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How to install a Linux desktop on your Android device
Have you ever wished your Android phone or tablet could replace your entire computer? You’re in luck — you can install a Linux or Ubuntu desktop environment on virtually any modern Android device. You could even combine it with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse (and maybe an external display) for a powerful desktop-grade experience. While the experience is far from perfect, it’s usable in a pinch.
Related: Is Android really just Linux?
To install Linux on your Android device, install an app like Debian NoRoot or UserLAnd. If you choose the latter, you'll be able to select between various distributions like Kali Linux, Arch, and Ubuntu. Neither option installs a full operating system, but they offer a complete desktop environment and the ability to run popular Linux programs.
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Debian NoRoot: One-click Linux desktop
Debian NoRoot offers one of the easiest and least complicated ways to access a Linux desktop on Android. It’s a free app that you need to install via the Play Store. If you haven’t heard of Debian, it’s the flavor of Linux that the popular Ubuntu distribution is based upon. This guarantees compatibility with a wide range of Linux apps and the apt package manager.
Debian NoRoot is pretty lightweight and should run on most Android smartphones and tablets. It’s not the complete Debian operating system — instead, its developer describes it as a “compatibility layer, which allows you to run Debian applications.” Still, the app includes all of the basics, including a desktop environment and a terminal application. All in all, it’s a perfect starting point for experienced and novice users alike.
Once you’ve installed the Debian NoRoot app on your Android device and open it for the first time, it will present you with a list of display resolutions and font scales. Select the default options here, and it will eventually bring you to the desktop.
From this point on, you can immediately get to installing additional Linux programs and apps. We’ll explain how you can do this via the terminal in a later section. For now, consider plugging in a keyboard and mouse since the on-screen touch keyboard can take up a big chunk of your screen’s real estate.
Install Ubuntu and other Linux flavors with UserLAnd
If Debian NoRoot doesn’t satisfy your needs or you’d like to install a different Linux distribution, another option is the UserLAnd application. It lets you install various Linux distros on your Android device, including Arch, Kali, Ubuntu, Debian, and Alpine. You can also choose to launch applications like Gimp and LibreOffice independently, eliminating the need for a full-blown desktop environment.
Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to install Ubuntu on your Android device:
- Download and install the UserLAnd app from the Play Store.
- Open the app and select the Linux distribution you wish to install. For the sake of this guide, we’ll proceed with Ubuntu.
- Enter a username, password, and VNC password of your choice when prompted. Don’t forget these details or you’ll have to start the process all over again.
- The app will now ask you to choose between an SSH or VNC connection. Select the latter if you need a graphical user interface.
- Wait until the download completes.
- Finally, you should be presented with a login screen, as shown below. Enter the VNC password from earlier to proceed.
You can also initiate a VNC connection from a different device on the same network. First, determine your Android device’s IP address, either from your router or using a free app like Fing. Finally, add :51 to the end of the IP address (example: 192.168.0.101:51) and connect to it using a VNC app like TightVNC on the other device.
Final steps: How to use Linux on your Android device
Now that you’ve got your preferred flavor of Linux installed on your Android phone, you may be wondering what you can and can’t do with it. Let’s start with the latter — you can only install and run programs designed for ARM processors. This rules out certain apps like Steam, which only support the desktop x86 architecture. Still, most of the standard productivity-related programs you’d want — ranging from Firefox to LibreOffice — offer ARM versions these days.
To install third-party applications on Ubuntu or Debian, open a terminal window and enter the following commands one by one:
sudo apt update
sudo apt install firefox-esr
You may replace firefox-esr in the above command with the desired program of your choice. Some other examples include vlc and libreoffice.
Once installed, you can launch the program from within the Applications menu, as shown below:
Besides which Linux apps you can install, there are a couple of other limitations you should consider too. You cannot access low-level hardware functions like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth from within Linux because those are still completely controlled by Android. Likewise, you cannot expect hardware acceleration or complex 3D graphics to work at full speed. Remember that you aren’t running full-fledged Linux — it’s just a compatibility layer on top of the base Android operating system. You’ll be better off with a Chrome OS device if those aspects are important to you.