It was a little over a month ago when I installed LineageOS onto my Android phone (a OnePlus 7 Pro). I did not install Google apps and have been sticking to open-source alternatives. I can say that there have been no compromises that I would call deal-breakers. In fact, I can honestly say that I like it more in some regards.
A Little Backstory of My Experience with Android
If you just want the bits about LineageOS, feel free to skip to the next section. The TL;DR is that I’ve been on Android since the beginning, used to be into custom ROMs but stopped using them once I felt Android really matured, and now I’m using LineageOS because Google is evil.
My first Android device was a MyTouch 3G Fender Edition. As far as I can remember, it was like the second Android device after the Motorola G1. It was love at first sight as I’ve had nothing but Android phones since then. I ran custom ROMs and kernels on every device I owned for the first several years of owning Android devices. In fact, I used to scour the XDA forums before buying a phone to make sure there was a root exploit and some custom development already happening on that device. Back in those days, I felt like I had to run custom ROMs and kernels so I could get the features I wanted, get “dark mode”, overclock to get better performance, and undervolt to get better battery life. It became a sort of addiction. I even wrote for a major Android news site for a while (but for the sake of privacy, I won’t call out which one).
At some point a few years later, Android really matured. The list of features grew, “dark mode” finally became a stock option, and the hardware became very powerful. I stopped buying a new phone every year because phones weren’t improving at the same rate as before. Now you can buy just about any decent Android phone and still be happy with it 2 years later. Between this maturing of the platform and the fact that I became busier with my career and parenthood, I stopped modding phones. I completely detached myself from reading about upcoming phones and just ran stock Android on everything. The one feature I missed at first was being able to do backups with Titanium Backup then restore my new device and have it set up basically the same right from the start. Google even managed to vastly improve their own backup functionality enough to make that seem less desirable. I was not only content with Android, but I no longer cared much about phones and found that I began using them more and more as just a communication device and less as a time killer or source of entertainment.
During the past several years, Google also changed quite a bit. I used to feel like I didn’t care what data Google was collecting about me because they provided me with so much convenience and functionality. That started to change shortly after the Google Feed was introduced. At first, I thought the feed was a great replacement for my RSS aggregators. I could get my news from an app that was more or less built into the OS and it would learn what I was interested in reading. As society became more and more hateful to those who didn’t agree with the hive mind, I noticed that my Google Feed was slowly becoming filled with more content in which I had no interest. It occurred to me one day that my feed was trying to influence how I felt about certain topics instead of just giving me the news I had once trained it to deliver.
Since then, Google has continued down a dark path. They were caught manipulating search results to change public opinion. There have been internal leaks that outline how Google is trying to influence thought. They’ve even taken part in censorship and been accused of election meddling. Look, I don��t care where you align yourself politically, spiritually, etc. I think a huge part of the problems we face as a society can be attributed to the fact that people make things like politics and religion such a huge part of their identity. That said, I also believe that information should be open, uncensored, and available to all. Hearing arguments from the opposing side leads to growth and better understanding. I take a serious issue with a company that has so much power and influence who tries to snuff out the voices of the opposition. Let’s be honest here, they don’t actually care about any of us or even agree with what they say. They are merely going down the path they believe leads to the biggest gains, both financially and regarding the power they have over society. Google these days is just flat-out evil!
The easiest way for getting away from Google was to install LineageOS. There are other privacy-focused options out there, but not for my OnePlus 7 Pro as they all tend to focus on Pixel devices. I had used LineageOS long ago, but just as a custom ROM and I always installed GApps (Google apps) so I could use Google’s services. Not this time!
What is LineageOS?
Back in 2008, a guy by the name of Stef Kondik discovered an exploit in the Android operating system to attain root access. With this level of access, Kondik copied the stock version of Android from his device, modified it, and was then able to reinstall it on his device. After Kondik shared his methods with the other Android enthusiasts at the XDA forums, many others began tinkering and working on their own version of modified Android. The Android modding scene was born! Kondik’s name on the XDA forum was Cyanogen, and once his version of the modified Android OS became known as “Cyanogenmod” which quickly grew to become the most popular ROM in the modding community.
It wasn’t long before Cyanogenmod exploded in popularity, having many other developers offering to port the ROM to other devices. I used Cyanogenmod on several devices over the years because it offered the level of customization that I wanted on my devices. You could change every little detail, from whether the clock at the top was on the right, left, or center to what your boot animation looked like. The possibilities for customization were endless.
After several years of popularity and growth, Cyanogen, Inc. was formed as a venture-funded endeavor to try to commercialize the project. The idea was to offer the customized version of Android to phone manufacturers in hopes that they would install Cyanogenmod on their devices from the factory. At one point, T-Mobile tweeted “CM7 is great!”. Microsoft even invested in the project.
It wasn’t all sunny skies for Kondik and Cyanogen, Inc. though. Since Cyanogenmod was initially open-source with lots of contributions from other developers, there was concern over compensation now that the project was commercial. Cyanogen, Inc. changed the licensing and closed the source code. Failing to gain serious traction as a commercial alternative to the stock Android experience, Cyanogen, Inc. eventually failed.
Around the same time that Cyanogen, Inc. was formed, parts of the Cyanogenmod team forked the project and re-branded it to be known as LineageOS. This allowed development to continue on the original source code and allowed the project to remain free and open-source software. Since then, the contributors to the LineageOS project have continued to provide a custom Android experience to those willing to unlock the bootloader on their phone and install the ROM themselves. LineageOS is still an active project with an incredible list of officially supported devices. Even if your device isn’t officially supported, there are developers on the XDA forums porting the ROM to work on other devices, so there is a good chance that you can install the custom version of Android regardless of which device you own.
LineageOS is still built on the Android open-source project which is known as AOSP to enthusiasts. It provides an Android experience that feels close to the stock experience, but with several customization options. One of the biggest differences with LineageOS is that it cannot legally have the Google services installed by default since that code is not open-source. This can easily be rectified by installing what is known as a “GApps” package through your device’s recovery mode. If you choose to do this, you get an Android experience that is much closer to what we all know and love where the Google Play Store, Google Feed, Google apps, and more are present. If you install the GApps into LineageOS, you basically just end up with a custom ROM experience.
Why Use LineageOS?
Those of us that wear a tinfoil hat use LineageOS without the Google apps. Doing this gives you an Android experience similar to what you are used to, but with none of Google’s tracking and invasion of privacy. Going this route can prove a little daunting at first because you will find yourself in a situation where you are looking for good substitutions for the apps you are accustomed to using daily. I can tell that, after a month of using LineageOS with no Google apps or services that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though!
Using an open-source derivative of Android coupled with a new regard for your own privacy, you essentially cut the digital leash that has been placed on us all by the Apple and Google oligopoly. These companies can no longer track your movement, monitor your browsing, read your email, etc. It also places you in a position of greater power since using alternative app stores means you can use any application you wish, regardless of whether or not they are banned from the official app stores.
What Are Some Drawbacks to Using LineageOS?
I will not pretend as if things are all sunshine and rainbows when you decide to use LineageOS as your daily driver. I mentioned that you have to create some new habits regarding obtaining apps, but it goes a bit further than that.
I’ll go ahead and say that if you have any reason that you must have Google apps and/or services on your device, then this isn’t the way to go. An example of this would be if you answer work emails on your phone and your company uses Gmail. You could always create an app password from a PC to allow a third-party email client to access your Gmail, but the technical barrier to entry will be too high for some. Many tech workers and enthusiasts would tell you that isn’t hard to do, but I wouldn’t tell my 62-year-old father who struggles a good bit with technology that he could easily figure it out on his own. It will all depend on your level of understanding of technology.
If you simply can’t live without Google Maps, Google Calendar, Google Assistant, etc then you’re also out of luck. Sure, there are alternatives to some of these apps. You can get your Google Calendar to sync with a third-party client, but again we have that technical barrier that will be too much for some folks to want to go down that road.
Also, you have to consider that your Android device backs up some of your data automatically. Now you will be on your own to find a solution to this. Android also syncs your contacts to the cloud so you never lose them. Again, if you aren’t using any of Google’s services, then you have to find your own solution to this problem.
To put it simply, if you are too dependent on Google or just aren’t willing to get your hands a little dirty to find replacements and alternatives, then using a custom ROM without Google apps might not be for you.
On a somewhat related note, I have noticed that the quality of the photos I have taken since installing LineageOS has decreased a bit. It makes sense because I’m no longer using the manufacturer-created kernel to get the most of the camera hardware. Still, for my usage, the camera photo quality is good enough. I have been looking into other kernels for my device to see if this is something I can fix, but this might not even really be an issue for your device.
Some Tips to Get Started with LineageOS, or Any Other Privacy-Oriented Android Derivative
In previous articles, I mentioned the alternate places to get apps for Android and even did a full article on F-Droid, the free and open-source app store. I also use Aurora Store which can be downloaded from F-Droid to get apps from the Play Store without using Google services. It uses its own Google account to allow you to download apps from the Play Store without letting Google invade your device, and I find this useful for getting things like my crypto app, Deezer, Icedrive, etc, and keeping them updated. Also, be sure to check out my article on my favorite apps from F-Droid to learn about some stellar apps to cover most of your needs.
Once you have a way of acquiring apps, you’ll probably want to tackle the issue of syncing contacts, tasks, and calendars. The best solution I found was to pay for EteSync which is a service that handles that exact thing for you. There are a handful of open-source calendar and tasks apps that allow you to use EteSync for syncing to the cloud so you can access these things elsewhere. I was also able to export my Google contact to a CSV file and import them into EteSync making it simple to sync them with my phone app as well. EteSync costs between $2 and $4 a month depending on which plan you choose, but the ease of use and comfort I take in knowing that I could throw my phone into a lake and not lose my contacts, calendars, and tasks is well worth the price! There are some DAV solutions out there as well that you can use for free if that is more your speed.
Using the apps and services mentioned above, you will already be well on your way to using your phone or tablet much in the same way you have grown used to. These steps take care of the need for Google services and the Play Store. There are still other things to resolve if you want to de-Google your life further and I’ll touch base on some of my solutions to those problems.
If you use Google Photos and Drive to backup photos and data, you’ll be wanting a good replacement for those things that aren’t owned by Google. I chose Icedrive after doing a few free trials and doing some reading. On my phone, it allows me to specify which folders to back up to the cloud and gives me access to all of my other cloud-hosted files through the app much like Drive and Photos does. There are plenty of other options out there as well you can explore; Sync.com, iDrive, SpiderOak, pCloud, and MEGA just to name a few.
If you are addicted to streaming videos like so many are, you might be scared off by the thought of not having YouTube on your device. Fear not, because there are ways around this! First, you can always just use YouTube in a browser just like you do on a computer. It isn’t as feature-rich, but it does the job. You can also use NewPipe which can be obtained from F-Droid to view YouTube videos through a clean interface having no traces of Google on your device. Lastly, you can take the plunge and explore other video streaming platforms such as Odysee, Bitchute, and Rumble and do away with YouTube altogether. My approach to using these YouTube alternatives is to just install a browser shortcut on your device and put it into a folder. Then you get roughly the same experience as having an app installed for each of them without needing an app since, the last time I checked, these platforms don’t yet have good mobile apps.
The biggest hurdle for me that caused hesitation before I finally took the plunge into using a Google-free LineageOS experience was Android Auto. I’ve used Android Auto for years and, for the longest time, I couldn’t imagine how I would live without it. Once I really thought about it, I realized that my main usage of Android Auto was to stream music, use Google Maps, and answer phone calls. Once I distilled it down to those basic needs, I began thinking about how I would accomplish the same things. Turns out, it wasn’t even difficult! For music streaming, I just use Bluetooth streaming instead and the media controls on the steering wheel in my truck work just the same as before. The only difference now is that I have to launch a playlist from my phone first, but it resumes play every time I get back behind the wheel so it isn’t an inconvenience unless I want to switch playlists. Then I got a phone mount that hooks into an air vent which allows me to use OsmAnd as my Maps replacement. I’ve used it a few times and it works quite well. This also makes it easier to change playlists on Deezer too. Once I realized phone calls would be routed through Bluetooth and work much the same as they did using Android Auto, I was set! I can honestly say that I don’t miss Android Auto like I feared I would.
I have taken all of my other needs using apps. I try to get everything I need from F-Droid and when that just isn’t possible, I go to Aurora Store and look for something that doesn’t need excessive permissions and doesn’t have too many trackers posted in the Aurora Store listing. I’ve found that my battery life is just as good, if not better than before I installed LineageOS. My connectivity to cellular services, wifi, and Bluetooth have all been on par. I can honestly say that I don’t see myself ever using a stock version of Android ever again!
How to Give LineageOS a Try
To be honest, I can’t tell you the steps involved in installing LineageOS onto your device. Every phone is going to have a different set of instructions because they are made using different hardware. You do have to unlock your bootloader and erase your storage so there is always a risk of bricking your device. That said, some wonderful folks in the world have documented these steps for hundreds, if not thousands of devices to help you out! Also, I’ve installed custom ROMs probably well over 100 times and never once bricked a device. Just find good instructions and follow them closely.
You can view the list of devices officially supported by LineageOS at https://download.lineageos.org/. Once you find your device and click on the link for it, you will be taken to a screen where you can download LineageOS. This page will also have a link to take you to the official instructions for installing it onto your phone or tablet. You will need to download this from a computer as one will be needed to follow the steps to unlock your bootloader and install the operating system. DO NOT SKIP ANY STEPS!
If your device isn’t officially supported, I recommend searching for it on the XDA forums as there is a high likelihood that some awesome developer or enthusiast has ported to your device. You can use the search field on the navbar or even search something like “OnePlus 7 Pro XDA” from your search engine of choice to find the page. You’ll want to find a forum page with your device model in the title followed by something like “ROMS, Kernels, Recoveries, & Other Development”. This will be where developers post custom ROMS and it can overwhelm, but if LineageOS is what you are looking for, then that is all you need to pay attention to. Admittedly, if you end up here, your directions might not be as thorough as they would be if you found them on LineageOS’ official site. It is up to you to read through everything and ultimately decide if you are willing to take the risk in installing LineageOS this way.
Late this summer, F(x)Tec is releasing their Pro1 X which will be supported by LineageOS, as well as other privacy-focused mobile operating systems, right from the start. The specs on these phones look great and they even come with a hardware keyboard! I’m pre-ordering one very soon, as this seems like the perfect phone for me!
Is the Extra Privacy Privacy Worth the Risk?
You have to decide if you are comfortable modifying your phone in this way to install LineageOS. I will not pretend like just anyone should go down this road, but it isn’t really that hard to install on most devices. If your tech skills are, say, average or slightly above, then you will probably not have any problems. If you do, the internet is your friend and you can probably find a forum post or something with the steps to fix your situation. I will go ahead and say it, if you modify your device, you accept full responsibility for what may come from it. I am not responsible for any damages if things go sideways!
That said, it is my opinion that taking the risk was worth it. I appreciate the fact that Google’s direct line to my actions and whereabouts has been severed. Also, I find myself more excited about exploring the open-source software for Android devices than I have been in years and I actively contribute to some open-source projects. Some might argue that there are better Android replacements out there for privacy, but LineageOS supports the most amount of devices meaning you're more likely to have luck going that route.