Understandably, some people want to live their digital lives with as little Google as possible, and are willing to go to fairly extensive efforts to get the advertising juggernaut off all of their various devices. On Android, this can prove difficult: almost no smartphone on sale right ships Google-free, and of those that do, there are serious feature gaps to consider, among other things. Enter microG, a way to reduce your reliance on Google's apps, advertising, and tracking by using a de-Googled custom ROM. We'll show you what you need, how to get it set up, and what you need to know about using it.

I personally accept that there's always going to be some inherent privacy trade-off when you're using an incredibly useful, always-connected mobile device powered by an ad company, but I'm interested to see if there's at least a way to remove the ad company from the equation (Apple phones aren't inherently better, either). It's probably still not feasible to go fully open source on Android, though you might be delighted to learn that it's possible to reduce your dependency on singular data aggregators like Google.

To go fully Google-less on your phone, you'll need to install a custom ROM that supports microG. Depending on your device, this is a more or less involved process. You will lose all data stored on your phone in the process, so be sure you have backups. If you make a mistake, you might end up with a permanently bricked, unusable paperweight, so please double- and triple-check what you're doing, read through all instructions before you start the process, and make sure you understand.

While you might not like Google as a company, it still has to adhere to privacy regulations. That's not true for open-source ROMs potentially created by bad actors going after your data. LineageOS and microG should be sufficiently peer-controlled, but there's no guarantee. Be aware that you could always fall for someone shady when you're tinkering with your device, and that the risk is greater the more obscure the ROM you choose is.

Find a suitable ROM

With a little work, any custom ROM can run on microG, but there are easier and more difficult ways depending on your preferences and LineageOS support for your device.

microG's LineageOS builds

The simplest solution is using the ROM provided by the microG developers: They offer a custom version of LineageOS that comes with microG out of the box. However, only devices officially supported by LineageOS are on this list, so if you're using a phone like any recent Pixel, you'll need to go another route.

Head to microG's download site and see if your phone is among those supported (search Google for "[your phone] code name" to make sense of the items on the site). For installation instructions, go to LineageOS' wiki and search for your handset.

Using this path, you won't need to install microG separately; it comes with the ROM. You'll also find F-Droid pre-installed, the marketplace for all kinds of free and open source (FOSS) Android apps. Other than that, LineageOS is left untouched and includes the all thoughtful Android enhancements the ROM is known and loved for.

Other ROMs

If your phone is not on microG's list, things get a little more complicated. As stated in the box above, be extra careful about selecting an unknown ROM — generally, bigger players like LineageOS are more peer-controlled than others. On microG's website, you can find a small selection of other recommended ROMs.

When you go through the installation process, skip installing any Gapps package and instead flash NanoDroid (instructions) on your phone after the ROM, which will take care of getting microG working. If your ROM doesn't support signature spoofing, which allows microG to pretend it's Play Services, NanoDroid will also patch the system to support that.

Many ROM developers deactivate signature spoofing for security reasons, since an app pretending to be another app can potentially wreak havoc to your phone. If you carefully screen applications you install, that shouldn't be an issue, though. It's also likely that spoofing is not too widely exploited for hacking in the wild since only a small, mostly informed attack demographic exists.

There are already many articles out there explaining how to install custom ROMs, and since the process differs slightly for each, you're better off referring to the instructions that come with the custom software you end up choosing. For a more general and easy-to-read guide, check out How-To Geek's excellent custom ROM installation article.

Personally, I recommend LineageOS because it supports a plethora of phones and is mostly stable compared to other options out there.

Set up microG

Now that you've got your ROM installed and ready to use, you'll need to jump through a few more hoops before everything is set.

Look for the microG app on your phone and open it. Up top, there's a Setup section with a Self-Check. Tap it, and you'll see a checklist of necessary features. Most of the boxes should be ticked already, but you'll need to get the remaining ones working so you can fully enjoy your phone.

Find the System -> battery optimization entry and tap it, then choose Allow. This will turn off battery optimization for microG so that it can run in the background without restrictions — otherwise, apps relying on the service might misbehave.

To make map apps and others that rely on your location work, leave the Self-Check section of the app and go to Configuration -> UnifiedNlp Settings. In there, you need to configure network-based geolocation and address lookup, which looks more complicated than it is: Just check the boxes next to the respective services.

You can simply check the box on each setting to make location-based applications work.

After that, all the boxes in the self-check section should be ticked, and you should be all set to use your phone. However, some apps might require one piece of Google software that microG can't emulate: Google's Firebase Cloud Messaging, the company's push notification service. To use it, you'll also have to enable Google's device registration. That's the one part of Google you'll have to allow in on your Google-free ROM. The good news is that many apps don't need the service at all (e.g., Signal and Telegram), so you might not have to activate it in the end.

At least you can manually adjust the GCM settings in microG through the overflow menu on the top right.

Potential issues

Forgoing Play Services comes with a few caveats: For one, your contacts, SMS, and device data won't be backed up to Google's server, so be sure you save or sync them to a location outside of your phone. For another, there's a whole list of microG bugs and issues on Github, the biggest ones being no Chromecast support, no Wear OS support, and no geofencing — but since we're trying to avoid Google apps here, the first two shouldn't be too problematic.

Google apps replacements

Avoiding Google apps means avoiding the Google Play Store. Thus, you won't be able to use paid Play Store apps or access in-app purchases. If you're looking for open-source software, it makes sense to limit yourself to the alternate app distributor F-Droid, which lets you turn on automatic updates. If you're looking for more common, commercial apps, check out our own APK Mirror. We can't push software updates to your phone, though we offer a Pushbullet service that informs you when we add new releases. You might also look into the Amazon App Store, but I don't think replacing one big conglomerate (Google) with another (Amazon) is the best solution for this guide.

The basics: Phone, Messaging, Contacts, etc.

Most custom ROMs already come with pre-installed phone, messaging, and contacts apps, so you won't have to worry too much about finding replacements for these. In many ROMs, these apps are part of the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) and have been developed by Google, but their code is open source. Thus, you're technically still using a Google product, but it doesn't come with the same baggage.

If you fancy some more advanced or more aesthetically pleasing apps, check out QKSMS for messaging (APK Mirror, F-Droid), Open Contacts (F-Droid), or Simple Mobile Tools.

Browser

The only real alternative to a Google browser on Android is Firefox. All other browsers are based on Google's open-source Chromium web rendering engine. That makes them technically independent from Google as a company, but you're still using software at least in part created and directed by Google.

The latest beta version of the upcoming new version of Firefox (Firefox Preview) already feels pretty stable and might be a worthy competitor to Chrome once it reaches stable. On my microG system, I didn't run into any issues using it as my default browser. You can also try Chromium-based commercial alternatives Vivaldi, Samsung Internet, and Microsoft Edge.

Email

If you need a powerful, commercial service for your emails, Outlook is a great alternative to Gmail. Of course, there are also FOSS apps that can replace proprietary software. FairEmail is among a few recommended solutions and goes out of its way to protect your privacy by only loading relevant parts of mails, potentially avoiding tracking pixels and other means of following you around in your inbox.

Navigation

Google Maps is arguably the gold standard of navigation, but there are other options — depending on your needs, you might be better suited with a closed-source application than an open-source one, though. Citymapper and Moovit are good alternatives if you're looking for public transit navigation in bigger cities, and you might be well equipped with your local transport agency's solution, too, depending on where you live. On the open-source front, we recommend OsmAnd, Maps.me, and Axet Maps, all built on the community project OpenStreetMap.

Cloud storage

My preferred cloud storage is Microsoft OneDrive, but strangely enough, this is the only app that straight out refuses to work on my microG build. It immediately crashes upon startup, even after manually permitting it to read the file system. Dropbox works just fine, though.

If you're looking for an open-source project, Nextcloud (APK Mirror, F-Droid) is among the better options. It lets you choose your own hosting service or your own server, but keep in mind that there's a reason why there are paid cloud storage solutions out there — you'll need to monitor for attacks yourself, keep your server up to date, and pay your ISP some extra money to get fast upload speeds.

We also collected some more open-source alternatives to Drive in a roundup.

Photos

You can replicate some of Google Photo's unique backup features with another cloud provider, but you won't find a platform that intelligently sorts your images and tags your friends, family, and pets as reliably as Google's machine learning algorithms. That said, if you're looking for a simple gallery app, Francisco Franco's Focus Go is a capable, lightweight alternative to whatever pre-installed solution you find in your ROM, and if you fancy something more capable, F-Stop should be your go-to application.

We've also rounded up a few more photo apps.

Notes and text editing

If you're looking for an all-round alternative to Google Keep, you don't need to look further than the free Simplenote, brought to you by Automattic, the company behind WordPress and WordPress.org. It features markdown support and synchronizes across desktop, mobile, and web applications. Many people even use it as a text editor. In contrast to OneDrive, Word is also fully functional on this Android build and, in my opinion, superior to Google Docs.

There are also some open-source alternatives for Keep.

Social Media

Google doesn't have a social network of its own anymore, but you're probably still interested to know if any third-party solutions work on the microG build. My go-to social networks Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit run without any problems, and Facebook and its Messenger are also well-behaved. Due to the lack of the Play Store and thus access to in-app purchases, I couldn't use my preferred Reddit client Sync ad-free, but there are also completely free and open-source applications out there like Slide (F-Droid, APK Mirror) that you might enjoy more than Sync.

Music and Podcasts

One of the most beautiful audio players out there happens to be on F-Droid, so I can wholeheartedly recommend checking out Phonograph (F-Droid, APK Mirror) as an alternative to whatever pre-installed music app you previously had on your phone. If you're a Spotify subscriber, I'm sorry to inform you that the streaming service is not available outside of the Play Store on Android. You'll have to switch to an alternative like Deezer or Tidal.

While Pocket Casts isn't downloadable outside the Play Store, the open-source AntennaPod is (F-Droid, APK Mirror). Its player design might be due for a refresh, but other than that, it looks like a fine alternative to many proprietary solutions.

Video

There isn't any replacement for the vast network of content creators that is YouTube, but other streaming services work with little to no issues. Netflix (APK Mirror) instantly runs smoothly on my build, though to get Amazon Prime Video, you'll have to download the Amazon Appstore first. You can safely uninstall it once you've got the streaming service.

I missed Chromecast support dearly, but since the Cast protocol is a proprietary Google technology, it makes sense that microG doesn't support it. I could still access all of my streaming services on the big screen through my Playstation, so it's merely a different solution.

Password Manager

Choosing a password manager for this build was an easy feat for me since I already rely on an open-source solution: Bitwarden. Its F-Droid variant comes without Google's push service and is completely open source, but you can also get the regular version from APK Mirror. If you've relied on Chrome for password syncing, I can only recommend you to switch to another solution — otherwise, bad actors have access to all of your logins if your Google account gets hacked.

Keyboard

During this test, I realized how fond I've grown of Gboard. The pre-installed AOSP keyboard is pretty similar to it, but it lacks some more advanced features like voice dictation and swipe to delete. I still found it okay to use, and there's always SwiftKey, Fleksy, or — if you're feeling particularly adventurous — Typewise.

Verdict

During my experiment, I didn't run into any real deal-breaking issues. Sure, not accessing Google apps hasn't made my job easier, and a non-functional Spotify could be more than an annoyance for many, but I was surprised by how well Slack, Twitter, Telegram, Citymapper, Firefox, and others worked without regular Google Play Services.

The apps that come with a fresh install of Lineage OS microG.

I don't think I could've gone fully open source, though — I rely on Slack for work, and judging from my detours with open-source navigation apps, I'll be much happier with Citymapper. It's still refreshing to see that you can diversify who provides your software.

In 2020, it remains hard to go Google-free on Android, but those who are truly obsessed with staying away from the search company can get more than basic functionality out of their devices. In the course of this experiment, I've realized that I wouldn't even want to lose access to many Google services. I found myself missing basic things like convenient contact sync and more advanced features such as device backups and products like YouTube, Google Maps, and more.

My colleague Corbin takes a closer look at numerous open-source alternatives to Google apps on Android, so if you'd like to find more FOSS apps, head here. If you're looking for an easier way to remove Google from your life, consider an iPhone, but keep in mind that you'll just trade one big tech company for another.