Android for Real Work

This post publishes a report on my initial attempts to set up and use Android devices for real work, rather than simply as a reader and web surfing device.

Notes on Android for Real Work

Mon Dec 11th 2017

Introduction

The point of the exercise is to determine if one can in fact use an Android device, like a phone or a tablet, as a device for real work. Specifically, can one edit documents, switch languages in keyboards, use a full size external keyboard, a mouse, a regular monitor and so on ?

Test Devices

Three devices were used in tests.

  • A Samsung Note III on Android 5.0
  • A Lenovo Tab4 8″ on Android 7.1.1
  • A Samsung Tab S3 on Android 7.0

Test Cases

The first is typing this document using an external keyboard and mouse, in iA Writer.

Keyboard and Mouse

There are basically two external keyboard options; wireless or USB. Wireless is usually Bluetooth which has security issues. If we ever see an appreciable number of Wifi Direct keyboards that use WPA PSK this might be more secure, but for now that leaves USB keyboards. The description that follows documents how to do this.

This is relatively straightforward for English keyboard input but if you want to change languages, that is, keyboard mappings, there are a couple of gotchas.

Bluetoooth

Interesting note to make on Bluetooth here in respect of the Lenovo. I have a Microsoft Sculpt Bluetooth mouse. It works fine on the Note III and the Tab S3, but while it connects to the Lenovo it does not work.

Regarding security, Bluetooth has a very short range and thus use in certain locations is likely no problem at all. But in places such as crowded coffee shops and so on it is less satisfactory. Now of course, many will think there is no need to be paranoid and that there are other security risks. Indeed there are. So if you prefer the convenience of wireless peripherals and aware of the risks, by all means use them.

There is much to say about setting them up. Enable Bluetooth on the tablet and put the mouse or keyboard into pairing mode. Once the device is recognised simply connect.

USB OTG

So first, the simple case. Get a micro USB to OTG cable. Most tablets and phones will have a micro USB socket but some are now coming with USB-C. (In that case you will need USB-C to OTG or a male USB-C to female micro USB adapter.) USB OTG is the USB On The Go standard. This allows the phone or tablet to act as a host for USB devices, just as a laptop or desktop computer does. It requires that the tablet or phone support OTG. In order to run both a mouse and a keyboard you will also need USB hub. For just a mouse and keyboard I did not need a powered hub on any of the devices.

But there is one problem you will likely run into. The host device (your phone or tablet) cannot be charged while running in such a configuration without a special cable. It is possible to get an OTG cable that will charge the host while providing OTG data access for peripherals, but be careful to check compatibility with your device, if you can, and make sure the cable expressly states this simultaneous charge and data support.

Charging and use of data devices simultaneously appears to requires 11 pin micro USB rather than 5.

Keyboard Driver and External Keyboards

In order to be able to use Hebrew and Greek you will need to install a keyboard application. There are a number of issues so keyboard software will treated later more fully. This issue to describe here though is this; when you install a keyboard driver in Android it is usually the case that you will be using it on the virtual keyboard which appears on-screen. I had initially assumed that setting the virtual keyboard driver would also apply to the USB keyboard. This is not the case. Each are mapped separately. You will not see the option to choose the keyboard driver until you actually plugin in the keyboard.

In addition, on the Note III (Android 5.0) the USB keyboard is then visible in the Languages and Input there will appear a setting for the keyboard. It is separate from the virtual keyboard and at least in my case identified the keyboard by name. On the TAB4 (Android 7.1.1) the situation was more frustrating in that the keyboard entry is not always visible in the settings. When the keyboard is first plugged in a notification appears and you can map it. After that was been done I only saw that appear once or twice more and not since. As a result the mapping is hard to update. I still do not know how to update it after the initial assignment. I also do not know if this is Android 7.1.1 or the Lenovo that is responsible for this.

Video Output

Again there are various options for video output to a larger screen. This is device dependent. You can go with MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) to HDMI, to get to a monitor, if your device supports it. Otherwise you will need a wireless solution and there are a number of protocols available.

Wireless

What I have tried successfully with all three devices is wireless screen casting. This requires a Miracast or similar dongle which outputs HDMI. No doubt there are many other options. I use an AnyCast M4 Plus which does Miracast, DLNA and Airplay. (Airplay is apparently Apple’s wireless video protocol, Miracast is the industry alternative and DLNA is the Digital Living Network Alliance which is form of universal plug and play.). It also does Wifi Direct. The instructions are terse.

You will also need a female to female HDMI adapter to plug the dongle into your monitor HDMI cable unless you plug it directly to the monitor or TV’s socket. Once this is plugged in and booted it will present a wireless endpoint which may be discovered by the phone or tablet. Follow the instructions for the dongle and once it is booted up and in the right mode navigate to the screen mirroring option in the phone or tablet. It will scan for wireless endpoints and once it finds one you can connect.

Screenmirroring (Screencasting)

On the TAB4 the setting is called Cast under Settings -> Display -> Cast. On the Note III it is under the Settings -> Connections -> Screen Mirroring. On the Tab S3 it is under the quick settings and is called Smart View.

If the dongle is not in the right mode you will fail to connect. Ask me how I know. So as I said, follow the instructions. You may have to try more than once. Once it is connected I have found the connection to be very stable. The Tab S3 is the easiest to connect actually and you do not even need the steps below. Just plug the AnyCast in and start Smart View.

The TAB4 is not doing Miracast. It disconnects from the Wifi network when it connects to this dongle. My suspicion is that it is using the Wifi to discover the Wifi Direct endpoint. It will connect with a slightly different sequence of messages being issued by the dongle, clearly being issued an IP address. Once it connects you can simply reconnect the Wifi and both will work.

Troubleshooting Tips with AnyCast

Finally the AnyCast dongle is not always very easy to connect. Once connected it is fine, but sometimes connecting can be problematic. I find that one must rigorously follow the following steps :

  • plugin the dongle to a USB power brick
  • plugin the HDMI cable
  • when it comes up, it displays the “Waiting for connection…” message, then press the little button on it once.

This is pretty much all in the instructions.

If that does not work I then try again but sometimes I erase its data and retry. This is done by holding down the button until the somewhat scary “Erase user data …” message appears. It will reboot and it will have chosen a new random name which it will advertise. It should be noted that sometimes the phone or tablet benefits from a reboot. The TAB4 had a problem shutting down wfd (Wifi Direct) daemon after one session and could not connect subsequently, until rebooted.

This will not be a fast connection but if you aren’t it shouldn’t matter much.

Screen mirroring to a PC

It is possible to use a Windows 10 PC as a Miracast host and screen cast your tablet or phone to it. This is useful if you wish to then web cast activity on the tablet or phone. Windows 10 has an application called Connect which turns the PC into a Miracast host. With this running, you can simply run Smart View on the Tab S3 and cast the screen into a window on the PC. The Note III Screen Mirroring also works simply with Connect.

The Lenovo TAB4 also connected successfully which surprises me because I thought it could not do Miracast. But perhaps Connect is providing Wifi Direct support also. The TAB4 seems to be able to receive input from the PC mouse, which neither the Note III nor the Tab S3 could do. However, this resulted in two odd affects. First, the mouse thumbwheel seems to operate in the opposite direction in the tablet window. Secondly, the mouse seemed to get stuck in the tablet window and I had to halt the screen casting to regain control of it. Not especially useful in short.

Wired

I got an MHL cable and sure enough the Note III and TAB4 work with it. The Tab S3 does not because Samsung has moved away from MHL I understand and the device only supports wireless video casting.

Keyboard Drivers

I have tried a number and it will depend what you are trying to do as to which one works for you. I am interested in Biblical Greek and Hebrew and thus I need a keyboard that can produce various diacritics marks. I am currently using Keyman with English, Greek and Hebrew languages installed.

Pitfalls with keyboard drivers

In addition to keyboards you will need an editor or two. They may not support various things you need.

TextMaker will not render entered Hebrew with nikkud though it will display documents containing them. In addition it does not like Keyman’s language switching. This is clearly a bug; it loses the ability to process the carriage return quickly until it is restarted. Otherwise though, TextMaker is a very good program and will open Word and Open/Libre Office files. In addition it is easy to add fonts to it. I have installed the Accordance font in it which makes it easy to get it to correctly render documents that have Greek and Hebrew and show the diacritics.

iA Writer is happy enough with either language on Keyman but it does not properly pass on the hot key for activating the language change for the keyboard. This is also a pain as you have to temporarily exit the app to switch language.

Andro Open Office does not handle diacritics but is happy to correctly process the language changes. It also does not do RTL text.

Finally the behaviour of the same keyboard with the virtual keyboard may differ in small ways from the way it works with an external keyboard.

Performance and Behaviour Notes

I am prompted to included this section only since I have now got more basic things going and I am writing this document on a full-size USB keyboard. I am noticeably out-typing the tablet (the Lenovo TAB4) and can sit here and watch the words being rendered on the screen. And this without mirroring the screen. This is just OTG with a mouse and keyboard. That said it is way easier and faster to type than it would be on the virtual keyboard. But one amusing side-affect of this is that one can grab the mouse while the characters are appearing and click in the middle of some place, say further back in the text and the characters will be entered there. You need to be a bit careful with backspace if you have a few words in the buffer too. All a bit odd I must say.

With the keyboard cover on the Tab S3 I have not been able to outpace the tablet. This is no doubt due to its considerbly greater power of the Tab S3, and perhaps to some extent my needing to get use to the small keyboard. But it doesn’t feel like I am even getting close.

Other Peripherals

Unitek Dock for the Note III

As you should now be able to imagine connecting an Android device to a mouse, keyboard and external screen can result in a mess of cables, connectors and adapters. Indeed it can. This is where a dedicated dock can be a huge benefit. The problem is that these are often device specific, or at least not functional for all devices. In addition some will not charge the device while it is in use.

I eventually found a dock for the Note III which supports a number of earlier Samsung phones made by Unitek. This is the MHL+OTG Smart Phone Dock. It provides 3 USB ports and one HDMI output. It has a small micro USB pig tail to connect to the phone. It requires power to be supplied via the phone’s USB charging brick. It comes with a regular USB cable to connect the dock to the power brick. This dock also charges the phone while it is docked and in use. Overall this is a very good solution. If you can find such a dock for your device it can be a very good buy. This only cost about $16.

Wacom Bamboo Tablet

This was just an outright fail. No response from the TAB4 to this device at all.

Next Items for Testing

  • A wireless keyboard perhaps