This story was originally published 2020/04/17
8:43am PDTon Apr 17, 2020 and last updated 2021/03/27
8:57am PDTon Mar 27, 2021.
If you’re an Android user, Google has a scary amount of information on you, and matters get worse if you’re deeply embedded in the company’s app ecosystem — getting locked out of your Google account can have serious consequences then. Thankfully, Android is open source, so it’s possible to evade Google without having to leave the platform altogether — just look at Amazon’s tablets or Huawei’s Google-less phones. But if you’d rather be completely independent from big corporations, going for a free and open-source custom ROM built on top of Android’s core might be the best solution.
I personally accept that there’s always going to be some inherent privacy trade-off when you’re using an always-connected mobile device that you carry with you everywhere you go, but I’m curious if there’s a way to remove the ad company from the equation. It’s probably still not feasible to use nothing but open-source apps, but you might be delighted to learn that it’s possible to reduce your dependency on a single data aggregator like Google.
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 are 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.
The problem with going completely Google-less on Android is that Google offers a few closed-source APIs that other apps rely on to function properly. These APIs are part of the Google Play Services, which provides functionality like notifications, location tracking, cloud syncing of game scores, casting content to your TV or smart display, and so on. If you don’t want your experience to be severely limited, you’ll need a replacement for the Play Services. That’s where microG comes in. It’s a free and open-source implementation of these libraries and can replace almost all of them, allowing you to use your phone without having to send any data to Google servers.
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 all the thoughtful Android enhancements the ROM is known and loved for.
The e Foundation provides another straightforward route to a Google-free experience with its /e/ OS. It’s a LineageOS fork with microG pre-installed, but the non-profit wants to make the installation process and settings organization easier and simpler. It also disables or removes any software that’s sending out personal data to Google, instead offering its own syncing solution for settings, contacts, and files with optional self-hosting capabilities.
/e/ currently works with 138 smartphone models, and there’s an “easy installer” for a few of them. If all of that tinkering is too much for you, you can even buy a phone with /e/ OS pre-installed. The company has a partnership with Fairphone to offer the Fairphone 3 and 3+ without Google apps (made possible thanks to EU regulations), but it also sells refurbished Samsung Galaxy phones.
If your phone isn’t listed as compatible with /e/ OS or LineageOS with microG, 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 a safer bet than others. For what it’s worth, you can find a small selection of other recommended ROMs on microG’s Github page.
When you go through the installation process, skip installing any Gapps package and instead flash NanoDroid (instructions) on your phone once you’re done installing 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.
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 relying on 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.
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 up.
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 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, allowing it to 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 in microG 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 find yourself not having 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.
Forgoing Play Services comes with a few caveats: For one, your contacts, SMS, and device data won’t be backed up to Google’s servers, 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 Wear OS support and no geofencing.
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 even supports automatic updates. If you’re looking for more common, commercial apps, check out our own APK Mirror, but keep in mind that we can’t push updates to your phone. You might also want to look into the Amazon App Store, but I don’t think replacing one big conglomerate (Google) with another (Amazon) is the best solution.
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 and telemetry transmissions.
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. 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.
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.
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. On the open-source front, we recommend OsmAnd, Maps.me, and Axet Maps, all built on the community project OpenStreetMap.
My preferred cloud storage solution 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 solution, 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 at home.
We also collected some more open-source alternatives to Drive in a roundup.
You can replicate some of Google Photo’s unique backup features with other cloud service providers, 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 got a roundup of 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 syncs across desktops, phones, and the web. 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 anyway.
There are also some open-source alternatives for Keep.
Google doesn’t have a social network of its own anymore, but you’re probably still interested 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.
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) runs on my build just fine, 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 (but keep in mind that you won’t receive any updates when you do that).
Choosing a password manager for this build is simple if you already rely on an free and open-source solution like Bitwarden or KeePass, and switching to either is relatively trivial. Bitwarden’s 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.
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.
During my experiment, I didn’t run into any real deal-breaking issues. Sure, not being able to access Google apps hasn’t made my job easier, and the fact that Spotify isn’t available could be more than an annoyance for many, but I was surprised 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 with microG.
I don’t think I could’ve gone fully open source, though — I rely on Slack for work, and while I can live without Google Maps, I’m much happier with Citymapper than any of the open-source alternatives. It’s still refreshing to see that you can diversify who provides your software.
It remains hard to go Google-free on Android in 2021, but if you’re truly obsessed with staying away from the search company you can get more than basic functionality out of your device, especially thanks to companies like the e Foundation and yes, Huawei’s forced switch to a Google-free Android version. However, I personally realized that I wouldn’t even want to lose access to many Google services during this experiment. I found myself missing basic things like convenient contact syncing and more advanced features such as device backups and products like YouTube, Google Maps, and more. You have to be aware of these trade-offs, and decide for yourself if you can live with them.
We took a closer look at numerous other 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.