I tried an “un-Googleized” Android phone for a week

On Android, it’s virtually impossible to escape Google’s surveillance. Not only does an Android phone constantly share your location information with Google, it continues to do so even when idle, and compared to iOS, it transmits 20 times more data to Google. Because Google’s trackers are so deeply embedded in Android, toggling the built-in privacy options doesn’t do you much good either. What if you could “de-google” your Android phone?

A French startup called iodé wants to give you exactly that: a more private, “de-googled” alternative to the Android phones you’re used to. It sells refurbished phones in Europe that run a special version of Android without Google – iodéOS.

An Android experience without Google

iodéOS takes over the open-source Android and erases all traces of it from Google. It’s a familiar story, but what sets iodine apart from similar projects is that it doesn’t leave you with the grueling task of running the software without Google like any other standard Android phone.

Google allows anyone to download and use a barebones version of Android to build their own operating system. However, it lacks several critical modules that power everything from the notifications you receive to step-by-step navigation and even the Play Store.

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The Android version of iodine comes equipped with alternatives for all of these out-of-the-box services so that when you first start it, you’ll feel right at home – minus the Google prompts, of course. You can install Android apps like you usually would, use Google services like Maps, Works. Its centerpiece, however, is a pre-installed tool that automatically blocks shady trackers from spying on you and puts you in control of every bit of data coming in and going out of your phone.

I’ve been living with a Samsung Galaxy S10 powered by iodéOS, on loan from iodé, for weeks now, and I can barely tell the difference between its experience and Google’s Android. So should iodéOS be on your shortlist for your next smartphone? Here’s what it’s like to use an “un-Googleized” Android phone.

An Android phone you can customize from scratch

The presence of iodéOS was felt as soon as I started to set it up. No more endless screens where Google asks permission to collect data for diagnostics, location services, etc. During the iodeOS initialization process, I didn’t have to connect to anything or grant it data access, and it allowed me to choose which apps I wanted on my phone by default. .

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Since iodOS phones don’t have Google’s suite of core apps like Phone, Maps, Camera, and Messages, iodized pre-installs open-source alternatives, but you can choose to get rid of them and start from scratch. It feels like a rare breath of fresh air compared to Android phones I’ve set up in the past, where every step feels like a landmine. If you miss to uncheck an option, your personal information is exposed.

iodéOS features a Google Pixel-specific Android look and home screen, a far cry from Samsung’s highly-customized OneUI skin packs on its phones. There’s no bloatware, no ads, no pesky reminders to update built-in apps, no pop-ups for custom service signups, nada.

How iodéOS solves the problem of the application?

What’s also missing are all the standard apps you might be familiar with, such as Youtube, Play Store or Google Maps. This is where the two key pillars to make iodéOS work for everyone and not seem like something a hacker would indulge in come in handy: the Aurora Store and microG services.

With Aurora Store, you can easily access the Play Store’s vast catalog of apps on your phone without Google. Additionally, iodéOS is equipped with F-Droid, a one-stop-shop for open-source apps that you won’t even find on the Play Store. Although the process was seamless and I had no problem installing all of my apps on iodéOS, there are downsides to not having the Play Store on your Android phone.

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Since Aurora Store is an unofficial Play Store client, it does not have all the licenses to host and sell apps and essentially violates Google’s terms. So, if you sign in to Aurora Store with your main Google account, from which you probably bought all your apps, it might be banned. But if you don’t have paid apps to download, you can log in to Aurora Store with an automatically generated anonymous profile.

MicroG services, on the other hand, allow apps to access all the Google APIs they need to function, such as push notifications. The whole setup works remarkably well to ensure that you don’t experience the absence of official Google components as you would on say Huawei’s phones and I’ve never had a problem in my stream usual android work.

Stop malicious trackers from spying on you

The other strong point of iodéOS is the iodé application. It monitors who your apps share your data with and automatically blocks a channel if it’s detected in its list of shady trackers. You can also monitor your apps’ network traffic and manually add an address to the block list.

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I was surprised to learn that most apps worked well even after disallowing paths to the dozens of servers they were actively sharing my information with. Instagram, for example, collects data on every little move you make on its app. But when I blocked this iodine tracker, it didn’t stop working. When I compared the online packet traffic of the iodeOS Galaxy S10 to a regular Google Pixel 3, I found that the latter downloaded almost three times as much data, most of which was destined for Google.

I hope, however, that in future updates, iodized will release a more accessible interface for its eponymous app. At the moment, it just presents you with lists of trackers that installed apps talk to without any actionable information about their reputation and purpose. It’s easy for someone to shut down a tracker they don’t understand and end up inadvertently crippling an app.

Better performance and endurance on Android without Google

Since the iodeOS-powered Galaxy S10 isn’t bogged down by native bloatware and Samsung’s myriad superfluous services running in the background, it’s also much smoother to use and lasts longer on a single charge. The quality of the alternative camera app isn’t as polished as Samsung’s, but it gets the job done. If you want more, you can always hop on the web and grab GCam, an app that replicates Google’s unparalleled image quality.

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Another benefit of open-source Android is that it will continue to receive software updates for years to come, unlike the standard Galaxy S10, which just got its last. At the time of testing, iodéOS was on older Android 11 and the latest security patch. However, you have the option of switching back to OneUI as long as you accept a few technical steps.

The refurbished Galaxy S10 I was using cost 399 euros ($433) – about as much as a standard Galaxy S10 and Iodized headphones and adapter in the box. If you’re technically savvy and already own one of the compatible phones, you can install iodéOS for free.

For privacy-conscious users, there’s no better solution than iodeOS, and unlike other alternatives, it takes care of all the challenges of “de-Googling” Android out of the box. On an Android phone, even if you manage to cover all your trackers, the software is still owned by an advertising giant, and eventually it will find a way to track you like it has in the past. So if you’re looking for a new phone and don’t want the latest hardware, iodéOS is worth a shot.