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How to install a Linux desktop on your Android device

May 14, 2017

One of the things I love most about being a freelance writer and independent app developer is the amount of freedom it gives me to live and work as I like. Often this means travelling and working on the move. Some of my favorite memories involve typing away in bars in foreign countries while sipping beer and soaking up the atmosphere. Other times I find myself working in coffee shops around London or Oxford. It’s ace.

The only problem is the tech. While there are plenty of great hybrid Windows tablets out there like the Surface Pro (my daily driver), the issue is that these can’t fit into my pocket. So, if I’m meeting friends in London for drinks and I fancy working with a view of Big Ben, I have to take a man-bag with me and then carry it around the bars and clubs worrying constantly about it getting stolen or damaged. If I want to work on my upcoming trip to Berlin, I’ll need to take my laptop with me and use up pretty much all my hand-luggage.

What I really want is for my phone to be fully capable of replacing my laptop.

What I really want is for my phone to be fully capable of replacing my laptop. It’s powerful enough for sure and the 5.1” screen is large enough for still-decent eyesight. The problem is the software.

I love Android, but the multitasking features are still relatively tame. Phones with Android N and up have multiscreen functionality but really I need a full desktop environment to get properly into my workflow. I want to view a browser to do research while editing a proper docx file. I want to be able to browse files and drag and drop them into WordPress.

And that’s the real genius of Android because it actually allows you to do all that. Android is so open and so flexible that there are multiple ways you can get a full desktop environment up and running on your smartphone. And that includes an option to install the full desktop version Ubuntu! That requires root but not every option does. Read on…

A bunch of ways to get a desktop environment running on your Android phone (no root)

Crossover for Android

If you are one of the fortunate few to have an Intel powered smartphone, such as the Zenfone 2 or the Lenovo K900, then you will be able to install and run an app called ‘Crossover’. This is essentially an app that lets you install and run Windows software directly such as Steam, Microsoft Office and more at native speeds. The programs run in windows too that can be dragged around and resized just as though they were running on a desktop PC!

Not all software works though and unfortunately the fact that you need an Intel processor is going to be a limiting factor for most users.

Debian No Root

Debian No Root will install a ‘flavor’ of Debian called ‘Jessie’, or rather it will install a ‘compatibility layer’ allowing you to run Debian software in a desktop environment. The distro comes with a terminal, allowing you to install additional software. Just type sudo apt-get install iceweasel to get a browser based on Firefox up and running for example.

Setting up Debian NoRoot!

There are compatibility issues here once again though. Any phone running an Android version older than 4.4 won’t allow you to uninstall and then reinstall. More concerning is that you won’t be able to install any software on versions 6.0 and upwards. This is because the developer doesn’t have a new phone to test on and hasn’t been able to fix the bugs as a result…

It’s frustrating because for those phones that can run Debian No Root, this is a pretty decent option. It’s a little slow but other than that, this is the dream of Linux without root!

Limbo PC Emulator

Yes, you read right! There is a PC emulator called Limbo that  runs on Android devices and is powerful enough to let you get Windows up and running. I’ve not had any luck with it myself and it seems to be a rather laborious process that results in something that’s pretty slow. So, my advice is to skip this option. Still though, if you are the kind of person to go through the entire process just so you can show off your phone running Windows… you’ll find the instructions here.

There are plenty of options for getting some kind of desktop environment up and running on your device without having to root

Heck, if you want to go the emulator route there’s nothing stopping you from installing Windows 95 through DosBox. Just don’t expect to do anything much with it…

Multitasking Apps

There are a bunch of apps out there that seek to emulate a desktop environment. My favorite is Multiscreen Multitasking seeing as I made it… This is an app that builds lots of small utilities into a single app and then puts them inside draggable windows. Basically, it just lets you open up webviews and edit texts and then drag them around. Though I did make a file manager and include the option to load up widgets and use them like mini apps inside windows. You can also do some other stuff, like open the source of a website or save it as an editable image file and draw on it. I’ll be honest though: Multiscreen Multitasking is old now. My coding abilities have come a long way since then and it’s pretty janky. I actually made this in Basic4Android! One day, I intend on rebuilding this app with full Docx support, sheets and a nicer UI. To be clear though, I’m not recommending you download it as it is right now.

My app: Multiscreen Multitasking. Old now but it was a good idea I thought at the time…

Frustratingly, another developer has actually done the same thing slightly better with Leena Desktop UI. This is the very same concept but it is a bit more attractive and the browser supports Google Drive and Google Docs – so you can actually get some work done! It’s a launcher too, so you can use it to launch your regular apps. Sentio is similar and there are other options out there… but I still did it first! And finally you have the various floating apps options, such as the well-named ‘Floating Apps’. To be honest though, floating apps tend to be a little fiddly to use and no replacement for a true desktop.

And the rest…

As you can see then, there are plenty of options for getting some kind of desktop environment up and running on your device without having to root. Of course, if you have the new Samsung S8 then you can try using DeX – though that requires an external monitor (until someone figures out a hack at least). Another option is to stream your desktop PC using software like Splashtop Remote. This relies on your PC being on and your connection being strong however. Either way, there are plenty of options and you should be able to find something that works for you with minimum compromises.

Just be aware of some of the scams out there – options like ‘Change My Software’ do not work. If you’re ever unsure, just see what the XDA Forums make of it.

All this pales in comparison though to installing true desktop Ubuntu on your Android device! So, without further ado…

How to install Ubuntu and other versions of Linux on your Android device

For this to work you will need a rooted Android device. Rooting your device is usually a fairly simple process but note that it varies from device to device, so I can’t give you a walkthrough here.

Once that’s done, you’ll need three apps:

First install BusyBox. BusyBox gives your phone access to Linux commands that it wouldn’t otherwise have and is required for a number of root apps to work. Once you’ve installed it though, you don’t need to worry about it again.

Open up Linux Deploy and make sure it has root access. Now hit the small download button on the top or bottom right of the screen. This will bring you to the options menu. Most of the settings in here can be left as they are but this is where you’ll select your Linux distribution. Everything is here from Debian and Ubuntu to Kali Linux, Gentoo, Fedora and more. Picking the suite will change the ‘flavor’ of Linux. You can try them all or you can do a little research and choose whichever you like the looks of most.

Down the bottom you can also choose which Desktop environment you like, which will change the look and feel of the app. Tick ‘Enable’ under GUI to ensure you have a graphical interface to work with and check out the GUI Settings just below to change things like the resolution. For my Galaxy S6 Edge Plus I find that 1024×576 works best but you can toy around with this later. Set your user name to ‘root’ to give yourself privileged access and make a note of the password or change it to something more memorable.

Now click the menu that looks like three dots and choose ‘Install’. This will take a little while but will install the entire Linux distro on your device. Click the ‘Start’ button to run it in ‘chroot’ – essentially a small sub-compartment on your device.

Finally, you’ll use VNC Viewer in order to actually view the GUI. Load it up and set the address to ‘localhost:5900’. Then enter the password that you set earlier.

And with that as long as your version of Linus is running you’ll be golden! Now if you want start adding more software head into the Terminal and type:

  • Apt-get install libreoffice – For LibreOffice
  • Apt-get install iceweasel For Firefox
  • Apt-get install idle – For Python Idle
  • Apt-get install gimp – For GIMP
  • Apt-get install nautilus-dropbox – For DropBox
  • Apt-get install software-center – For an ‘app store’, although this wouldn’t run on my distro

There are plenty more but that should be enough to get you started. You should also run ‘apt-get update’ at some point to ensure everything is up-to-date.

Other than that, grab yourself a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse and get to work! Be sure to let us know how you get on in the comments or if you have discovered any other methods of getting a full desktop environment up and running on your phone.