One of the things that makes Linux smartphones different from Android or iOS devices is the same thing that makes desktop Linux different from Windows or macOS – support for completely switching the user interface by changing the desktop environment or user interface.
So far there are at least three major user interfaces for Linux smartphones:
- Phosh, which is developed by Purism for the Librem 5 smartphone, is also the desktop environment/user interface that shipped with PinePhone postmarketOS and Manjaro Community Editions.
- Lomiri is the Ubuntu Touch user interface, and it’s developed by the UBPorts team.
- Plasma Mobile is the mobile-friendly version of the popular KDE Plasma desktop environment.
This week the Plasma Mobile team described some of the progress made during October, so I figured it was time to take Plasma Mobile for a spin on my PinePhone.
The easiest way to try out Plasma Mobile on a PinePhone is by installing a recent build of Neon, postmarketOS or Manjaro ARM downloaded from the Plasma Mobile install page. I opted for Neon, because it’s the “recommended” option, and because it was the OS with the most recent nightly build available.
After flashing the OS to a microSD card using balenaEtcher, inserting the card into the phone, and rebooting, I was greeted with a lock screen that could be dismissed by swiping up from the bottom of the screen to reveal a number pad.
The default password is 1234, but you can (and should) change that if you plan to keep using KDE Neon on your phone.
Plasma Mobile’s user interface and gesture navigation is a little bit like Android: you can swipe up from the bottom of the screen to reveal apps, swipe down from the top to access quick actions, and there’s a button at the bottom center of the screen that you can tap to return to the home screen, as well as a square icon that you can tap to open a task switcher. But there’s also an X icon that will let you close apps.
If you dive into the Settings app you’ll find options to switch the UI theme, change the keyboard language, or adjust settings for wireless, audio, time & date, and other functions.
There’s a Discover app that functions as an app store/package manager and update manager. You can use it to find and install any programs from KDE Neon’s repository that are compatible with ARM-based processors… although some software (I’m looking at you GIMP) may not be optimized for small-screen, touch-friendly devices.
Plasma Mobile also features a handful of Linux apps designed specifically for phones, including a Matrix client called NeoChat, an SMS app called Spacebar, a KClock app, and a KWeather app, as well as a phone dialer.
Since I’m not using a SIM card with my PinePhone, I didn’t test phone calls or mobile data. But I can say that overall I’m impressed with the look and feel of Plasma Mobile, if not necessarily the performance on my PinePhone.
The user interface is pretty, but it’s also pretty sluggish. It takes a while for applications to launch. They crash from time to time. The Flashlight app doesn’t work at all. And tapping the Screenshot icon in the quick access panel often caused the PinePhone to crash (although I think installing a recent update may have resolved that last issue).
Like most Linux phone software, Plasma Mobile is still very much a work in progress. But it’s a promising work in progress, and I’m excited to see where it goes from here.