Using Your Smartphone as a Desktop Replacement

After smashing my smartphone screen (a Sony Xperia S), I got a quote for a repair because foolishly I hadn’t insured it. After hearing the quote I politely said no and hung up.

An alternative option would have been to try and repair the screen myself, however I didn’t want to take the risk of further damage, besides life is too short for that kind of hassle.

Since the phone was still functional, bar the cracked screen I decided to carry on using it until I a replacement smartphone was available.

After a long review I settled on a new smartphone which I plan on getting in the next month. This means however I will have an extra functional yet damaged phone (yes I know, 1st world problems). I started thinking about extra uses for this spare phone as it would be a shame to waste good working tech.

A few months back one of my old PC’s blew up (a dead motherboard), and I have not bothered to replace it. It was mainly used for surfing. With access to lots of web enabled devices in our house the priority for replacing it was low. With the whole “Ubuntu Edge” buzz going around I thought it would be interesting to see just how much a current smartphone could replace a desktop.

I’ve used a laptop setup as my main working environment for a while in the past, its harder to go back to a big bulky desktop setup after a while. The thought of using something even more space saving was very nice.

The idea was to use an OTG (on the go) cable to a USB hub and then connect my keyboard and mouse that way. The old PC had a standard VGA monitor, so this meant I needed to get a HDMI to VGA adapter.

I ordered the relevant cables and adapters from eBay. A few days later when they arrived the problems started. The first issue I ran into was that the phone could not be charged and use USB host at the same time. It seems that the standard practice on handsets are to combine USB host and charging into one.

The second problem I ran into was getting the HDMI to VGA to work. I proved that the converter worked when using two other Android devices (Tablet and an Android Gamepad). However for some reason it simply did not work with my handset. I managed to find a hack to a hidden service menu which allowed me to change the HDMI resolution and frequency (dial *#*#7378423#*#*), but none of the options worked. In the end the adapter fell apart in my hand due to the low quality part of that cheap product.

I decided to go ahead and try and operate the device without the benefit of an external screen. At least I had a working keyboard and mouse. The next series of issues were really related more towards software rather than hardware limitations.

Getting android to recognise a UK English keyboard was tricky. I used an app which seemed to work (except the “@” and ‘“’ keys were mixed around).

Android has three hardware keys (back, home, menu) although the “back” and “menu” mapped to the “escape” and “right menu” key. I never found any key that mapped to the “home” key!

I decided to carry on, tweeting was a breeze. Sending text messages was really nice. Doing basic surfing was cool. I found that even the “alt + tab” function worked as expected. Then I decided to try do some work and write this blog post.

I tried using Google Docs, but Google Docs would not give me the “desktop version” and forced me to use a mobile version, which frankly is useless. I tried using the “request desktop” feature but that didn’t work either.

Frustrated I went ahead and installed “Kingsoft Office” which is an amazing alternative to MS Office for the desktop (cross platform and free). The Android version however after using it, while workable was slow and didn’t support basic keyboard short-cuts. At one point it crashed my smartphone.

In the end I caved in having only written 50% of the post and I had to go back to my desktop top to finish this post.

I can still see the potential however at this point until a full-blown desktop OS is implemented inside a phone (Ubuntu Edge Style) this setup is not yet ready for prime-time.

I think the following tweet summed up the entire experience perfectly:


There is great potential behind the convergent concept, I genuinely believe we are moving towards it. Hardware is “good enough” for most tasks. What is lacking is the software. Ubuntu Edge really has the opportunity to change this. If wireless charging, video, keyboard and mouse could be implemented this would be my dream setup. Until then it is still just a dream. For now I’m running and screaming back to my laptop, there is still life in that old dog yet!

Until next time, keep it lean mean and green.