Computers

Why I want official Android support for the Raspberry Pi

To date, Android support for the Raspberry Pi has been very limited, but official support from Google may be on the way. Here's why that's important for the $35 computer.

Now Playing: Watch this: Raspberry Pi projects
2:43

When I purchased my first Raspberry Pi, I assumed the Android development community had already pounced on the famed $35 computer, that they had taken the affordable hardware under their wing and turned it into the ultimate dev kit for Android.

raspberry-pi-3-things-to-consider.jpg
Taylor Martin/CNET

I wasn't entirely wrong. You can easily find references to Android on the official Raspberry Pi Foundation blog and Raspberry Pi threads in Android development forums, and there's even a Wiki page for Razdroid, a volunteer project to try and get Android running smoothly on the project board. And installing Android on a Raspberry Pi is as simple as downloading the proper image, flashing it to a microSD card and popping that card into the slot on the Raspberry Pi.

The problem is, in its current state, Android on the Raspberry Pi is practically unusable. It lacks hardware acceleration, which is necessary for a proper Android port. Without it, video will stutter and UI elements will lag horrendously. And without the source code which, at this point, doesn't exist, the Razdroid efforts are hitting brick walls with major bugs such as totally broken user interfaces.

While a version of Android can be found in the forum, it is not stable enough for everyday use. There are no plans to continue working on it, as Android does not provide any enhancement to educational purposes that are not already fulfilled more readily with existing software - we see it as a platform for consumption, not creation.

Official support on the way?

You may have heard of a discovery made earlier this week in which a reference to the Raspberry Pi was found in the Android Open Source Project repository, where Google uploads all the source code for its officially supported devices. The directory is currently empty, but many jumped to the conclusion that Google will officially be supporting the $35 computer at some point in the future.

A retweet from the official Raspberry Pi Twitter account seems to confirm suspicions, stating they're "excited to see where this goes."

Even so, it's certainly not a done deal. Google hasn't officially commented on why Raspberry Pi has been added to the AOSP repository, which could mean a number of things. Google could be taking a page from Microsoft's book and creating a lightweight version of Android specifically for IoT development purposes; it could be adding Android TV support for a cheap, DIY streaming device; or we could eventually see a fully functioning version of Android with hardware acceleration.

Only time will tell.

Why it needs to happen

Regardless of why the Raspberry Pi now has its own device tree in AOSP, there are a number of reasons why I want my Raspberry Pi to run on Android and why official Android support for Raspberry Pi needs to happen.

Official streaming apps

For starters, many people already use Plex, Kodi or OpenELEC to turn their Raspberry Pis into media servers. With full Android support, you could take it one step further by keeping Kodi or Plex while adding all your favorite streaming apps, such as Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now and any others available in the Google Play Store.

Think of it as a Nexus Player for half the price, or a more powerful and fully featured Chromecast for the same price. You could watch or stream practically anything from one device.

Games

With Android, you could still set up your Raspberry Pi with your favorite game emulators. RetroArch is the emulator platform most Raspberry Pi retro gaming distributions, such as Lakka or RetroPie, are built on.

RetroArch is available for Android as a download from the Google Play Store, meaning all you need to do to have both a media server and retro gaming setup on your Raspberry Pi is to install two separate applications.

ifttt-android-recipes.jpg
Taylor Martin/CNET

Android for IoT

Most smart home devices and applications are already built for Android, so rather than having to code simple tasks from scratch, you can install the official applications directly on the Raspberry Pi. You can install IFTTT and use the Android Device channel, set up smart home routines from Yonomi or get even more elaborate with Tasker (video).

While this doesn't necessarily increase the possibilities of what can be done with the Raspberry Pi and the smart home, it would definitely make it easier to get started, which is one of the primary objectives of the Raspberry Pi to begin with.

Better touch support

You can currently purchase a touchscreen for your Raspberry Pi and have it up and running with relative ease. However, it's like stepping back into the early 2000s, most Linux distributions for the Raspberry Pi aren't built with touch input in mind (think Windows Mobile PDA circa 2004).

Android is a mobile OS, meaning it's very finger- and touchscreen-friendly by design.

This does mean that if you were to use a Pi as a living-room PC from the television, the user experience may suffer a bit. However, having official Android support would most likely also bring along Remix OS support, a fork of Android which enables true multitasking, a more desktop-friendly environment and everything else you've come to expect from Android.

To be fair, the Raspberry Pi Foundation is right. Android is more for consuming than creating. And having Android on a Raspberry Pi definitely isn't the coolest thing you can do with the project board. But it's also difficult to deny that an Android-powered all-in-one media streamer, retro gaming setup and smart home controller for as little as $35 is pretty enticing.