Sick of Android? Don’t want to be part of a proprietary ecosystem? Security and privacy are becoming increasingly important for smartphone users, but what is the answer? For some, abandoning Android and switching to a phone that can run a Linux mobile operating system is the answer.
With security improvements and a better attitude towards privacy and open source, Linux smartphone operating systems are available. They’re just not particularly well known. (Although Android is based on the Linux kernel, it cannot really be considered Linux.)
Here are three Linux smartphone operating systems that are available to install today.
1. Ubuntu Touch by UBports
Although tainted by several false starts, Ubuntu Touch is currently being maintained by UBports. This means that Ubuntu’s abandoned mobile operating system lives on (as does Unity).
Ubuntu Touch’s approach to smartphones is intelligent, dealing with the lack of apps by providing much of the data usually found in apps natively. This is done in the guise of Scopes, different pages of the Home screen that provide customized news, weather, apps, and social networks. It works well, too, although there is always a time when apps are needed.
Perhaps Ubuntu Touch’s greatest strength, however, is Convergence. This is a system, much like Microsoft’s Continuum, in which the mobile device is connected to a wireless HDMI device, keyboard, and mouse, and used as a desktop computer. The only real difference between this and your desktop Linux device is that the phone has an ARM processor.
Currently supported devices include the handsets where Ubuntu Touch came pre-installed, along with the OnePlus One, Fairphone 2, and Nexus 5 (Hammerhead). Many more are in active development, such as the OnePlus 2 and OnePlus 3.
You can see more of Ubuntu Touch in our review of the Meizu Pro 5.
2. Sailfish OS
Jointly developed by Jolla, Mer (a middleware stack developer), the Sailfish Alliance (a group of corporations) and community members, Sailfish OS is a continuation of abandoned operating system MeeGo, itself based on Maemo and Moblin.
Although you’ll find Sailfish OS on the 2013 smartphone from Jolla, other devices are compatible thanks to community efforts. These include (but are not limited to) the Google Nexus 5 and 7, the HP Touchpad (which also runs Android), the OnePlus One and OnePlus X, and the Samsung Galaxy S3. Meanwhile, if you have tablet or smartphone project aims for your Raspberry Pi 2 or later, Sailfish OS is available. Some old Nokia devices will also run Sailfish OS.
Undoubtedly the greatest advantage of SailfishOS, however, is that it is compatible with a vast number of Android apps. If that is something that appeals, this OS is worth trying out. To install SailfishOS, you’ll need to check instructions for your device at xda-developers.com. Guides can also be found on YouTube.
Perhaps the most exciting option on the table is Plasma Mobile, a smartphone-focused spin on the popular Plasma. Having gained a lot of attention during 2017 (mostly due to Ubuntu abandoning Ubuntu Touch), Plasma Mobile’s aim is to become a “complete and open software system for mobile devices.”
Currently compatible with the Nexus 5 (Hammerhead) and Nexus 5X (Bullhead), Plasma Mobile — based on Kubuntu — is also available for Intel-based PCs and tablets, thanks to an Arch Linux-based version. There’s also multiROM support for the Nexus 5 (Hammerhead), enabling you to run Plasma Mobile alongside your preferred custom Android ROM.
Perhaps the best thing about the Plasma Mobile project is that you’re able to run desktop Plasma apps and widgets, as well as Ubuntu Touch apps. This gives the project a wider selection of apps than Ubuntu Touch.
Other Linux Mobile Projects
As of September 2017, two other Linux mobile projects are underway:
Intended as a system to improve future Linux mobile projects, Halium’s aim is to “unify the Hardware Abstraction Layer for projects which run GNU/Linux on mobile devices with pre-installed Android.” There’s also an intention to standardize other software and improve Linux access to audio, camera, GPS and other hardware.
As you may imagine, if successful, this will make it far easier to install Linux on smartphones.
A more complete project is coming in the shape of a mobile version of PureOS, the privacy and security-focused Linux distro from Purism.
Currently there is no way to download PureOS for mobile, but Purism is running a crowdfunder that you can get involved with, for their new, secure and private Linux mobile device, the Librem 5. We’re hoping Purism get the funding they need to develop and launch the phone.
More Ways to Install Linux on Android Mobile Devices
If you’re desperate to have Linux in your pocket but don’t have any of the devices listed above, there are alternatives. These enable you to run Linux (or give the appearance of running Linux) from the comfort of your Android device. A rooted phone is necessary in most cases, but these are mostly offering emulation.
A tool that doesn’t require root, KBOX is described as “a project to create a miniature Linux distribution for non-rooted (i.e., unmodified) Android devices, providing a Linux-like console environment.”
As such, it features many command line utilities, but is unavailable in Google Play. Instead, you’ll have to visit the website (linked above) to download and install the APK. Make sure you know the pitfalls of installing apps from third party sites beyond Google Play before proceeding.
Rather than a command line environment with some Linux tools, you may prefer something like Linux Deploy, from Google Play. Requiring both a terminal emulator and a VNC client to be installed — as well as a rooted phone — Linux Deploy enables you to choose from several different distros. These are installed in a disk image on your device storage.
Once installed, however, you’ll be able to access a Linux desktop environment on your phone or tablet.
Finally, Complete Linux Installer (formerly known as LinuxOnAndroid) is also available on Google Play. You’ll need a rooted phone, and enough free RAM to install and run a full Linux distro. Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora, ArchLinux, Kali Linux, openSUSE are all currently available.
As long as your Android phone is up to it, and your phone has an ARMv7 processor (check the device specs on the manufacturer’s website) then you should be able to run Linux on Android!
Your Smartphone Deserves Linux
In short, Linux is available for many smartphones already. But there’s a long way to go. Linux distros on mobile devices are rare, but need your support. If you have one of the devices mentioned or linked to above, please try out a compatible Linux mobile distro. Spend a few days with it to see how it works out for you. Then let the project community concerned know how it went. Let them know what worked, and what didn’t.
In short, help out! And if you can code, why not offer the benefit of your experience to one of the development projects?
Have you tried a Linux mobile operating system? Perhaps you prefer SailfishOS to Ubuntu Touch? Or is Plasma Mobile the answer to the Linux mobile question? Let’s talk about Linux mobile distros in the comments.