Freeing your Mobile: GrapheneOS / Pixel 3a XL review

Posted by on Mar 13 2020, in asylon, Capital Surveillance, google

Until recently, there hasn’t been any variety to mobile phone operating systems; you either in the Apple IOS camp or Android. Android is heavily spying on everything you do on your mobile. A simple bike ride while you are on your mobile my land you in trouble with the law. IOS unfortunately doesn’t fare much better.

There are 2 leading alternatives to free and open mobile phone movement – GrapheneOS and Libre5. Both have different takes on how they define free and open. GrapheneOS is an open version of Android that is not bound to the Google Play store and other Google products. It can be installed in Pixel Phones, with the hopes of more phones coming in the future. It can support many apps on that were on Android, though some much better than others.

Libre5 on the other hand, is a complete rebuild of the mobile phone. Libre wanted to ensure that they entire phone hardware ecosytem was free and open, not just the software. This means coming up with new OS and fewer apps out of the box, but a more complete security package.

I recently bought Pixel 3a XL a mobile and installed the GrapheneOS on it. I have written this from beginners perspective. But here are a couple to consider before trying to switch.

  • Don’t expect bell’s and whistles – this operating system was built with security in mind, not flashiness. It is not a ‘status’ phone.
  • You won’t find major apps available from Google or Facebook. Also other apps like Uber, with its location tracking, will not work. This may be a deal breaker for many people

Here is my simple review with the good and bad, starting with the cons:

GrapheneOS – The Bad

The install. The install is not for the lighthearted, it is likely the main reason it probably will not be accepted by the mainstream. It can be installed from either a windows or linux system. I had set aside an afternoon to install it from a linux ubuntu laptop, since I was unfamiliar with the process.

There are several videos on the install, one of the most popular being the one by the Ethical Developer Group on youtube. There are detailed instructions on the GrapheneOS website, and a user community at Reddit.

However, I kept running into problem. Its the first time I ever install an OS on mobile device, so it ended up taking me about 4 hours before I figured it out. In the end it turned out a made a simple mistake because I had misread part of the installation instructions.

Support – There is no official support, so the primary place to find answers is the Reddit community and internet searches. Your mileage may vary with this, sometimes you’ll friendly tips, and in other cases you’ll get RTFM. I went into this knowing I would be on my own, so this is not a big deal for me. For non-technical people dealing with this type of community can be daunting as a lot of jargon is thrown around.

Camera – The camera, while adequate, is not up to spec with other OS’s. I imagine this is a pretty low priority for GrapheneOS. The Pixel 3a XL actually has an excellent camera, but unfortunately the software doesn’t make full use of the hardware.

Graphene OS – The Good

The look and feel – While there is nothing super exciting about GrapheneOS right out of the box, it is very familiar. This is a good thing: if you already know Android, then you can get to customising this immediately. Things just seem to work. I popped in my SIM card, viola, it worked.

Installing Apps – There is no Google play store. This may seem like a bad thing, but once you get used it, its very easy. Remember running .exe files on Windows? Installing apps is a lot like that, via APK files (android package kit). In this sense, there is no gate keeper, you can pretty much install anything if you find its APK file.

That however installing everything is two-edged sword. It likely that some apps will not work at all (particularly those reliant on the Google Play store). Others may do your computer harm. I would recommend install the app F-Droid first. This is ‘store front’ app that contains only free and open software, these will likely work best on your GrapheneOS.

In short you have freedom to install anything you want, but you have to be careful with that freedom. I think this is a very good thing.

Peace of mind This may seem like a strange benefit from a mobile device. Ultimately, if I want personal mobile device, I want to keep it my data on it personal. The security features are solid, and I know I can control the apps on my phone.

In addition, there is a personal sense of satisfaction that I installed the operating system myself. I know what is there on my phone.

Finally, an interesting comment from a parent: He liked the idea of having mobile phone in which Facebook was not available, and would not work properly if they tried to install it on their mobile device.

GrapheneOS Verdict

I fully recommend GrapheneOS for on the Pixel 3a XL.

I really like this phone, and after a few days it has already become my main phone. It’s not a perfect transition, I will still use my other phone for its camera as well as Uber or Lyft (if in a pinch). For me its not that big of a deal, for others it might be a deal breaker.

I don’t imagine that GrapheneOS will have a big following outside the tech community in New Zealand, however it is my hope that others discover that there is more than just Google Android and IOS. The installation is probably a barrier for many: in the past you could put a disk (or usb drive) and install a new system. Unfortunately, mobile Operating Systems are not that streamlined yet.

My hope is that others here in New Zealand will give it a ‘hoon’ and in the future, perhaps even contribute to the GrapheneOS project.