Google will have gathered a bucketload of your private data, especially if you use Android. What's worse, if you ever do something the company doesn't approve of, you might get locked out of your account and lose access to years of emails and photos in the process. If you want to mitigate these risks and stay more private online without leaving Android behind, you might want to turn to an emerging custom ROM that de-Google-ifies your phone: /e/OS.
In case you didn't know, Google adds background services to phones that aren't directly user-facing, but they're a big part of what makes Android run. Known collectively as Google Play services, they are responsible for the interfaces connecting apps to the hardware, push notifications, location tracking, and much more.
/e/OS is a custom ROM based on LineageOS that removes almost all of the closed-source Google code from Android and leaves you with a clean alternative called microG, an open-source re-implementation of Play services that ensures that most apps run smoothly without Google's proprietary code. In contrast to many other custom ROMs, /e/OS is relatively simple to install, and you can even buy phones with it pre-installed in Europe.
A refurbished Samsung phone sold with pre-installed /e/OS.
We tested the operating system to see if it's a viable alternative to the regular Google-ified Android experience.
|Privacy||While no one prevents you from installing apps with questionable privacy policies on /e/OS, you get to start out with a Google-less system that collects far less data by default.|
|Battery life||Play services are a huge battery hog, and without them, standby battery life is much better.|
|Simple setup||If you buy a phone with /e/OS pre-installed, setup couldn't be simpler for a custom ROM. And for everyone else, the documentation is pretty good, too.|
|App store||The /e/OS app store has almost any (free) app you could want or need.|
|Seamless updates||Updates come to your phone over-the-air, just like they would on a regular Android phone — no need to fiddle with manually installing anything.|
|Missing and broken apps||While almost all of my regular apps work on /e/OS, some just aren't available in its app store or straight up refuse to work due to a variety of reasons.|
|Custom ROM warnings||/e/OS wants to appeal to a broad target group that doesn't only consist of people who know their way around tech, so some apps sending warnings about you using a custom ROM might look scary for the uninitiated.|
|Default launcher||The pre-installed Bliss Launcher is too barebones, but luckily, you can switch it out for any other.|
|Low-res streaming and no banking apps||Due to copyright protection measures imposed on the system, you only get SD video on most apps such as Netflix. Some banking apps are also touchy when it comes to /e/OS and other custom ROMs.|
|No gesture navigation (yet)||I personally prefer gesture navigation over the old-school buttons, but it isn't available here — it is coming soon, though.|
If you purchase a phone from the /e/Foundation, the non-profit behind the custom ROM, setup is as easy as taking any other new phone out of the box. You just pop your SIM card in or connect to your Wi-Fi, and the system will walk you through the rest of the setup process. Instead of asking for your Google credentials, /e/OS asks you to create an /e/ account instead, which allows you to backup some of your data to the company's server or your own. Signing up is completely optional, though. During setup, you also have to enable location services explicitly, and you can leave them off if you don't ever want apps to track your physical location (this option is also available on Google phones, though).
If you want to install /e/OS on your existing phone, you first need to check if it's one of the 151 models that are compatible. There are even a few phones that support a seamless, hands-free install process on Linux and Windows thanks to a program written by /e/OS. However, if you want to go the manual road, you should read into the process of installing a custom ROM and be sure you gather at least a minimal amount of knowledge — you could end up permanently disabling your phone if you don't know what you're doing or if you don't follow the steps rigorously. That said, the /e/OS documentation looks pretty easy to understand once you know your way around the basic vocabulary of custom ROMs.
It probably doesn't need saying, but if you're coming from a phone with Google apps, you won't be able to import all of your apps and logins like you can when you switch between most Android phones. You'll end up manually transferring quite a bit of data, like contacts, Wi-Fi passwords, SMS, email accounts, photos, and so on.
Look and feel
Out of the box, /e/OS looks and feels a lot like stock Android 10. The interface is basically untouched, with areas like the lock screen, the notification shade, and the settings instantly recognizable if you've ever used a Google phone — there's nothing out of the ordinary.
The pre-installed default launcher is a different beast altogether, though. It takes a lot of inspiration from iOS, with icons living in rounded squares and a rigid grid that has apps automatically move up to the top left corner to fill any empty space. Widgets exclusively reside on a scrolling screen to the left homescreen, and there are no long-press options for apps. The /e/Foundation tells me that while it wants to significantly improve the experience, it doesn't want to match standard Android launchers in customizability as to not scare away a broad audience. Instead, the foundation encourages advanced users to switch to a third-party launcher, which is exactly what I did.
I also noticed that /e/OS is currently still missing gesture navigation even though it was introduced with Android 10 — that's a bummer, but at least it's on the roadmap. The same is true for Android 11 and all of its associated features, which you can expect in the next few months.
In fact, the foundation has quite a few things planned for 2021, as detailed in this blog post. The non-profit wants to implement a dark mode for all of its system apps, decrease energy consumption and make devices last longer, add a privacy-first voice assistant, and introduce support for VoLTE. It also aims to bring end-to-end encryption to its e-drive cloud storage for further improved security and privacy, and it wants to introduce the option to fully remove pre-installed apps. So there's a lot to be excited about for /e/OS users this year, assuming all goes to plan.
App availability and compatibility
Since the OS does without any Google apps, you naturally won't have access to the Play Store. This was the part I was dreading the most, as I feared that I'd have to manually update and maintain quite a few of my regularly used apps from sources outside the Play Store. Luckily, the app store built by /e/OS is pretty capable and has almost all of the free apps I normally use.
The store comprises both open-source and closed-source apps. The /e/ Foundation says that it's currently a mirror of free Android apps from the Play Store and F-Droid. It even includes a selection of progressive web apps.
While I found almost all of the apps I need, a few smaller, local applications simply weren't available (my bank's app and some indie apps like Bundled Notes, for example). You might run into a few more missing apps depending on your needs, but for the most part, any free app you can think of is available. For what it's worth, I was able to find my banking app on our sister site APK Mirror, which might be an option for any other apps you're missing, too. Just keep in mind that you'll have to update those apps manually if you go down that route.
If you heavily rely on apps you bought in the Play Store, /e/OS will disappoint you — unless developers offer an option to buy their apps outside of Google's platform, you can't use them on /e/OS.
While most free apps are available, not all of them work perfectly. That's to be expected, as the microG project is (and probably always will be) a work in progress. There are a few components that are wonky, first and foremost location-based applications. While the pre-installed Magic Earth navigation app works without flaws, my local transit agency's map routinely refuses to load, making the app crash altogether on more than one occasion. I also couldn't get OneDrive to work, with the app closing as soon as I launch it, which is a problem I've experienced on a microG LineageOS build before.
Since /e/OS is a custom ROM at its core, it also runs into the same video streaming limitations as other aftermarket OSes. It isn't certified for Widevine L3, the copyright mechanism most streaming services require to be in place for high-quality video streams. This means that while it's possible to watch Netflix shows, they'll be limited to SD quality. This is a problem on Chromebooks, too, so officially sanctioned Google products aren't always better.
There's also the SafetyNet concern. SafetyNet is Google's verification technique that aims to attest that a device hasn't been tinkered with. Right now, /e/OS triggers a warning about this, which leads to problems with security-critical apps for banking and other essential data, claiming that you're running an insecure version of Android. While that isn't true of /e/OS, this can still throw up some unexpected warnings in apps like WhatsApp, and some applications might even refuse to run or prevent you from logging in. This is another issue /e/OS plans to tackle going forward, so this hopefully won't always be the case.
Other than the two or three app compatibility problems I ran into, /e/OS has been a pretty smooth ride for me, only thwarted by the rather slow Fairphone 3 provided to me that unfortunately isn't holding up to the test of time with its weak Snapdragon 632 processor. I imagine the experience would've been much better with a refurbished Samsung Galaxy S9, which the /e/Foundation also sells.
Note that the phone wasn't even charged to 100% when this screenshot was taken.
Even so, /e/OS still managed to impress me precisely because of how good it runs on the old hardware. Sure, the Fairphone still stuttered through app startups and lagged when scrolling through websites, but the 4+ hours of screen-on time it routinely managed to hit surprised me, especially given the old hardware. Standby battery life is also another plus — the phone lasts much longer when it's left untouched than many current flagships with the full Google experience.
/e/OS doesn't perform well in the camera department, though. It uses Open Camera by default, and it just doesn't play very nicely with the Fairphone's sensor. The /e/Foundation recognizes this and says it's working on improvements, thankfully. It also wants to bring support for multiple lenses. In the meantime, you can try installing a Google Camera port, which should improve the performance drastically.
Overall, /e/OS left me impressed despite the shortcomings that naturally arise when you forgo Google apps on Android. After my colleague Scott's scathing review of the Google-free Huawei P40 Pro, I feared the worst, but the /e/Foundation is doing a great job of including every possible app in its store. You'll still miss out on a few things like high-quality video streaming, contactless payments, and online banking, not to mention all of Google's apps. But if you're serious about staying more private online, that seems like a small price to pay for an otherwise impeccable experience. If I didn't rely so heavily on access to Google apps for my job, I might even be willing to make the switch myself.