Phone makers have been toying with HDMI output for the last few years, but the functionality has been limited. You might have been able to stream some video to a larger display, but controlling the device still meant touching the screen. Starting with Honeycomb on tablets, and continuing withAndroid 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), Google has started adding the features to Android for it to be a desktop replacement.
Asus has taken advantage of native mouse and keyboard support with the Transformer line of devices, and HDMI-out connectors are becoming more and more common on phones. With a few cables and some peripherals, you can run a desktop-like experience from the Android 4.0 phone that rides around in your pocket.
What you need
There are two ways to get HDMI output on your Android smartphone. Some devices have mini-HDMI ports that only require a HDMI-to-mini-HDMI cable or converter. Classic devices like the Evo 4G and almost all Motorola devices use mini-HDMI. This keeps the USB port free for external power or syncing while outputting video. These cables are also extremely cheap; on the order of a few dollars.
Other phones make use of the micro-USB port for video out through a technology called Mobile High-definition Link (MHL). This has become the more common method as it doesn’t require a second plug in the device. Because there is nothing externally different about an MHL-enabled USB port, many users don’t know their device has this capability. The HTC Sensation, Galaxy Nexus, and Galaxy S II are some of the more popular devices that use MHL. Make sure to check device specs before assuming a phone does or doesn’t support video out. MHL adapters are a bit more pricey at roughly $15. An additional standard HDMI cable is also needed, but those are a dime a dozen these days.
What makes this a useful setup is the robust mouse and keyboard support built into each and every Android 4.0 device, as well as the new on-screen buttons in Android 4.0. Almost any Bluetooth mouse and keyboard should be recognized, but some might not have quite the same level of support in software. All the standard functions should work, though.
Finally, and this is the big one, you need an Android 4.0 device. We’re using a Samsung Galaxy Nexus for testing, but you could use a tablet of some sort as well. When Ice Cream Sandwich begins to show up on more devices, many more users will have access to this functionality.
Setting up the display
Android 4.0 devices should need no configuration to get video up on a monitor or TV. Depending on the screen, you may need to tweak the video or audio settings on that equipment, though. If your device has mini-HDMI, just plug in your cable, and the video should be up. Make sure you plug the charger into the device as well to mitigate the battery drain from powering the larger display.
MHL devices like the Galaxy Nexus require you to attach the adapter, plug in the HDMI cable, and plug your power cable into the MHL adapter itself. This additional USB port is often small and unmarked, leading many users to miss it entirely. This provides power for the adapter, and the device simultaneously. The drawback to this approach is that less power is delivered to your phone, and it may actually drain the battery very, very slowly.
Image quality on a 1920×1080 panel is fairly good. The Android user interface automatically rotates, and orients itself for easier use on a large screen. The search box becomes a button, and a new voice search button is shown next to it. There is a bit more banding visible on some UI elements simply by virtue of being up-scaled to 1080p from 720p on the phone itself. If your display has built-in speakers, the HDMI carries sound as well. That’s much better than that tiny phone speaker.
Adding a keyboard and mouse
When you tether a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard, Android will instantly recognize them as input devices, and integrate them into the software. You can type in any text field with the keyboard, and a mouse cursor will be available as a point-and-click device not unlike a PC. It is this step that frees you from holding onto the phone to control the interface.
Keyboard input is very snappy, and all special characters were properly detected on the phone. You can use the arrow keys to navigate around the device, and hit the enter button to open items. The escape key can be used in place of the back button in most (but not all) circumstances. Page up and down on the keyboard are also excellent for paging through the app list, web pages, or documents.
The keyboard we tested with has media controls on it, and we were delighted to find that Android understood them perfectly. Volume control and play/pause worked as intended with the default music player. Alt-Tab will work in most places to pull up a multitasking interface, but not the standard one from ICS. It will use the old Gingerbread-style grid of icons, and hitting tab repeatedly cycles through recent apps.
A mouse is an odd way to operate Android, but it’s by no means useless. The cursor has no right-click functionality, which is a little sad. It would be nice if a right-click brought up a long-press context menu where one is available. The scroll wheel works in almost all apps, with one painful exception being the new Chrome beta for Android.
Pointing and clicking are all well and good, but those times you find yourself simulating swipes with a mouse, it ends up a very unsatisfying experience. Pulling down the notification tray, swiping between screens, and swiping away apps/tabs are all places the mouse feels wrong. Dragging the mouse over to hit the on-screen system button is also a bit odd.
What is it good for?
We found web browsing with the stock browser app to be a solid experience. It works with the scroll wheel, and can use fast useragent switching to pull down the desktop version of a page. Full-screen web browsing actually feels desktop-like with the mouse paired. Clicking links in cramped areas is also much improved with a mouse. Having a cursor that can hover over page elements also lets you use desktop web pages as they were intended.
The Google Docs app was also a good experience with the keyboard attached. The font is a little too big, but it’s definitely workable. Using Gmail was also nice overall. Some of the UI elements are too big for such a large screen, but reading and responding to email is a breeze with a keyboard and mouse.
As you might expect, streaming video is great with the device tethered to a screen. There’s a bit more artifacting than you’d see on the smaller screen, but you have a cellular data connection for mobile access to streaming services. The Netflix app plays well, but since it doesn’t have landscape mode in the main app, it can be a pain to start playback.
If you have a Bluetooth gamepad, some games can also be great fun when mirrored on a bigger screen. Games like Shadowgun almost have console-quality graphics on the right hardware, and will natively support controller input. Your options are a little bit limited right now, but as ICS becomes the standard for new phones, expect more companies to put gamepads out.
You’re not going to completely replace a desktop system with this solution, but an Android phone can take over a lot of traditional computing tasks in a pinch. Word processing and web browsing are great, as is video playback. There are times when the interface just feels awkward, like when you have to swipe with a mouse click. Still, the simple fact that a phone can do all this — and withoutUbuntu for Android — is rather amazing.