How to make your Android phone work more closely with your PC or Mac

With the right tools you can leave your phone on the desk more often when you're working or playing on a PC.

If you think about it, the computer you use the most during the day is your smartphone. But you still probably have a Mac, PC, or maybe even a Chromebook that does the heavy lifting when it comes to tasks like documents, spreadsheet, image editing, and email.

This makes it all the more annoying when you have to stop what you’re doing to pick up your phone, whether it’s to answer a text or transfer over a file. Especially since those who live in the Apple ecosystem have Continuity, which allows you to sync iMessages, open a web link with one click, and take phone calls with a paired iPhone and Mac.

No such tool from Google exists. However, there are others that might help you leave that phone on the desk more often. Which tools is best for you depends on what you’re after, and how much you’re willing to pay. But there’s a decent spread on the table, and you may want to sample each one before you decide on a full helping.

Pushbullet delivers the whole package, for a price

If you want to deeply tie your phone to your computer, then Pushbullet is the most complete alternative. That’s because it does far more than just replicate notifications: you can share links and files among devices, take action on messages, and even keep tabs on topics that interest you.

pushbullet file menu

Pushbullet offers access to your file system among other different tricks.

Though the two most useful features, universal copy/paste and “priority” customer support, will cost you $5 per month or $40 per year. They work well and can certainly keep you from the need to pick up your phone all the time. The cost may be sensible enough, but Pushbullet stumbled a bit when rolling these out because it took some features that were previously fee and moved them to a paid tier. Goodwill is hard to earn, and the company has tried to win it back after acknowledging the missteps.

That aside, I find Pushbullet to be the top option if you want maximum control over what your phone can do. The file exchange is especially helpful as you can navigate Android’s file system and dig out something that may have been buried. There’s also a dedicated desktop app for Windows and a Chrome extension (which I prefer as part of my suite of lightweight tools) to keep you connected.

pushbullet quick reply

A quick reply method lets you fire off a message with Pushbullet.

If you don’t need the extra features, the free level might be enough. Or you could try it out for $5 for one month to see if it’s necessary for you. To me the only drawback to Pushbullet is a lot of notifications and ability to reply to messages duplicates some of what I already use: Gmail, Facebook Messenger, Hangouts, and other services already push out through Chrome, and clicking on the notification takes you to the right app. But for now the extras are worth it for me, and they might be right for you if you want a deeper hook into your phone.

AirDroid is lightweight, but helpful

Another service that I’ve used off and on in the past and got to know again for this piece is AirDroid. It’s another one I like, particularly in how well you can glance at a notification and keep going or take more control over some specific functions on your device. AirDroid also treats your phone more like a PC, with full visibility over the file system and the ability to delete apps, take a screenshot, ping its location, and perform other remote work.

airdroid

AirDroid makes your Android device feel like a computer with access to just about any file you might need.

You have to agree to grant these permissions with the new model in Marshmallow, but once you do that you’re well on your way. Unlimited file transfer, multiple device support, folder transfer, and other tricks are all part of the $20 a year package.

The interface could use some work, particularly a few of the iOS-inspired icons. But if you want a tool that can perform several specific phone functions, you may be tempted by AirDroid.

Google Voice is still around, for now

If all you’re looking for is synced message conversations, and you’re ok with changing your number, then you may want to go with Google Voice

The service has been around a while, and operates under the concept that you can use one phone number for all your calls and messaging across multiple devices. The service lives in Hangouts, which at times is on the buggy side.

hangouts desktop

Hangouts lets you make, take calls and send messages.

But this offers you a way to give out a separate number for work or for those you don’t quite trust yet with your personal number. And you’re able to text and call right from the desktop, which can be a great time saver.

If there’s a caveat here, it’s that the future of Google Voice is a little murky. If you try out Project Fi, for example, you either have to use your Google Voice number or surrender it to the abyss. Google may be angling to kill off Voice as a standalone service and move it over to Fi, but it’s hard to tell for now.

MightyText is straightforward sync and more

If it’s just messaging you’re after, then you may find MightyText to be the right solution. It’s lightweight and lives in the browser, but it offers what you might have missed if you switched over to Android from the iPhone: the ability to write and respond to text messages from the desktop.

mightytext window

Fire off a new SMS or MMS message with MightyText.

There’s a free tier, though it’s rather limited. It won’t sync up all your existing messages and there are some nuisances in the form of ads that live in the web app. Though if you go for the pro option ($40 per year) you get quite a bit extra.

My favorite feature (available in the free tier) is the ability to send a link right to your phone. Yes, Chrome syncs up your tabs but it’s a bit buried inside the browser. This sends along a push message and it’s right there.

mightytext open on phone

The MightyText Chrome extension puts new messages and an ability to send a web link right in your browser.

While good sevice is certainly worth paying for, $40 a year for mirrored texting feels a bit hard to swallow, especially when you consider you get this type of capability for free with Google Voice or iMessage.

The service has been around for many years, and it’s very reliable. It’s just a matter if you want another paid service in your life.

Cloud storage is still best for files

While many of these service offer file transfer to some degree, I still think you’re better off going with your preferred cloud service. I usually recommend that people stick with what makes sense for their workflow: if you’re all in with Google services, use Drive (the new selective folder sync is especially useful). If you want the absolutely fastest and most reliable syncing, then go with Dropbox, though you’ll probably want the $100 pear year 1TB plan. Office 365 user? Take advantage of your included 1TB of OneDrive.

inline uploads Google Apps Updates Blog

A progress indicator bar now will tell you how close your files are to being uploaded.

All services have solid Android apps that make it quick and easy to send over files. One quirk if you use Google Photos is that they show up in a series of folders organized by sequential order: you have to go to the web or Android app to get all the facial-recognition magic.

A final word of hope comes from an unlikely source: Microsoft. The company showed off at its Build developer conference how a future Windows 10 update will mirror much of your phone’s notifications. If this turns out well, it could offer a free solution, provided you’re using Windows 10 instead of Mac or Chrome OS.

Google could certainly do some more in this space, with deeper ties between Android and Chrome a logical place to go. It would seem the ability is there to mirror Android notifications on Chrome and to more actively highlight features like Chrome tabs and draft emails. But for now you have some good choices which ought to give you the freedom to just leave the darn phone alone that much longer.

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Derek Walter

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