Debian GNU/Linux on Android

Android tablets are useful portable devices. Unfortunately Android makes them less useful than they could be. There are several problems with Android, one of them being lack of applications. While there are free Android applications for many common tasks, they are typically not suitable for serious work and many applications are completely missing, most notably (real) Emacs.

But it’s possible to partially overcome the problem by installing GNU/Linux in a chroot environment on Android, making an Android tablet a poor man’s substitute for a laptop on occasional traveling. Here’s what I’ve found about running Debian GNU/Linux on Android after some experiments and testing a couple of alternatives:

  • Get a Bluetooth or other hardware keyboard. The software keyboards take screen space, are not suitable for touch typing and are especially uncomfortable to use with X.
  • Install XSDL X server, available also on Google Play. The other Android X Server, available on F-Droid, doesn’t work very well, nor the free VNC servers I tried.
  • Install GNURoot, together with one of its root images, available from Google Play. GNURoot environment works very well for many tasks, as long as you don’t need real root access.
  • Start the X server, start GNURoot, install your favorite Debian packages, set DISPLAY to localhost:0, run your favorite window manager and the applications you need. The X environment is slow but useable.
  • If you need real root access, you can use Lil’ Debi, available on F-Droid. But there are some limitations: Your Android must be rooted (obviously), the file system size is limited to about 2 GB and I couldn’t connect to the X server under user other than root.

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