Trying out different operating systems on the PinePhone is as simple as flashing a bootable disk image to a microSD card, inserting it in the phone, and powering it on and the instructions for installing an OS to built-in storage are almost as simple.
Not sure which operating system you want to install though? That’s where a tool like Megi’s multi-distro demo image can come in handy. Instead of flashing a single operating system to a microSD card, this image lets you flash a whole bunch and then choose which one you want to run when you boot your phone. The latest version was released a few days ago, and it contains 15 different operating systems including Arch, Fedora, Mobian, Sailfish, Ubuntu Touch and several different versions of postmarketOS and Manjaro with different user interfaces.
The entire image takes up about 6.9 GB of disk space to download, so it should easily fit on an 8 GB or larger microSD card – although you may want a larger card if you plan to install applications, update any of the operating systems, or do more than poke around in any of the included Linux distros.
Note that the image is also compressed using zstd, and some image flashing utilities like balenaEtcher and Rufus don’t support that compression algorithm, so depending on the tools you’re using, you may need to extract the archive before flashing, in which case it takes up about 10GB of disk space.
While you could theoretically use Megi’s tool to run the Linux distribution of your choice indefinitely, the multi-boot image is really designed for folks who want a quick way to try a bunch of different operating systems without having to install and flash them individually.
That’s because Megi modifies the boot images so they all use the same kernel, boot manager, and modem driver, among other things. As a result, you may not get all the same features in these images as you would when running official builds of each operating system. You won’t be able to install updates using the normal methods. And developers may not accept bug reports sent from these versions of their operating systems.
I took a look at an earlier build of Megi’s multi-distro demo image late last year, but while the underlying idea behind the new build is the same, the software is about 7-8 months newer. Developers of PinePhone-friendly Linux distributions have made a lot of improvements in that time, with major updates affecting the user interfaces, power consumption, camera functionality, and much more.
Megi’s January, 2022 multi-distro image features version 5.16.2 of megi’s custom Linux kernel, brings support for the PinePhone keyboard, and brings up-to-date versions of operating systems including:
- Arch Linux ARM 2021-11-20
- Arch Linux ARM / dreemurrs 20220124
- Fedora 0.6.0
- Lune OS 20220108
- Maemo Leste 20220123
- Manjaro / Phosh beta 21
- Manjaro / Plasma beta 10
- Mobian 20220116
- posmarketOS / Plasma Desktop 2022-01-07
- posmarketOS / GNOME 2022-01-07
- posmarketOS / Plasma Mobile v21.12-20220119
- posmarketOS / Phosh v21.12-20220119
- posmarketOS / sxmo v21.12-20220119
- Sailfish 20220112
- Ubuntu Touch 2022-01-20
- Jumpdrive 0.8
Megi notes that the Sailfish had some trouble booting in this disk image though, so your results may vary.
One other thing to keep in mind is that this disk image is designed for the original PinePhone and not the newer PinePhone Pro, which has a different processor and some other key changes which means that operating systems designed for the basic PinePhone need to be modified before they can run on the more powerful PinePhone Pro.
Megi’s image uses his p-boot bootloader which loads almost immediately when you press the power button to turn on the PinePhone, and which allows you to choose between different operating systems by using the volume up and down keys to navigate and the power button to select.
The image also includes a shortcut that will let you boot from your phone’s built-in eMMC storage without first removing the microSD card, and another that lets you run JumpDrive, a utility that allows you to connect the phone to a computer and treat the eMMC as if it were a removable drive. This provides a quick and easy way to flash software to the built-in storage.
You can find more details about Megi’s PinePhone development work at his blog, and find more information about the multi-boot utility as well as download links at its the PinePhone multi-distro demo image web page.
You can flash the image to a microSD card or the PinePhone’s eMMC storage the same way you would any other disk image.
All the images featured in this article show the June 2nd build of the multi-distro image, but you can also see how the whole thing works by checking out my video from November, 2020:
This article was originally published June 6, 2021 and last updated January 30, 2022.