Using an Android tablet for actual work

Post date: Jun 28, 2014 8:02:13 PM

Turns out that an Android tablet (actually any phone) can be made into an actually-useful full-fledged Linux workstation, without rooting it.

By actually-useful, I mean something that a power-user will be able to use. By power-user, I mean roughly somebody who does most of his work in the command line and/or editors, but in a graphical environment.

There is no way around the fact that GUI-based tools developed for a desktop system will be unusable on touch interfaces. For one, UI elements are simply too many and too close together.

Command-line tools are quite another story. Lots of scientific and development workflows rely on some form of console or editor, plus an occasional preview - say a plot, or rendered LaTeX output. The key here is the ability to easily switch windows, and that they appear with sensible defaults that don’t force us to rearrange them every time.

A console-based Linux system: GNURoot

GNURoot allows one to install and run essentially any open-source package, pre-built for the arm architecture, courtesy of the Debian or Fedora distributions, via the distributions’ package management (yum or apt-get).

GNURoot provides a text only interface and some bootstrapped distributions, which are run in a sandboxed environment. I am using the Debian wheezy distribution.

The X11 environment

There are several X servers on Google Play (not counting VNC viewers) but none beats XServer XSDL :

  • Supports the XKB extension, required by i3 (see later)
  • Using touch is cumbersome, but not impossible. Touchpad-style mouse, if unintuitive at first, compensates for the loss of precision in touch
  • Stable and compatible with all recent applications
  • Sets a high (and customizable) DPI value, so recent applications tend to show large fonts
  • Truly full-screen, so no waste of screen space for useless Android buttons

A keyboard

You definitely want a hardware keyboard - either an USB one (they are very cheap), or a Bluetooth one.

Window manager

The keyword here is usability. One wants a system on which it is actually possible to work, not a gimmick.

If you don’t have a wireless mouse, get the i3 tiling window manager . It’s reasonably easy to learn (the introduction video says it all) and comes with sensible defaults.

The reason i3 is a good match for the tablet is that

  1. windows open mostly where you expect them, maximized so that the scarce screen space is used, and
  2. you can rearrange them without using the mouse.

I have not checked the usability of a “traditional” WM with an hardware mouse.


  1. Start the X server
  2. Start GNURoot
  3. Run DISPLAY=:0 i3
  4. Switch back to the X server, then Alt-enter at will to open shells and whatnot

Some configuration

I would recommend the following

  • Install a SSH server, such as dropbear, for ssh-ing in your tablet
  • Fix the missing HOME environment variable (e.g. in /home/.bashrc)
  • Set a root password (for ssh)
  • If your keyboard has a modifier key recognized by XKB/xev (in my case, a Zzz key), you may want to use that as a modifier for i3, so you free the Alt key for the applications.
  • You may want some .Xdefaults to increase xterm’s font size
  • For some reason, Debian does not have firefox for arm. Iceweasel is a good replacement. Don’t expect browsing as fast as native Android, though.
  • mupdf is the only usably-fast PDF previewer
  • R is a sight to behold. You get the whole of it, I mean, any conceivable package, which is downloaded and compiled on the fly.
  • Same holds for octave, gnuplot
  • Any language, compiler, open-source utility ever conceived is just one apt-get away.


  • No sound
  • No video
    • No access to privileged (<1024) ports, so configure sshd appropriately
    • Slightly faster battery consumption (when not in sleep)

What still doesn’t work

  • Using Android native applications as viewers
  • LibreOffice (at least on wheezy)