Running desktop Linux on a tablet: A lid for every pot

The Linux community doesn't know the meaning of the word "Impossible."

arch flip 2
Credit: Swapnil Bhartiya

Android pretty much own the smartphone market with over 82% market share. Chrome OS is also making a serious dent in the PC market. Despite the dominance of these two Linux based distributions there are many users, including my friend Bryan Lunduke, who want to run 'regular Linux desktops' on tablets.

Since the Linux community doesn't know the meaning of the word "impossible," I started looking around to see if someone had solved this particular problem.

I own an ASUS Chromebook Flip, a convertible laptop that doubles as a tablet … now I just needed so software. Chromebook Flip is tricky in the sense that it's an ARM based device that uses a Rockchip processor. But as an Arch Linux user, I knew there should be something out there that would support this architecture.

And that's where the Arch Linux ARM (aka ALARM) project comes in. It's a totally separate project from Arch Linux and is being developed by an entirely different team.

To understand this important difference between the two projects I talked to Jason Plum, one of the core developers of ALARM, and he explained that “Arch Linux ARM is a wholly separate distribution in terms of resources, management and target. This means completely different mirrors, maintainers, and financial backing. We aim to be a direct port of Arch Linux to the ARM platform, modifying as little as necessary to complete that task. The biggest differences are our build platform, PlugBuild, and our funding being strictly from our own pockets and the generosity of the community. We maintain all changes publicly at for review and pull requests."

I now had both components: the hardware and the software. It was time to get my hands dirty. ALARM has very straight forward documentation and with a little help from Jason Plum over Google Hangouts, I was able to install base ALARM on the tablet. I documented each step and created a very comprehensive guide for those Linux users who would like to install it on their Chromebook Flip.

The tricky part was to install a desktop environment (DE) that would work well on this hardware. I started off with Gnome, a DE designed with touch based devices in mind. While I managed to install it just fine, it did take some work and it was abysmally slow to use. KDE’s Plasma installed and booted fine, but the performance was a bit sluggish. Cinnamon ran fine, but the experience was similar to that of Plasma.

I tried every possible DE that I could  get my hands on and found that many DEs work great on the tablet, including MATE, Xfce and LxQt. As much as I like Xfce and LxQt, I settled on MATE as it has more bells and whistles without putting any stress on the system.

That part done, I went ahead and installed all those apps that I would normally use on my Linux desktop: GIMP, Firefox, LibreOffice, Gedit and whatnot.

I managed to create a desktop experience on this tablet that my friend Bryan wished for. I can use VLC to watch movies. I can browse the Web using Firefox and Chrome. I can check my mail on Thunderbird. I can create documents using LibreOffice. The only thing I can't do is play Steam Games: Tablets just don’t have a powerful CPU and GPU to drive desktop games … yet. The cherry on top is that I can easily switch between using it as a laptop and as a tablet. Pretty neat.

Except for one problem.

I realized I was trying to push a shopping cart by strapping a rocket to it. No matter how cool it sounds to run desktop Linux on a tablet, it’s not an ideal solution. I would love to have this tablet sit on my desk and I can tinker with it once in awhile. Since it dual boots with Chrome OS, I can travel with it so that I can do work on Chrome OS and show it off to potential Linux users. But it's unlikely that I will be using it as a Linux tablet on the go.

Here's why:

The interface: Even if you can manage to get DEs like Gnome on it, desktop apps are designed around the WIMP (windows, icons, mouse and pointer) paradigm. Navigating through tree-like menus, using fingers to click on drop-down menus can be a counterproductive and downright painful task on a 9 inch tablet.

Trying to run desktop apps on tablets won’t work. App developers need to rewrite their apps for touch enabled devices. Just look at apps like Firefox, Chrome, and VLC on Android and iOS. They are not ‘desktop’ versions of the apps. They are redesigned from the ground up for touch enabled devices.

The OS: The bigger problem lies in the OS itself. Running multiple apps in the background drains the battery, leaving you with a considerably shorter battery life. Some work needs to be done to stop background processing for apps to conserve battery, as Android and iOS do.

The bottom line is that running desktop Linux and desktop apps don't do justice to the tablet. Yes, you can do it for the sake of doing it, but it won’t be usable. I want an OS and desktop environment that’s fully optimized for tablets: the battery life and the UI. That also means sticking to certain desktop environments, something Bryan didn’t want.

So if you ask me, my answer is no: I don’t want desktop Linux and desktop apps for my tablet. It won’t work. Instead I will to KDE’s Plasma Mobile and Ubuntu Touch as the future of Linux on mobile devices.

That’s where I can have my cake and eat it too, even if that’s not the flavor Bryan likes!

This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?

Download the CIO October 2016 Digital Magazine
View Comments
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies