Turning an Android phone into a travelling desktop

Installing the software in the phone

I covered this in a post a few months ago:

You can turn your phone into a miniature version of your laptop by installing a desktop Linux distribution inside your Android phone and then installing all your favourite open source software inside that.

In my case, the open source software running inside my phone includes:

This solution works quite well provided it is used sparingly (for example to make a small last minute change to a presentation). However, as one gets used to the power lurking inside the phone, one is tempted to do this more extensively, and the limitations of the phone’s tiny screen and clumsy virtual keyboard become very apparent. In this post, I talk about my attempts to overcome these limitations with the help of other gadgets and peripherals.

Turning the hotel TV into an external display

I find an external display to be a more pressing need than anything else – it is useful whether one is consuming content (for example, reading a pdf file with graphs, diagrams and equations) or creating content (for example, writing this blog post). The obvious solution to the tiny screen problem is to connect the phone to the large flat screen TV that is now present in virtually every hotel room today. But implementing this idea proved non trivial.

Many modern Android phones do not support the MHL or Slimport interfaces and so cannot provide an HDMI output from the USB port. However, almost all Android phones support casting to a TV using Google Chromecast, and so this was the solution that I adopted. Chromecast however has two serious limitations:

  • It needs an internet connection even when casting local content from the phone.
  • It does not connect to the portal based WiFi that is standard in most hotels (it does connect to standard password based WiFi networks used by home routers).

So the Chromecast needs too be supplemented by a portable WiFi router. I use the HooToo TripMate Nano which can act as a WiFi bridge that connects to one WiFi network (say the hotel WiFi) and makes that internet connection available over its own WiFi network. In a hotel room, I first power up the HooToo, connect my phone to the HooToo WiFi network, login to the HooToo admin page and ask it to connect to the hotel WiFi network. The hotel’s login portal then comes up on my phone web browser and I sign it to it. Next, I connect my Chromecast to the HDMI port of the hotel TV and power it up. My Chromecast has been permanently set up to connect to the HooToo WiFi network and so it does so automatically. Now the phone and the Chromecast are connected to the same WiFi network (the HooToo WiFi) which in turn is connected to the internet through the hotel WiFi. The Chromecast now works perfectly, and I ask my phone to mirror/cast its screen to the Chromecast. Now, my phone has a 42 inch (or bigger) display on which I can read anything that is on the phone.

Both the Chromecast and the HooToo need power and I find it convenient to supply this power from a powerbank that has two charging ports. I carry a power bank anyway as an extra power supply for my phone, and by using it I avoid carrying too many chargers/adaptors and hunting for power points (sockets) in the hotel. (When I am travelling outside the country, I carry only one adapter plug and so even if the hotel has lots of power sockets, I may have access to only one because my plugs do not fit these sockets without an adaptor). This whole set (Chromecast, HooToo and power bank) is quite light and compact, and I have gotten used to carrying the set with me whenever I travel.

External keyboard and mouse

Occasionally, I find that the external display is not enough. There are some trips during which I plan to do extensive typing on my phone, and then an external bluetooth keyboard and mouse become useful. Since they are bluetooth devices, they can be used with a wide range of phones, tablets and laptops, and not just an Android phone. They end up being used at home with one device or the other, but these are much bulkier peripherals and I carry them with me during my travel only when I anticipate heavy use. On these occasions (as in the photograph below), my mobile is effectively a desktop with a large screen, comfortable keyboard and mouse.

My phone connected to hotel TV and other peripherals

1 thought on “Turning an Android phone into a travelling desktop”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s