Friday, September 22, 2023

Hacking Ubuntu Touch, Part 5: adb shell vs. phablet-shell

NOTE: This is a continuation of the series and relies on having Developer mode enabled. Thanks to Oliver Grawert for his input about phablet-shell.

Most development work requires running a shell on the device. There are two ways to get one on an Ubuntu Touch device: adb shell and phablet-shell. How do they differ and which one is “better”? And can the experience be improved even further?

adb shell

This is the usual method, and it works by having the ADB Client connect to the Server, telling the Server to open a stream to the shell destination offered by the Daemon, and the Daemon spawning a shell process which is connected to the stream.

The advantage is that this works without additional tools, if you have a working ADB setup you have adb shell.

There are several disadvantages though:

  • The terminal doesn’t adapt to the actual size of its window, the size is always 80 x 25 characters until you change it to something sensible with stty rows cols . So by default you can’t even see all of the output of the top command.

  • Integration with termcap is broken. Try editing a file with nano, you can’t e.g. press the Enter key after typing in the filename the file should be saved to.


This binary is part of the Ubuntu phablet-tools package and tries to overcome the disadvantages of adb shell. It does this by starting an SSH server on the device via ADB, setting up a local ADB port forwarding (usually on port 2222), copying over the most recent SSH key to the device (for passwordless login) and then calling ssh to connect to the forwarded port.

Using phablet-shell as a shell has several advantages over adb shell:

  • The terminal will adapt to the surrounding terminal window. Start top on the phone and then change the size of the terminal window, the output will fill the available space.

  • All the fancy termcap things will work, you can e.g. use nano.

  • You can automatically sync your current ~/.bashrc to the device with the --copy parameter.

But there are also some disadvantages:

  • If the most recent SSH key is protected by a password, and you don’t have a properly set up SSH agent, you will be asked about passwords a lot.

  • Performance is a bit lower because you are now running SSH over TCP over ADB over USB instead of just ADB over USB. For example adb push transfers at over 8 megabytes/s to my device while scp transfers at around 6.5 megabytes/s over the forwarded SSH port. This shouldn’t make much of a difference though, we just want to transfer some text around.

At the end phablet-shell is usually the better choice for most use cases.

SSH tricks with phablet-shell

Developer mode only enables the ADB server while the display is unlocked, so if you open and close a lot of shells you either have to continuously unlock the device, which is inconvenient, or disable the screen lock, which consumes energy. Using phablet-shell doesn’t avoid the problem at first sight, because the command tries to open an adb shell on the device to check for a running SSH server even if another phablet-shell is already running and the port forwarding is already in place.

But phablet-shell never stops the SSH server it started, and also doesn’t remove the ADB port forwarding.

So you can unlock your device, start phablet-shell once to set up the SSH server and port forwarding, exit phablet-shell and from then on use SSH clients directly. This should always work, even if the device locks. You can even simplify things, put the following block in your ~/.ssh/config

Host phablet
Hostname localhost
Port 2222
User phablet

and then just type

$ ssh phablet

$ scp /local/path phablet:/remote/path

$ rsync -a -v /tmp/sync/ phablet:/tmp/sync/

The URL for your graphical file managers is sftp://phablet/.

If you know better and/or something has changed, please find me on and do get in contact!

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