Quite a few apps in the Android Market try to solve the problem of how to access, view, and edit office documents with an Android device. It's a difficult task compounded by the limitations of the small screen and keyboard, and by the fact, too, that many document formats are proprietary (Microsoft Office, Adobe PDF, and so on) and are thus difficult for third-party developers to work with. AlwaysOnPC provides a powerful, customizable, cross-platform solution that uses open-source software hosted on a cloud-based, Fedora Linux PC.
The app is basically a VNC (virtual network computing) client that lets you log in to a virtualized instance of a full-blown desktop PC. You can register an account in-app or online. Once you log in, your Android device opens a window of your remote desktop, which you can customize and arrange just like a normal PC. AlwaysOnPC comes with 2GB of disk space that is arranged as a typical Linux home directory. Additionally, the excellent Dropbox cross-platform cloud storage client comes preinstalled, so you can add another 2GB with a free Dropbox account or pay for more storage if you need it.
Firefox, OpenOffice, the Thunderbird e-mail client, the FileZilla FTP client, the GIMP image editor, the Pidgin IM client, and Adobe Reader are just a few of the many full-featured programs available on your remote desktop. You can even install add-ons like Firefox Sync or Xmarks in Firefox, so your bookmarks can stay synced between computers. And you can use Web apps in Firefox, just as if you were on your desktop PC.
I'm very impressed with the performance of this app. Response times are remarkably speedy with little latency. The interface is well-optimized for the touchscreen, with pinch-zoom functionality featured nicely. You can toggle between mouse mode, which uses your screen like a trackpad to move the cursor, and touchscreen mode which keeps the cursor directly under your finger. I find mouse mode to be more precise.
You can upload a file from your device to your desktop, using Menu, Send File. Unfortunately, you don't get to choose the destination folder--the files all go into your Home folder. There's also no direct way to download files to your device. You can work around this by installing the Dropbox app for Android and placing the files into your Dropbox folder. The Dropbox app will let you save files to your device--but that's an awkward way to do something that really should be doable in AlwaysOnPC.
This app provides the best document viewing and editing experience of any Android app I have tested. Since it uses the robust and mature OpenOffice suite, almost every office file type works very well. Some Microsoft formatting may occasionally render imperfectly, but that is true to an even greater extent in other apps.
It's worth noting that AlwaysOnPC is also available on the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad, and on Mac, Windows, and Linux PCs. This means that you can access your remote desktop from just about anywhere that has an Internet connection.
Of course, there is a downside: If you don't have an Internet connection, you won't be able to use AlwaysOnPC. So if you really need to have local copies of your files, make sure they are synced to your Dropbox folder.
As long as you have a data connection, AlwaysOnPC is a great way to get some desktop-powered work done with your Android device.
You might also like other articles by Brent W. Hopkins.
This story, "Get your own virtual desktop with AlwaysOnPC" was originally published by PCWorld.
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