android is… absolutely fine. Majorly inoffensive. It lacks the fanciness of Enlightenment. It doesn’t have that smooth, clean look of Pantheon. But it’s not distracting. It’s pleasing to the eye. Consequently…I have nothing bad to say about it.

If one can get over the whole “every app runs full screen” shebang, Android actually makes for an astoundingly usable, easy to learn, fairly peppy and relatively good-looking desktop environment.

Would I enjoy the Android user experience as my primary Linux Desktop experience? Yes. Absolutely. In fact, for long periods of time, Android has been my primary computing platform. And the environment is absolutely usable for that purpose.

That being said, the “always full screen” thing can get a tad old sometimes.

As I look forward to the vast sea of desktop environments still ahead of me, I feel like now would be a good time to sit down and recap what I’ve tried so far – and properly compare them. Once I do that, maybe that’ll give me some idea which environment I should try next.

Because, I tell ya… there’s a lot to choose from.

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