I love to experiment, and I'm always looking for ways to get more value out of my PC experience. My NUC home theater PC is currently running Windows 7 with Media Center. It's the only fully functional setup I've found for my needs. As I've said I love Linux Mint and XBMC but that setup lacks one critical component for me: Netflix. We don't pay for tv so Netflix is where we get most of our shows. Yes, yes I know you can run Netflix under Linux by running a Windows browser through WINE. But seriously that's a pain to deal with for something that should just be a couple of clicks. Windows 7 works great for Netflix (free add-in for Media Center, hi-def picture, etc.) and I really have no reason to change at this point. Still, the idea of running Android on a NUC intrigued me, especially given the fact that Netflix has an app for Android. If I could run Android on the NUC and still get my Netflix it would open up a world of possibilities. A customizable experience? Check. Thousands of apps to choose from? You bet. Snappy performance? I would hope so.
The Android x86 project has been around for a while. For those not familiar it's an open source project with the goal of porting Android to the x86 platform. I've looked at it in the past but decided it wasn't quite ready for prime time. I gave it another look recently and learned they had not only delivered a stable Android on x86 but had been steadily creating builds for newer versions of Android as well. Their latest build was based on Android 4.3. I decided to test this out on my NUC to see how practical (or impractical) an Android-based HTPC would be.
I started by downloading their most recent build. It was labeled as experimental so I didn't expect much. That was a good thing because it wouldn't even boot on my NUC. Something about a kernel crash every time I tried. So I went back and downloaded the previous build, which was based on Android 4.2. This one was also labeled as experimental but it actually booted. I tried to install it to a flash drive so I could save my config, but Android x86 was having none of that. It recognized my flash drive, went through the process of installing it, said everything was peaches & cream, and then wouldn't boot from the flash drive. I tried this with several flash drives in several combinations. Every time I got the same result; no problems at all until I tried to boot from the flash drive. It seemed my only option at this point was to use the "run without installing" option to at least get to try it out. Using the no install option worked but was pretty slow. It was a little funny actually, sitting on a screen that says "Just a sec" for about 5 minutes. When I finally got into Android the setup was just like a tablet. In fact it called my system a tablet. Wifi setup was a breeze, as was logging into my Google account. I poked around the Android interface and found it to be a pleasant, responsive experience. The Youtube app was there and I tried it out....everything looked good until I tried to actually play a video. Then it stopped and said there was an error playing the file. Some quick Googling informed me I needed to switch HD off in Youtube as Android x86 wasn't able to play Youtube videos in HD yet. I did that and then playback worked. Standard def but still smooth.
When I went to the Play store things went South fast. Nearly every app I wanted gave me a big fat "Your device isn't compatible" message, including Netflix and even Chrome. Some more Googling told me this was a known issue and there were several "fixes" for it, the easiest one being to just download the apk file for any app I wanted. Annoying sure, but if I could still get Netflix then great. I found the apk for the Netflix app and installed it. I clicked on Netflix and...crash. Try again...crash. I can appreciate consistency and this was 100% consistent. It crashed immediately every time. So back to Google I went. What I learned was very interesting. The Netflix app can't run under Android x86 because it's not purely java. Apparently there's some C in there somewhere and since Android x86 uses an ARM emulator it just isn't going to happen. I didn't understand all of the programming explanation but the bottom line seems to be it just isn't going to work.
So after hours of tinkering, Googling, and rebooting (all of which was fun and fascinating) I had to admit defeat. I hope someday to see Android on the x86 platform with a working Netflix app, but I don't think that's going to come from the Android x86 project. Their developers' comments on it are along the lines of "well what did you expect?".
Android x86 on the NUC? You betcha
Netflix on Android x86 on the NUC? For now, keep dreamin'.