12 Surprising Things Your Android Phone Can Do

When Benjamin Franklin wrote that “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety,” he was clearly referring to smartphone operating systems. While Apple’s iOS and Microsoft’s Windows Phone prevent developers and users from having too much access to core functions in the name of security, Android gives you the freedom to perform just about any task you can imagine.

Most Android aficionados already know that you can “root” (AKA gain administrative access to) your device, change the look and feel of your phone with a custom launcher and sideload apps from anywhere you want. However, even if you’re an early adopter, you might not know about these 12 surprising things your Android phone can do.

Run a Web Server

Android is a form of Linux, so it should be no surprise that any modern Android device can run a full-fledged Web server complete with a mySQL database, PHP support and FTP for file transfers. You can even make the server available on the Internet and use it with a domain of your choice.

Developers can use an Android Web server to test out their code and then show it to clients or stakeholders in the office. Users who want to run a small blog or share files with co-workers via FTP can have a server sitting in their living rooms or even in their pockets. If you use a $45 Android Mini PC like the MK808B instead of a phone, you can run a server the size of a flash drive that gets all of its power over USB.

More: How to Run a Web Server on Your Android Device

Program an Android App on Android

If you want to write an iPhone app, you’ll be doing all your coding on a Mac. If you want to code for Windows Phone or BlackBerry, you’ll be writing those applications on your desktopor laptop also. However, with Android, you can actually write, compile and test an app directly on your device.

Granted, most programmers will want to do their work on a PC, but if you want to tap out some code on the phone itself, a free app called AIDE provides a complete end-to-end solution. You can also write HTML, PHP, Javascript and other Web code using DroidEdit.

More: 25 Best Android Apps

Allow Remote Access from Your PC

Want to see and access the content and apps on your phone from your PC? With a remote access app installed, you can control your phone from a Web browser on your desktop. You can also use such as remote desktop apps such as 2X or Splashtop 2 Remote Desktop to control your PC from your phone.

More: How to Control an Android Device From Your PC

Serve As a Pedometer

Earlier this year, I was impressed when I saw that Samsung’s Galaxy S4 came with an app that measures how many steps you’ve walked each day. However, there’s no special hardwareinside the GS4 and, as it turns out, you can use any Android phone as a pedometer.

Pedometer apps such as Accupedo use your phone’s accelerometer to determine when you’ve taken a step and then store that data, along with information you’ve entered about your weight and height, to determine how many calories you’ve burned.
More: How to Set Up and Personalize S Health on the Samsung Galaxy S4

Act As a Security Camera

You’re finally eligible for a phone upgrade, but now that you’ve gotten that shiny new quad-core super phone, what do you do with your 2011-era handset? You could leave it in a drawer gathering dust, pass it off to your mom or sell it. But if that device runs Android, you could also turn it into a security camera you can use to monitor the nanny or keep an eye on the cats while you’re away from home. You can access the feed over the Internet, right from your new phone.

More: How to Use Your Android Device as a Security Camera

Connect to a USB Flash Drive

Every Android phone has a microUSB port that you can use for charging or copying files to and from your PC. However, most users don’t know that, using a simple USB OTG (“on the go”) adapter cable, a free app and root-level access to the operating system, you can attach can transfer files directly from a USB flash drive or hard drive. You can even attach an SD Card reader and use that to grab photos from your camera and automatically upload them to the cloud. No PC required.

More: How to Connect USB Storage Devices to Your Android Phone

Use a Mouse and Keyboard

With a $3 USB OTG cable, your phone can not only interface with storage ports, but also interface with an external mouse and keyboard. On its own, your phone emits enough powerto connect a typical wired or wireless 2.4-GHz mouse. However, if you want to connect a keyboard as well, you’ll need to route your connection through a powered USB hub.

More: 5 Ways to Speed Up Your Android Phone in Under 5 Minutes

Undervolt to Extend Your Battery Life

While some Android phones, including the Samsung Galaxy S4, allow you to swap batteries and even purchase high-capacity replacements, many leading handsets, including HTC’s and Google’s flagship devices, have sealed backs. Fortunately, if you have rooted your phone, you may be able to adjust its CPU frequency and voltage, a process known as undervolting. When we undervolted an HTC One and Nexus 4, we got 72 and 105 additional minutes of endurance respectively.

More: How to Undervolt the Galaxy Note II and Add 2 Hours of Battery Life

Turn into a Wireless Mouse or Touchpad

Whether you’re making a presentation on your PC or sitting on the couch watching it play a video on a huge external monitor, you’re going to need some kind of wireless keyboard or mouse to control it. You could spend some money for a wireless pointing device like the Genius Ring Presenter, but why not use your Android phone? With RemoteMouse, you can use your phone as a wireless keyboard and mouse for your computer. Touchpad apps such as Advanced Touchpad also support pinch-to-zoom.

More: 30 Apps for Rooted Android Phones

Display a Start button and Taskbar

Microsoft may have ditched the Start menu and buried the desktop in Windows 8, but those UI elements are alive and well in Android if you want them. There are several apps that allow you to put the Start button and taskbar at the bottom of your screen, but our favorite is “Taskbar - Windows 8 Style,” which actually provides a very Windows 7-like experience, complete with a real Start menu and buttons for each open task. A tiny translucent icon sits in the corner of your screen allowing you to hide/unhide the bar as necessary.

More: 10 Best Android Apps You're Not Using

Listen to Live AM Radio

Your smartphone probably costs around $600 retail (without subsidy), but when you want to listen to a live event, tune in to a talk show or get the latest traffic update, sometimes a $10 AM radio seems better. Fortunately, if you install a free app called TuneIn, you can get a live stream of almost any AM or FM station in the United States. The $4.99 pro version of the app even lets you record radio broadcasts.

More: 7 Ways Skins Beat Stock Android

Install Desktop Linux

An Android phone has enough performance and flexibility to run a server, so why not turn it into a Linux workstation? Using an app such as Complete Linux Installer, you can run a desktop operating system like Ubuntu or Debian right on your phone. Connect your phone to a keyboard, mouse and external display, and you’ll be multitasking with power while using those operating systems’ windowed interfaces and productivity-centric apps such as GIMP and OpenOffice.

More: Best Android Sticks 2013

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Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch is Tom's Hardware's editor-in-chief. When he's not playing with the latest gadgets at work or putting on VR helmets at trade shows, you'll find him rooting his phone, taking apart his PC or coding plugins. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram developed many real-world benchmarks, including our laptop battery test.
  • stevejnb
    11445611 said:
    Did you know your Android phone can double as a security cam, read USB drives and even run a Web server. These neat tricks are bound to surprise.

    12 Surprising Things Your Android Phone Can Do : Read more

    You know, while I'm a huge fan of MS's approach to the whole mobile thing, I've got to give Android credit - in a lot of ways, they're the Windows of the mobile world, giving the users the ability to really tap the potential of the devices it runs on. MS should take lessons - they've got a great desktop environment that lets users drive the production of application on it... Why veer towards the Apple model on mobile and not let users go wild creating things for Metro?

  • weierstrass
    "Display a Start button"
    Wow, not even Windows 8 can do that.
  • stevejnb
    11445717 said:
    "Display a Start button"
    Wow, not even Windows 8 can do that.

    Well, you've got them there. I guess someone thought to do this after the tens of millions of Android users who just couldn't figure out how to make the device work without a start button got through to them...
  • Bill Reinhardt
    Undervolting app aside, I took this as "12 Ways to Kill Your Battery."
  • house70
    Gotta love the first paragraph of the article.
  • teh_chem
    "12 Surprising Things Your Android Phone Can Do "
    FTFY Tom's.
  • ninjustin
    The usb dongle is incredibly useful. I've been carrying one around in my bag for a year or so. It was great for uploading pictures from my Nikon before I got an eyefi but still very useful for thumb drives.