Linux on your smartphone: everything you need to know in 2021

One of the main issues with modern smartphones is the extremely short lifespan of this category of devices, which makes even high-end ones painfully slow within years. In fact, studies have shown that it takes the average European, American or Asian user less than two years to dump their old smartphone and buy a newer, more powerful (yet arguably very similar feature-wise) model.

This, however, is quickly changing thanks to projects like postmarketOS, bringing potentially lightweight Linux environments to new and old (also very old) mobile devices. While it is still early, in most cases, to have an usable Linux “daily driver” smartphone, this page should answer some of your questions regarding how Linux on smartphones work, whether your phone is likely to boot it properly and, if it does, how to choose a Linux distribution and whether it’s the case to switch now or to wait some months.

Do not forget that most of the procedures below might void warranty or cause temporary or permanent damage. Any content of this page is to be performed at your own risk.

2009 Nokia N900 running postmarketOS

Buying a Linux smartphone

Thankfully, getting your hands on a Linux smartphone in 2021 is much easier than it used to be. Many Librem 5s and PinePhones have already been shipped, and mature releases will probably be available for sale within this summer. We maintain a small list of native Linux smartphones that might be a good starting point if you are willing to buy one.

If, however, you are not ready to go for a full Linux smartphone yet, Can My Phone Run Linux? is a search engine for most known smartphones that can boot Linux. Make sure, however, to check the support level on the distro page in detail before getting one, as most features, like mainline kernel, modem and hardware acceleration are still not supported by most devices.

Hardware requirements

Sure, a lightweight Linux desktop environment might be much faster than most heavily manufacturer-customized Android spins, but there’s no black magic in “pure” Linux either. Which means that expecting to achieve more with your device than what the manufacturer initially designed it to is possible, but not very realistic. Especially if we consider that most smartphones are sadly not designed to be future-proof when it comes to their technical specifications, with tough competition for higher specifications every year leading to progressively heavier and slower OS releases.

Therefore, if your smartphone isn’t equipped with at least 1GB of RAM, 8GB of ROM (SD cards also count, but might be less reliable and slower especially on newer devices) and a 32-bit, 1GHz ARM CPU, the device will probably boot, but still be unsuitable for most kinds of smartphone features, such as desktop-like web browsing. In other words, anything older than 2012 will probably not render modern websites faster or more accurately than it did on its original OS. In case you are not willing to sacrifice Android applications, you should as well consider the relevant overhead of Android abstraction layers like Anbox.

In addition, you should make sure that your device’s mobile modem, GPU, power management and all kinds of hardware drivers you need are available on Linux. This step requires a minimum level of hardware and Linux knowledge, but for most users checking “what works” and “what doesn’t” from the wiki page of your device for the distribution you would like to install should already give a basic idea of the usability status.

If there is already a mature Android port for your smartphone, however, libhybris might allow Android drivers to run on Linux and get a GUI running quickly over it.

Software requirements

Another thing to remember is that running Linux on an iPhone or iOS device is almost impossible. Apart from the work-in-progress Project Sandcastle, there is currently no usable Linux distribution or porting for modern iDevices. Windows Phone devices that already received unofficial Android support, such as the Lumia 520, 525 and 720, might be able to run Linux with full hardware drivers in the future. In general, if you can find an open source Android kernel (e.g. via LineageOS) for your device, booting Linux on it will be much easier.

If your device is SIM-locked, you might want to unlock your device if possible before flashing Linux on it, as in some cases the necessary proprietary software handles for modem unlock codes might not be implemented in Linux.

You should also check if the bootloader for your device is unlocked, and if it isn’t, how the bootloader unlock procedure works, preferably from an official source (which means avoiding shady paid “unlocking services” unless you really have no other choice). If it is permanently locked by a carrier or manufacturer, or can’t be unlocked for whatever reason, you will not be able to run Linux or any other unsigned custom kernel on it, with the exception of limited chroot subsystems.

What are the Linux distributions for smartphones, and how should I choose one?

Several Linux distributions are specifically designed for smartphones, tablets and wearables, the most relevant of which are also listed on a dedicated page.

  • Your best bet at the moment would surely be Ubuntu Touch by Ubports, which is the only distribution to provide a fully-functional Linux desktop environment with a relatively large app ecosystem. To check if your device is one of the lucky ones to be actively (and officially) maintained, you can check the Ubuntu Touch Devices section.
  • Another Linux distribution which is currently in very active development is postmarketOS, which can boast a wide community of users and developers and over 250 booting devices (including smartwatches, x86 tablets and Raspberry Pi boards) at the time of writing. KDE enthusiasts will be happy to hear that postmarketOS is officially recommended by the Plasma Mobile website, and some of its main developers are also active members of its community. This, however, does not mean that postmarketOS is primarily KDE oriented: several Gtk desktops, including Purism Librem 5’s “Phosh“, are already fully working in postmarketOS on several devices.
    Also the pmbootstrap tool makes porting postmarketOS to new smartphones easier than ever.
  • Last but not least, if your device is one of the few supported ones (spoiler: few Xiaomi and Nexus phones only), you might consider trying LuneOS, a project that brings new life to HP WebOS, the futuristic HTML5-based, open-source iOS competitor that didn’t truly make it against the Android hegemony in the first 2010s. Still, chances are it’ll be lighter than most Android versions, while open source and fully respectful of your privacy.

Porting Linux to your device

postmarketOS live porting to Nokia 1

If your device is currently not supported by any of the distros mentioned above, porting postmarketOS to it might be a relatively easy task, provided you have experience with compiling Android and Linux kernels, and possibly some minimal knowledge of the C programming language. And, of course, provided that there is already one stable Android or Linux kernel you can find the source code for. If you feel brave enough, you can check this guide from the postmarketOS wiki and start getting your hands dirty. And if you ever get stuck, you can always ask their community for help  and guidance.

And if, by chance, you arrive to the point of getting the real, “mainline” Linux kernel and the device modem (calls, SMS, mobile data…) to fully work on your  phone, you might have just created one of the very few modern “true Linux” smartphones. But that’s clearly beyond the point of this article.

Live porting of Ubuntu Touch to Fairphone2


As the brightest reader might have noticed, “real” Linux on most smartphones isn’t exactly mature yet. So is it worth installing on your daily driver? Probably not, unless it’s one of the few Ubuntu Touch or postmarketOS officially supported devices. But if you’ve got an older device that’s been sitting idle for years, why not experiment with software that might give it new life, without the limits of the OS it was originally released with? Testing and development is essential at a stage where Linux for smartphones is being more actively developed than ever.

You can follow TuxPhones on Twitter and Mastodon.

Cover picture: Purism Librem 5

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— Update: 20-03-2023 — found an additional article 10 Things to Consider When Switching to a Linux Smartphone OS from the website for the keyword how linux is being used on mobile phones.

Because it’s a key component in the Android operating system (OS), Linux remains crucial to the mobile landscape. However, while Android employs a Linux kernel, it’s far from just another Linux distribution.

But Linux for mobile devices offers a completely different experience. Learn why Linux mobile is a great option, as well as drawbacks to switching from your favorite mobile OS.

7 Reasons You Should Consider Mobile Linux OSes

Linux for mobile devices range from Android which utilizes a Linux kernel, to Ubuntu Touch and Sailfish OS. Although it has yet to permeate the consumer space, there are plenty of reasons to try out a mobile version of Linux.

1. Security-Oriented

Unsurprisingly, Linux for mobile boasts extreme privacy. That’s a major downside of Android and iOS. Like its desktop counterparts, mobile Linux prioritizes security. Sailfish OS, a Finnish open-source Linux platform based on Nokia’s Meego Linux, features end-to-end encryption and MDM (Mobile Device Management). Plus, there’s optional local algorithm support. Because of its beefy security from malware, Linux operating systems surpass Windows. Mobile security is one of the main reasons you should try Ubuntu Touch. Although Canonical abandoned its Ubuntu Touch project as well as Unity, the project lives on with development from UBports so it’s still a usable Linux mobile OS.

2. Operating System Upgrades

With Android operating systems, OS updates are pretty sporadic. Upgrades depend on the device as well as carrier. Whereas a phone on one carrier may receive an update to a newer Android version, the same device on a different carrier may miss out. Often the OS that comes standard at the time of purchase is the one you’re relegated to for the lifetime of that device.

However, with mobile Linux, you benefit from constant updates. For instance, Plasma Mobile offers users rolling updates. Of course, if a project gets canceled that means no additional updates. But on Android when a new iteration comes out, most older devices don’t gain access to an update anyway.

3. Compatibility With Linux Desktops

Admittedly, Android and iOS boast the large and well-established app catalogs. Nevertheless, mobile Linux offers desktop app compatibility. Therefore, the likes of OpenOffice, LibreOffice, and Rhythmbox run on Linux devices. Granted, adapting those to a touch interface is a development challenge. Nevertheless, compatibility is the first step.

Ubuntu Touch touted convergence as a main selling point — that is, the ability to hook up a keyboard and mouse and run a mobile Linux OS as a desktop distro. The principle was a single-user experience which spanned the entire array of devices, from desktops and laptops to tablets and phones. To achieve this, Canonical accounted for responsiveness across the various mediums. This trend appears in the Android space with MHL-enabled devices, and more specifically with the Samsung Galaxy S8 which comes with its DeX desktop environment. Convergence is available for Plasma Mobile as well.


4. Unadulterated OS Experience

Among the many reasons users prefer Linux over other operating systems is its pure experience. Android devotees often flock to vanilla Android experiences as found in phones such as the Google Pixel. On Linux mobile platforms you won’t find much if any, bloatware. This fosters fast operations which won’t lag and more importantly delivers an open atmosphere.

5. Lots of Customizations

Linux itself is customizable with everything from comprehensive OSes to modular installations. On the small screen, Linux is adaptable and flexible. Plasma Mobile, a Linux-based operating system for touchscreen devices, runs on Kubuntu and is compatible with the Google Nexus 5. It’s capable of running not only apps for Ubuntu phones, but Android apps as well. That’s a complete game changer. It’s this sort of open and malleable environment which makes Linux for mobile a fantastic choice.

6. You Can Dual Boot

Thinking of trying out Linux on your mobile device? You don’t have to choose between Linux and Android. While it’s common knowledge that you can dual boot on a desktop or laptop, it’s not as well-known that you may dual boot mobile devices. This means you don’t have to choose between Android and Linux mobile. Instead, run both side by side. Chances are if a phone supports multiple operating systems, you can snag custom ROMs. Accordingly, your phone gains additional usefulness in its versatility. As such, expect a longer life from a phone which can dual boot and run custom ROMs.

7. Snappy Experience

Linux distros use fewer system resources, and the same holds true for mobile devices. While your Android or iPhone may become sluggish, that’s unlikely to happen using a mobile Linux distro. My introduction to Linux came when I was searching for a lightweight OS for an aging computer. Similarly, Linux on mobile provides increased responsiveness.

3 Potential Mobile Linux Drawbacks

Yet mobile Linux isn’t up to where Android and iOS are currently in the mobile space.

1. Too Few Apps

It’s not necessarily lack of apps, but missing apps you’re used to. At this point, most mobile developers are either focusing on Android or iOS. Even the juggernaut of Windows couldn’t permeate the mobile space with its Windows Phone. Unfortunately, Linux is far behind in the mobile space, at least from the perspective of user expectations. You won’t find many apps you’re accustomed to such as Netflix, for Android mobile.

But the likes of Plasma Mobile have the right idea. That’s inclusivity. Since Plasma Mobile can run Sailfish OS, GTK, and Ubuntu Touch apps in addition to Android applications, there’s a solution to this issue. Tizen also includes Android app compatibility. Yet compatibility isn’t perfect, though app compatibility varies across Android OSes as well.

2. A Hard Time With Hardware

Arguably the biggest detriment to Linux mobile taking over is the lack of hardware. There’s compatibility with phones like the OnePlus and Nexus 5, but not many vendors working directly with Linux mobile OSes. In turn, this means that for those interested in using Linux on a mobile device are limited to a do-it-yourself project. If you’re a Linux user, chances are you have no qualms about opting for a DIY route. Still, it’s tough to encourage widespread adoption without readily available devices.

3. Doubts Over the Future of Mobile Linux

It’s rough when the likes of Canonical nix their own Linux mobile OSes. Similarly, Firefox dropped its Firefox OS for phones. But plenty of Linux mobile operating systems continue. Notably, Plasma Mobile is a spectacular KDE-based mobile OS capable of running Ubuntu and Android apps. Even after discontinuation, watch for community continued releases of Linux for mobile. Sure, there’s still hope for the Linux desktop. But don’t expect the year of the Linux phone anytime soon.

Which Linux Mobile OSes Are Available?

Ubuntu Touch lives on through UBPorts. There’s also Plasma Mobile which stands as your best bet in the mobile Linux landscape. Sailfish OS presents Linux for mobile gadgets, and there’s Tizen too. So there’s plenty of choice for users. There are pros and cons to each such as Android app compatibility on Sailfish, Tizen, and Plasma Mobile. Of course, you’ll need to ensure device compatibility which really dictates which mobile OS you can choose.

Should You Switch?

Despite being a huge Linux advocate, I’ll say yes and no. You should at least try a mobile version of Linux. The best scenario is a dual boot where you retain access to an Android operating system and get a Linux OS as a dual boot. Of course, a dual boot set up has its advantages and disadvantages. It’s even trickier on mobile than a desktop. If you aren’t too attached to your Android or iOS apps, by all means switch, however.

Similarly, if you have multiple phones to use, you might consider a Linux phone as a dedicated mobile device. The best scenario is if you have an aging tablet lying around, Linux for mobile could be a means to resurrect it and breathe new life into an ancient device.

Phoning It In: Why You Should Use Mobile Linux

There are tons of incentives for using a mobile version of Linux. At the very least, it’s a fun project that only requires an old phone, some time, and patience. The UBports continuation of Ubuntu Touch is an excellent mobile Linux OS to try, but Plasma Mobile might be your best bet. Now that you’ve probed the Linux mobile OS space, learn how to try out Ubuntu Touch, and read if you should get an Ubuntu Touch tablet or phone.

Despite being a major Linux advocate, I haven’t switched to a mobile Linux operating system permanently. That’s largely on account of device difficulty, and being ingrained in the Android ecosystem. It’s the same reason that once settling on a certain operating system, many users don’t switch. However, mobile Linux distros hold many advantages such as enhanced security, little to no lag, and absence of bloatware. Ultimately, while it’s difficult to recommend as a daily driver, a mobile Linux OS is ideal as a dual boot or on a second phone. Alternately, try refreshing an old tablet with Linux.

Are you using a Linux mobile operating system? Which mobile OSes do you recommend?

— Update: 20-03-2023 — found an additional article Why Linux Smartphones Aren’t As Popular As They Should Be from the website for the keyword how linux is being used on mobile phones.

Linux smartphones aren't as popular as they should be for several reasons, some of which include the duopoly of Android and Apple and lack of enough native phone apps. Linux technology has always been a powerhouse when used properly and offers many features such as increased privacy, a seamless desktop interface, and enhanced control. Operating systems have competed for users in both the mobile and desktop space, from Apple's macOS and iOS, to Google's Android and Chrome OS, to Microsoft's Windows, but Linux is rarely considered due to its lack of market share.

Android and iOS have dominated the smartphone market for a long time. Other mobile operating systems, including Microsoft's Windows Phone, have failed to break through and reach a large audience. Linux is an operating system that can be installed on almost any desktop or laptop, is open-source, free, and provides many distributions to choose from to satisfy any user's needs. When it comes to Linux though, there is a much greater learning curve, fewer supported applications, and more troubleshooting.

These issues cause problems for Linux on smartphones as well, since unlike on desktop, mobile Linux doesn't work on all devices, causing problems with hardware compatibility, updates, and speed. So then, why should Linux smartphones be more popular despite all the negatives? Well, Linux wins on security patches compared to other platforms, and on mobile, gives users options to choose what distribution they use, such as Ubuntu Touch, PureOS, postmarketOS, and others. Another positive is that Linux for mobile often comes with the ability to use a smartphone as a full desktop experience by simply connecting the phone to a monitor, keyboard, and mouse, giving users the freedom of creating a desktop experience without needing a laptop or PC.

Linux Also Powers Android

Linux for mobile devices is already being used widely on smartphones, without most users even realizing this. Android is based on the Linux kernel, and Linux powers Android's operating system. This is a massive deal since around 87 percent (as per Statista) of smartphones run Android, and consequently, are powered by Linux. Of course, Android is very different from Linux, but the point is that Linux is an integral part of Android and many other applications due to its stability, open-source roots, and ability to be modified and configured in any way desired. Linux even powers supercomputers, RokuTV, Amazon Kindle, Chromebooks, high-speed trains, nuclear submarines, the U.S. Department of Defense, self-driving cars, and more. Linux evidently powers much of the world, but simply needs to become more user-friendly to become mainstream.

Overall, Linux smartphones have a long way to go since they do not have the same funding as giants like Apple and Google. Linux also lacks the user-friendliness these well-known operating systems have. What Linux does have though is a huge community of volunteers, developers, and users who want a more free and open software experience. With new products such as the Steam Deck which uses Linux as its OS, the Fairphone which offers more support for mobile Linux distros, and continuing support from companies like Nvidia with its new open-source R515 driver, Linux on smartphones has a good chance of becoming more mainstream than ever before.

Source: UBports, Statista


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