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Debian is a universal operating system used on many other embedded devices, and also on home computers. Using Debian on the FreeRunner gives access to the Huge army of software packaged in the Debian repositories, already compiled for the Neo's arm(v4) processor. Moreover, one can build one's own source files for programs without having to learn the OpenEmbedded way. For example compiling natively is a snap with Debian, just apt-get gcc&libc-dev.

For an existing Debian/Ubuntu user, choosing Debian for Neo FreeRunner makes phone a very familiar, trustworthy and flexible place to hack in.

The bulk of information related to running Debian on FreeRunner is supposed to be at For all installation, support or bug reporting needs please see DebianOnFreeRunner in the Debian wiki.

The current method of installation,, is not fail-proof. Work is progressing on a real debian-installer support. Please be sure Bash is installed before trying The main reason why fails is because it installs debian unstable which is constantly in motion.


Screenshot for Manual

It might be useful to improve this manual with screenshots. You can create screenshots on Debian with ImageMagick:

 # sudo apt-get install imagemagick

Then you can take a screenshot of the full screen with the import-command:

 # import -window root screenshot.jpg

If you take the screenshot with some delay you have to add the pause parameter (e.g. waiting for 10sec)

import -pause 10 -window root screenshot.jpg

Installation Debian on Freerunner

The following steps are a quick installation guide with and installed SHR on your freerunner and Qi as bootloader already installed on your freerunner. For further information refer to the Debian on Freerunner Wiki from which this short summary is derived from.

NOTE: The installation script for Debian, used in the following manual, stopped on SHR with errors. To run a complete Debian installation process it might be necessary to flash the FR with current minimal rootfs for SHR again. You could also try in your SHR distribution to remove some software packages with opkg (not tested). Recommended to flash memory with a minimal SHR.

The following manual was successful with a fresh flash of SHR in NAND memory.

Installing Qi

The following manual needs Qi to be installed as bootloader. If you more options for using the bootloader usethe Debian on Freerunner Wiki for further details.

Switch off you freerunner (if necessary) and start NOR uBoot by pressing AUX and Power-On at the same time and then start dfu-util on your desktop computer with the following parameters for GTA2:

 # dfu-util -a u-boot -R -D qi-s3c2442-master-hist_3b8513d8b3d9615e.udfu

See Flashing the Neo FreeRunner or Flashing the Neo 1973 for more details on flashing your phone.

Online Script Installation

Login to Freerunner with SHR

Login to your freerunner with the booted SHR distribution:

# ssh -X -l root

and an USB Networking connection (e.g. IP-address of your freerunner). Change the IP-address if your network settings differ from this IP-address. Prepare SHR so that you have a working internet connection from your freerunner. This is necessary because SHR will download the Debian packages.

Script Installation and Running

Run the following commands from shell in SHR after ssh-login to freerunner:

# wget -O
# chmod +x
# TASKS="ALL" QI=true ./ all

The following commands above assumes that you have Qi installed and you want to use a single partition for Debian on freerunner. The SD card (2GB suggested) will be formated by the script.

  • If you want to install Debian with different installation parameters or
  • if you ran into network problems or errors during installation

please see DebianOnFreerunner-Wiki for further details and support.

NOTE: The installation could take more than 90 minutes to complete and you will download approximately 250MB on your freerunnner. Time for installation is depending on network speed.

After successful installation you will see:

 I: Unmounting - done
 I: All done!
 Now reboot, and hope for the best!

Shutdown SHR operating system with:

# shutdown -h now

Press power on button to start Debian via Qi:


The online installation process sometimes fails. It is be helpful to an tar.gz-image for Debian that could be extracted to a SD-card with an installed bootloader Qi

One such tarball is available here (add others if you have): (Debian_NeoFreeRunner_minimalrootfs_20120321.tar.xz)

Note that it is a minimal rootfs, meaning that your first job is to connect to the device over USB cable and install more packages to your liking. Some basic libraries/daemons like FSO2 and omhacks are available, though, and the X starts (pretty much empty) by default via /root/.xsession. Root password is the default 'changeme'.

First Login on Debian

Your Linux Desktop has created RNDIS/Ethernet Interface, configure the interface as in USB Networking explained:

RNDIS/Ethernet Gadget 

Now you can login on Debian (if booted) with:

 # ssh -X -l root
NOTE: (SSH Known Hosts) If you have installed other distributions on your Freerunner before, edit .ssh/known_hosts and remove old key for your freerunner.

The default password is "changeme", so change the password directly after first login on your Freerunner with:

 neo# passwd

Then run an update for apt-get

 neo# apt-get update

This could take several minutes depending on network speed.

Debian Showcase: Desktop Environments And Applications

fbpanel + Matchbox

It is not really a Desktop environment, but using fbpanel with Matchbox you can have a fast, lightweight, gtk2 desktop panel.

Debian with fbpanel, matchbox-window-manager and Zhone running, default settings
Custom matchbox theme and fbpanel configuration.

Quick howto:

  1. Install fbpanel:
    sudo apt-get install fbpanel hicolor-icon-theme
  2. Customize the X startup process:
    zhone &
    xsetroot -solid black
    matchbox-keyboard-toggle &
    matchbox-window-manager -use_titlebar yes &
    # -use_titlebar yes to minimize & toggle between apps
    # fbpanel's taskbar does not work with matchbox-window-manager
    #~/bin/auxlaunch &
    while true;
    sleep 1;
  3. Read
    mkdir ~/.fbpanel
    cp /etc/fbpanel/default ~/.fbpanel/default
    nano ~/.fbpanel/default

    Remove section with 'taskbar' plugin - it's useless with matchbox-window-manager. You may add plugin 'cpu'

    Plugin {
    type = cpu

    Also, plugin 'genmon' is useful:

    Plugin {
    type = genmon
    config {
    Command = echo -e $(grep "MemFree" /proc/meminfo | \
     awk '{printf "%0.2f", $2 / 1024}') "|"\
    $(cat /proc/loadavg | awk '{print $3}') "|" \
     $(apm | awk '{print $5}')
    PollingTime = 60
    TextSize = small
    TextColor = darkblue
    Custom edje Zhone theme. Click to enlarge
    After 'killall fbpanel' it will show: free mem in megabytes | loadavg | battery % left.
  4. Default theme is ugly. You can change it and / or make fonts bigger:
    sudo apt-cache search gtk2-engines
    sudo apt-get install gtk2-engines gtk-theme-switch
    DISPLAY=:0 gtk-theme-switch2
    Now choose your theme, font and save it. To see changes do 'killall fbpanel'. (killall requires psmisc package to be installed)


Debian with illume, and Zhone running
Debian with illume, and Zhone running, with the on-screen keyboard visible

Illume, the desktop environment used in recent openmoko distribution releases, is also available under Debian. It's part of the Enlightenment window manager version 17 (which is currently in the alpha stage of development), which the Debian FSO package maintainers have placed in their repository. If you have a Debian FSO system running, you can use the following commands to install illume.

apt-get install e17

Then use the following commands to ensure that it starts on boot.

apt-get remove zhone-session
apt-get install nodm

mv /root/.xsession /root/.xsession.backup 
cat << END > /root/.xsession
zhone &

Update 03/2012: zhone is a dead end. For current Debian, install phoneui-apps instead, which support the FSO2 now default in Debian.


If you want a really nice desktop enviroment but you think XFCE is too fat, you can try to install LXDE. It give to you the GTK comfort, but use only a fraction of the ram needed by XFCE.

Debian with lxde and Zhone running

To install it:

apt-get install lxde

to launch it create a /etc/init.d/lxde script in the same way descripted for xfce4, replacing startxfce4 occurrences with startlxde.

Debian running 3

Did we already mention you can install anything in Debian?


The debian installation script installs by default the matchbox window manager. It doesn't feature a desktop environment. xfce is a small and lightweight desktop environment and so is quite fast for the FreeRunner.

apt-get install xfce4

Edit your .xsession to launch xfce4 at X startup :


Edit section [Failsafe Session] of /etc/xdg/xfce4-session/xfce4-session.rc (or ~/.config/xfce4-session/xfce4-session.rc) to handle the auto-started apps. For example:

[Failsafe Session]

Start XFCE !

/etc/init.d/nodm restart

The desktop takes a while to start but once up was snappy as can be expected. I've not yet looked at the reason for the seemingly too slow start for the desktop.

zhone is available from the "Office" menu in xfce. The matchbox keyboard is available in "Accessories".

If you want to display the screen on the long side (ie rotated, 4:3 aspect), add the following to the /etc/X11/xorg.conf in both the Device and InputDevice sections :

Option          "Rotate"                "CCW"

and then (re)start xfce.

If you want to be able to shutdown/restart the device, add the following line to /etc/sudoers (don't forget to replace username with your actual username):

username localhost = NOPASSWD: /usr/sbin/xfsm-shutdown-helper

Using matchbox-window-manager with XFCE

XFCE's window manager is poorly configured for use with the FreeRunner. Fortunately, matchbox's window manager is compatible with xfce. To use the matchbox window manager, modify ~/.xsession as follows:

exec matchbox-window-manager -use_titlebar no -use_cursor no &

Derivative Distributions of Debian

Several distributions are sharing Debian's infrastructure - this is long known. For the Openmoko,

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