Android-x86 is an open source project to bring the Android operating system to fairly standard x86 hardware like desktop PCs and laptops. The latest release is right up to date with KitKat.
Although only a release candidate, Android-x86 4.4 seems to be good enough to use for real tasks. It is licenced under Apache 2.0 and the idea is that you can treat it much like any Linux distribution.
There are other projects to port Android to x86. the most notable being Intel's Android-IA project. The Intel effort is aimed at bringing Android to new devices running Intel chips. The Android-x86 project is more interested in supporting existing hardware. Of course all Android ports or alternative version of the OS are based on the Android Open Source Project, which is the core code and apps of Google's version.
As reported on the Android-x86 site the key improvements in the latest version are:
- Integrate the ffmpeg as the stagefright-plugins to support more multimedia files. Now we can play HD and full HD videos in apps.
- Use the latest longterm stable kernel 3.10.30 with more drivers enabled. Most netbooks can run Android-x86 in the native resolution.
- OpenGL ES hardware acceleration for AMD Radeon and Intel chipsets (not include the PowerVR chips).
- Enhance the installer to support upgrade from previous versions (since ics-x86). The text based GUI installer supports ext3/ext2/ntfs/fat32 filesystems.
- KitKat style launcher (Launcher3).
- Support Multi-touch, Wifi, Audio, Bluetooth, G-sensor and Camera.
- Simulate sdcard by internal storage.
- External usb drive and sdcard are auto mounted to /storage/usbX on plugging.
- Support hybrid mode of iso images.
- Multi-user support (max 8).
- Support Ethernet (DHCP only).
- Support VM like Qemu and VMware.
For many users the new support for running the OS on virtual machines will mean that it is easier to give it a try and it provides an alternative testing platform. You can install it from an ISO image loaded either to a USB stick or from a CD, which is a neat trick.
The new image also has drivers that should install on most netbooks and tablets but don't forget to try it out on that old desktop PC you have sitting around. If you don't want to risk an installation there is also a live CD that you can use to boot directly to the OS.
As well as the basic OS, it also provides access to the familiar Android apps - Camera, clock, downloads, Gmail and so on. You can even use Google Play.
The Google experience hasn't been noticeably reduced so don't expect Android-x86 to be Google free. For that you need to look at ports such as Replicant.