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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 5 Projects That Prove Unity Is Far From Dead 5 Projects That Prove Unity Is Far From Dead Struggling to come to terms with Unity's abrupt end? You're in luck. These projects will help you get the most from Canonical's abandoned desktop environment for years to come! Read More ).

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.

ubports ubuntu touch interface

Perhaps Ubuntu Touch’s greatest strength, however, is Convergence. This is a system, much like Microsoft’s Continuum Continuum: Switch Between Windows 10 Desktop & Tablet Mode Continuum: Switch Between Windows 10 Desktop & Tablet Mode Windows 10 recognizes your hardware and instantly chooses the best display mode. When you connect your Windows 10 Mobile to a larger screen, you'll get a PC-like experience. That's the smoothness of Continuum. Read More , in which the mobile device is connected to a wireless HDMI device, keyboard, and mouse, and used as a desktop computer How to Turn Ubuntu Phone Into a Desktop PC With Convergence How to Turn Ubuntu Phone Into a Desktop PC With Convergence Newcomer to the mobile space, Ubuntu Phone, has its own mobile-to-desktop software. If your device is compatible, and running the OTA-11 update (or later), you can turn your phone into a PC. Read More . 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 Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition Smartphone Review Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition Smartphone Review When a phone is released only to a select few enthusiasts, you wonder whether or not the hype is genuinely worth it. Let's look at one of the first phones to run Ubuntu Touch. Read More .

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 How To Install Android Ice Cream Sandwich On The HP TouchPad In Minutes How To Install Android Ice Cream Sandwich On The HP TouchPad In Minutes As slick, smooth and functional as webOS is on the HP TouchPad, and wherever the future of the platform may lie, there remains a problem – the shortage of apps. The fact remains that there... Read More ), 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.

3. Plasma Mobile

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:

Halium

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.

PureOS

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 The Complete Guide to Rooting Your Android Phone or Tablet The Complete Guide to Rooting Your Android Phone or Tablet So, you want to root your Android device? Here's everything you need to know. Read More is necessary in most cases, but these are mostly offering emulation.

KBOX

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 Is It Safe to Install Android Apps from Unknown Sources? Is It Safe to Install Android Apps from Unknown Sources? The Google Play Store isn't your only source of apps, but is it safe to search elsewhere? Read More beyond Google Play before proceeding.

Linux Deploy

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.

Complete Linux Installer

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.

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  1. Heimen Stoffels
    October 12, 2017 at 11:15 am

    You forget to mention LuneOS.

  2. Paul
    September 20, 2017 at 4:21 pm

    The gigantic problem with (real) Linux on phones is that all of these OS projects use different bases.

  3. aleksd
    September 18, 2017 at 2:45 am

    You're already running the best Linux based mobile OS out there if you're using an android device.

    • Steve
      September 22, 2017 at 9:50 pm

      Very true. But Google keeps loading up their OS and software with bloatware/spyware in order to obtain ever MORE information about you to sell to marketers. It has gone beyond disturbing. I just want an OS (Linux?) and the basic apps (calendar, calculator, phone, test message app, possibly maps) on my device. I don't want any and all of my use/databases/pictures/info retrieved and sent to Google partner marketing agencies for targeted ad campaigns.

      Also, the bloat bogs down perfectly usable phones with high res cameras and displays that are only a few years old.

    • Steve
      September 22, 2017 at 9:57 pm

      One of the "original" Linux phones was the Palm Pre. PalmOS was an awesome OS. It was somewhat ahead of its time. It was very user friendly and had a great user interface. It's too bad that Palm did such a terrible job of delay after delay, rolling it out then not marketing it very well. Another dead Linux project...

      It's to bad that someone can't pick up the old PalmOS and run with it. I heard that LG bought it for their products.

    • Christian Cawley
      September 28, 2017 at 12:17 pm

      You're not wrong, but I think for many people Linux = FOSS, and Android does not how any sign of appreciating the philosophy in the way ubports, Plasma mobile, etc do.

  4. Larry
    September 18, 2017 at 12:59 am

    I like the article. I do wish you were a bit more realistic and less optimistic. Ubuntu Touch is, realistically, dead. I hope they can revive it but I'm not counting on it. I'm no expert but I think it's the shear volume of phones that's the problem. That's allot of drivers that need to be written. You can see from the their web page that what's under development is very old (e.g. S3, LG4...etc)

    The other OS's have the same problem. Maybe, one day, a law would require phone manufacture's to develop drivers for at least the top 5-10 operating systems to increase competition and customer choice; until then, it looks like the project Halium you mentioned might be our only hope.

    Currently, I'm not sure there is allot of hope for people like us, who want an open and free OS with root access on "OUR" devices. So we can remove anything we don't want (i.e. bloatware!..Facebook!).

    I believe Sailfish is currently being developed, but only for relatively low end phones in India as far as I can tell. I looked into the Turing phone but it appears to be a load. The one that was released was buggy and underwhelming, except for the price tag and their future plans are questionable. I asked them about getting a refurb, they said maybe next week; that was months ago.

    I'm skeptical of PureOS. First Sailfish will currently run Android Apps; not well from my understanding but it's a real leg up and it hasn't really caught on in the west. Second, $600 for a 5" phone that's not out for at least another year? Sounds like it might be another Turing.

    My current phone is a Samsung J3. I bought it off of craigslist new. It's cheap phone with locked down Android and a lousy camera but it wasn't pre-loaded with lots of bloatware and it cost me under $100 new. Unfortunately, after the first update, it had installed Facebook. It did let me disable it though. I'll try and root it when I have time.

    Kbox sounds interesting. I may have to try that. I have Termux now and it's allowed me to install Linux command line utilities from, well... the command line

    Thank You for the article,
    Please keep us updated. Especially on Halium!
    Larry

  5. Prashant
    September 16, 2017 at 5:01 am

    Any linuk for meizu m2 note

  6. Surajit Pal
    September 16, 2017 at 3:17 am

    I am a android user..wants to make a change by using linux in my smartphones
    i have asus zenfone 2 laser with 2gb ram varient is that for using this os?..plz suggest me the best o.s for my device...let me know whether linux platform has volte supported or not?

  7. skierpage
    September 16, 2017 at 3:15 am

    You can install a Linux distro on any desktop or laptop PC made in the last decade and it will more likely work than not. The reason for the pitifully constrained lists of supported hardware for these fine mobile OSs is the also the main reason why phones stop getting Android updates after a couple of years: the appalling lack of source code for the device drivers for phone hardware.

  8. Strahl
    September 16, 2017 at 2:11 am

    I installed Plasma Mobile on my Nexus 5, because I really like KDE/Plasma with Linux. I seriously thought the KDE team was trolling with it, it was that bad. I'm not even exaggerating when I say I couldn't get it to do a single thing, past once I got it to open the volume panel (but I couldn't actually change the volume and had to restart the damn thing).

    That was several months ago though, maybe there's been some improvement, but I'm not sure it's worth giving it another chance.

  9. rachit gupta
    September 16, 2017 at 1:41 am

    Android is also based on Linux

  10. rachit gupta
    September 16, 2017 at 1:40 am

    Android is also based on Linux.

  11. João Rezende
    September 16, 2017 at 1:40 am

    "Although Android is based on the Linux kernel, it cannot really be considered Linux."

    Erm, why?

    • Larry Chase
      September 16, 2017 at 6:50 pm

      Yeah, it may not be GNU/Linux, but it is definitely Linux.

      If it weren't so tightly grasped in the tendrils of closed-source code, there'd be a much smaller divide.

  12. Tj
    September 15, 2017 at 6:53 pm

    Thank you for this list. Nice to know Ubuntu touch still lives on. I think I'll have to dig out my Nexus 5