Posted in Technology

The state of Linux phones: which product is for you?

Increasing awareness about the way Google collects data from Android phone users has made people think about other solutions. Apple has promised to tighten the privacy and security features of the iPhone iOS software, and is delivering results in the latest release. There is, however, more choices than Android or iPhone: mobile phones running on Linux operating system and on software derived from the open source portion of Android.

At the moment, mobile phones powered by Linux that are or will be available during 2020 are:

  • Fairphone 3 is available now with e.foundation’s /e/OS or Android 9. Price GBP 400.
  • PinePhone can be ordered with PostmarketOS, or you can install another Linux distribution to the phone. Price USD 149.
  • Purism Librem 5 is powered by PureOS, a distribution built on Debian. Availability is planned by the end of 2020 with a list price of USD 750.
  • Meizu phone is running on Ubuntu Touch software. Availability outside China is questionable.
pinephone, postmarketos, linux phone
PinePhone.

Projects that focus on creating Linux-based software for phones:

  • Mobian, built on Debian. It is a new project, but already runs on the PinePhone.
  • PostmarketOS, based on Alpine Linux, aims at resource-restricted phones.
  • Plasma Mobile, created by the KDE community, provides a modern user interface for mobile phones and tablets. It runs on a Linux distribution, providing the graphical user interface component for the system. For instance, PinePhone and PostmarketOS have been tested to work with Plasma Mobile.

Google has made Android the most popular operating system on the planet, but originally, also Android was built on Linux. Google has added its own components to the software, gradually making it the privacy and security nightmare as it is today. The core Android operating system is open source, and available for download.

The open source Android is the starting point for software projects that aim at a level of Android compatibility without Google components. Notable projects are:

  • LineageOS software is available for a wide range of phones.
  • GrapheneOS available for a few phones.
  • e.foundation‘s /e/ OS is available both as a downloadable operating system to a wide range of phones, and pre-installed on a few phones. The prices of pre-installed phones start from 250 and go up to 479 euros.

Which Linux phone to choose?

Linux phones can be classified in two categories: products that require some level of Linux knowledge and technical skills, and products that are aimed at ordinary people who just want to use a phone that is secure and respects its owner’s privacy.

A true Linux tinkerer’s choice is the PinePhone, which has been designed to allow the installation of other operating systems if the default PostmarketOS isn’t the right one. The product features and specifications are not at the same level as, for instance, in Samsung’s flagship phones, but the price justifies it. The PinePhone sells for USD 149.

For people who are comfortable with Linux but don’t want to tinker too much, Librem 5 is a better solution.

It is important to realize that a phone powered by Linux can’t directly run Android or iOS apps, so it is a good idea to verify beforehand which are your must-have apps, or their alternatives. A variety of emulators has also been developed for allowing people to run Android on a Linux system, on a phone as well. Anbox is one of the products you can try out.

People who just want an easy-to-use phone with apps they require should consider a phone that is running on e.foundation’s /e/OS. The development team has created an operating system derived from Android that doesn’t leak data to third parties. The default applications have been selected with privacy and security in mind. If a user wants to install, for instance, the official Facebook Android app from the Google Play Store, it is possible, but requires an extra effort.

Phones running /e/OS.

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