learn to track

/e/OS: A Better Choice Than Android

TLDR: /e/OS is an Android alternative focused on privacy and usability. It combines a LineageOS base with Micro G and other enhancements. While not perfect, /e/OS offers a compelling option for those looking to escape Google’s grasp without sacrificing functionality. If you want more control over your mobile experience, /e/OS is well worth trying.

Google’s Android is open source. This means anyone can build their own mobile operating system based on Android.
Why, then, aren’t there many Android alternatives to choose from?
The good news: a few excellent options exist. They may even be better than the Android that comes with your phone.
But the reason there are only a handful of good choices shows there’s much more to a great mobile experience than just the operating system.

The Core of Android is Open, But…
Android’s core operating system, AOSP, is open source. However, it needs device-specific drivers and Google’s Play Services APIs to provide basic functions. It also includes Google’s suite of built-in apps.
All this stuff sits on top of the core Android OS. And it’s very difficult for other projects to reproduce.
Getting AOSP to run is easy. Creating a great user experience with it is the real challenge.

/e/OS: A Great Android Alternative
One project that has succeeded in this is /e/OS. I’ve used it exclusively for six months. And I can say the world of Android alternatives has never been better.
If you want to get out of Google’s grip, /e/OS is a fantastic choice.
Why Use an Android Alternative?
You might wonder why you would want to use an alternative Android OS like /e/OS.
For me, it wasn’t privacy concerns that pushed me away from stock Android.
It was a poor user experience.
I got fed up with Android’s constant updates. Every time I picked up my phone, it was downloading another update. The internet would slow to a crawl.
I’d been through this with Windows 98. Once was enough.
This was years ago before I knew about /e/OS. When I decided to leave Android, I installed LineageOS, a well-known Android alternative. LineageOS worked well and came with good basic apps.
I had no trouble with my main open-source apps. The few closed-source apps I used also worked fine. I don’t rely on Google services in my personal life, so moving from stock Android was easy.
But for work, I still needed Google Play Services on my LineageOS phone. I had to access Slack, Airtable, and Gmail. Having Google still embedded in my device bothered me.
My view changed when I saw the boot screen message after unlocking the bootloader. It warns that “software integrity cannot be guaranteed.”
That’s true. It could be bad if you’re a spy. But what bothers me isn’t the technical risk.
It’s the underlying assumption that we should trust the company that made the phone.
I probably read too much into it. I may dream too much of a future where our mobile devices are modifiable general-purpose computers.
In any case, I don’t trust device makers or Google. Especially not on my phone.
I wanted Google out of my LineageOS. I needed something to replace Google Play Services.
Luckily, the Micro G project met this need. Micro G provides open-source replacements for Google’s key libraries and apps. This lets de-Googled phones still handle core things like location, which many apps expect.
I combined LineageOS and Micro G. The result: was a fully de-Googled phone that was also fully functional.
The catch is that installing them requires some technical skills. You need to be okay using the command line.

/e/OS Makes De-Googling Easy
That’s one of the key things /e/OS aims to fix. And it has succeeded.
You can buy a Fairphone with /e/OS pre-installed. This gives you an excellent Google-free mobile experience with zero hassle.
I tested /e/OS on a Fairphone 4 from Murena. They’re the company that handles hardware support for /e/OS.
Murena also sells refurbished Pixels with /e/OS, plus their own Murena phones. Those aren’t currently available in the US.
After returning the Fairphone, I installed /e/OS on a Pixel 6a. I’m still using it today. The process was nearly the same as installing LineageOS, apart from the files you flash.
So what exactly is /e/OS?
It starts with LineageOS as the base. Then it adds Micro G to handle Google API stuff. Finally, it focuses on replicating the rest of a good mobile OS:

  • Syncing your data
  • Online backups
  • Making sure your favourite apps work as expected
    This is similar to what I set up myself with LineageOS + Micro G. But /e/OS handles it all for you.

Privacy by Design
What really makes /e/OS stand out is its privacy-first approach.
The core privacy feature is the Advanced Privacy app and widget. It lets you easily block trackers inside apps.
There are also neat features like spoofing your IP address or location if you want.
The IP and location spoofing are handy sometimes. But for most people, the key benefit is blocking in-app trackers. And it turns out there are a lot of them.
Using /e/OS is eye-opening and depressing. You see just how many apps constantly send data to tracking servers.
Sure, /e/OS blocks it all. So you’re not actually sending anything. But everyone else is. And that’s sad.
In the past 10 days, /e/OS has blocked trackers in my apps from phoning home 3,030 times. That’s from just 15 apps.
Some apps on the list aren’t surprising, like airline apps I installed briefly for trips. But others are disappointing to see, like birding apps from Audubon and Cornell Lab.
Ironically, even the /e/OS System app contains trackers. /e/OS blocks itself out of the box.
I like /e/OS’s privacy features. I’ve gotten in the habit of spoofing my location most of the time.
But for me, the real killer feature is the App Lounge.

One App Store to Rule Them All
On LineageOS, I had to install apps from several app stores:

  • F-Droid for open-source apps
  • Uptodown for a few key closed-source apps like Vivaldi
  • Google Play Store for anything else
    It was a lot to keep track of.
    The /e/OS App Lounge combines apps from many sources into one store. This includes the Play Store, F-Droid, and more.
    You can also choose to only show open source apps if you want. And you can browse anonymously. Just note that you’ll need to log in to access any paid apps tied to your account.
    Anonymous login does fail sometimes in my experience, giving token errors. It’s one of the few issues I’ve had with /e/OS.
    The App Lounge looks much like the Play Store. But it adds a few nice features:
    1) Privacy scores for each app on a 1-10 scale. 1 means awful for privacy, 10 usually means no trackers.
    2) Permissions scores. Fewer sensitive permissions mean a higher score.
    It’s a great way to convey complex info in an easy-to-understand format.
    In a win for the broader Android alt community, /e/OS plans to make the App Lounge into a standalone app. Then you could install it on any Android device.
    For now, the Aurora Store is a close alternative.

Some Weak Points
As much as I love /e/OS, it’s not perfect. I’ve had some minor location issues, likely due to my nomadic lifestyle.
My location changes every few weeks. Sometimes /e/OS is slow to realize this. The Maps app will give me search results for my previous location.
The included Maps app also still needs polish. It uses some closed-source components. While more accurate than other alternative map apps I’ve tried, it’s not as good as Google Maps.
Say what you will about Google, but their Maps are unrivalled. I still keep it around as a fallback.
The other missing feature for me right now is voice typing. /e/OS currently ships with no speech-to-text capability at all.
There are some options you can install yourself. I get by with a combo of Sayboard and the stock /e/OS keyboard. But it’s clunky.
The good news is that built-in voice typing is on the /e/OS roadmap for 2024. This will also enable a virtual assistant.
How exactly that will work isn’t clear yet, given the privacy implications of sending voice data to a remote AI. Running a local AI model may be an option.
Full device backup also isn’t available yet. You can back up your media, files, contacts, and calendar if you have an account on their cloud service. But app data and settings won’t be backed up.
Again, full backup is planned for later in 2023.
In general, I’ve found apps work well in /e/OS. I haven’t had any compatibility problems beyond the issues noted above.

A Note on Security
I should point out that installing any alternative OS requires unlocking your bootloader. This does open a security hole.
Relocking the bootloader after installation often causes problems. I’ve never tried it. Too easy to brick the phone.
Phones ship with locked bootloaders to prevent “evil maid” attacks. The same lock would also block rootkits.
Here’s how the lock protects you: It requires the OS to be cryptographically signed by a private key held only by the phone maker. Unsigned operating systems aren’t allowed to start up.
So is it bad to leave your bootloader unlocked? For super spies being targeted by nation-states, yes. Definitely don’t use /e/OS or LineageOS or any other alternative OS.
Actually, if that’s you, don’t use a phone at all.
For the rest of us, bootloader attacks aren’t a major concern. Exploiting an unlocked bootloader requires physical possession of your device.
No hacker is going to swipe your phone during lunch and install a malicious OS.
I’ve run alternative mobile OSes for years with unlocked bootloaders. Never had a problem. I mention this mainly so you can make an informed choice.
I understand the risk. For me, it’s acceptable.
To be clear, you can’t blame Google for the unlocked bootloader message I complained about earlier. That’s on the hardware makers.
A system exists to let you lock the bootloader with an alternative OS. But only Google has implemented it, for their Pixel phones.
So in theory I could relock my bootloader. I choose not to. Bricking the phone is a bigger risk for me than evil maid attacks.
If you do want to relock, GrapheneOS is an Android alternative that supports it. I haven’t tried it myself yet. But it’s another strong option to look at.
For my needs though, /e/OS does everything I want. And it stays out of my way otherwise.

The Bottom Line
Your phone’s OS might not matter to everyone. But if you want to step outside the Google-Apple binary, give /e/OS a try.
Head to their website for install instructions and device compatibility details.
It’s well worth it for the privacy and user experience benefits. Moving to /e/OS meaningfully improved my mobile computing life. It could do the same for you.


Add comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.