The PinePhone is designed to make distro hopping easy. Whether you order a model that comes with Ubuntu Touch, postmarketOS, Manjaro, or KDE Neon pre-installed, the phone is designed to boot first from any properly prepared microSD card.
That means you can install an alternate OS on a card, insert it, and turn on the phone to try a different operating system. If you like it, you can use JumpDrive to install it to the phone’s built-in eMMC storage, which should bring at least a modest boost in speed.
Just want to try out a bunch of different operating systems without committing to one or constantly flashing microSD cards? That’s where Megi’s multi-distro demo image comes in. The developer offers a single image with a bunch of different operating systems pre-installed.
Megi released a new version of November 23, 2020 and it has 17 different operating systems crammed into a 6GB disk image.
That makes it easy to try out a variety of operating systems and user interfaces before deciding whether you want to commit to one (you’ll probably get better performance by to installing a single operating system on a microSD card, or to internal storage, and some features that may be missing in these builds will work, so it’s best to think of the multi-distro image as a demo rather than a set of stable operating systems).
The disk image includes two different versions each of Arch Linux and Manjaro, a bunch of versions of postmarketOS with different user interfaces, Mobian, KDE Neon, and a few operating systems that I find particularly fascinating because they’re continuations of software that have interesting histories:
- Ubuntu Touch was originally developed by Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu for desktops, laptops, and servers. The idea was to bring the OS to phones and tablets via a Unity user interface that offered convergence – connect an external display and you’ve got a desktop OS, disconnect and you’ve got a phone UI. Canonical abandoned Ubuntu Touch and Unity, but a group of independent developers formed UBPorts and has continued developing the software (Unity has been renamed Lomiri). Now it can be loaded on some Android phones, and which now also works on Linux phones like the PinePhone.
- Maemo Leste is a continuation of the Maemo Linux distribution originally created by Nokia for smartphones, but the company abandoned the project when it started making Windows Phones. These days Nokia-branded phones are actually Android smartphone sold by a Finnish company called HMD, but a community of independent developers continues to work on Maemo under the name Maemo Leste.
- LuneOS is a continuation of the webOS operating system originally developed by Palm for phones like the Palm Pre and Palm Pixi. HP acquired Palm, released a tablet that shipped with webOS, and scrapped everything when that tablet flopped in the marketplace. Now LG owns the remnants of webOS and uses it for smart TVs, but Lune OS is an open source continuation. I’m not sure how actively it’s developed, but the built included in Megi’s latest multi-distro image was compiled just a few days ago.
- Sailfish OS is developed by Finnish company Jolla, which was founded by former Nokia employees. It has a Linux kernel and incorporates technology from the Mer project. As such, it has its roots in Maemo, MeeGo,m and Moblin, but features a unique user interface. Jolla hasn’t had much success launching its own phones, but continues to develop Sailfish OS and makes efforts to license it. You can buy a license for Sailfish to install on some phones, but there’s also an open source version that’s been ported to multiple devices… including the PinePhone.
Those are just a few of the operating systems that are pre-installed on Megi’s image. You can also use the other images to try out different user interfaces including phosh, Plasma Mobile, or the rather unique Sxmo.
Just keep in mind that these are all recently nightly/daily builds, and not stable releases.
When I tried these operating systems using Megi’s multi-distro image, I ran into some bugs. Every now and again an OS would crash. Certain hardware like the camera or audio don’t work in all of them. And for some reason I could not get past the initial setup screen with Sailfish unless I used Megi’s privacy mode… which disables the mic, cameras, and wireless features. So when I did get Sailfish to boot, I couldn’t actually do very much with it.
But that’s another nifty thing about Megi’s image – it uses the latest version of the p-boot bootloader that I wrote about earlier this year. Among other things, the new version features that privacy mode, which allows you to disable hardware without flipping the physical switches on the back of the phone.
There’s also now a boot to eMMC mode, which allows you to load the operating system installed to built-in storage without removing the SD card (although privacy mode only works with operating systems running from the SD card, so make sure to physically flip the switches if you want to disable hardware while running an OS from eMMC).