On Android, it’s virtually impossible to escape Google’s monitoring. Not only does an Android phone constantly share your whereabouts with Google, but it continues to do so even when inactive, and compared to iOS sends 20 times more data to Google. Because Google’s trackers are so deeply rooted in Android, it does not do much good to switch between the built-in privacy settings either. But what if you could “remove Google” your Android phone?
A French startup called iodé wants to offer you just 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 Google-free version of Android – iodéOS.
An Android experience without Google
iodéOS takes open source Android and removes all traces of Google from it. It’s a well known story, but what sets the iodine apart from similar projects is that it does not leave you with the grueling task of getting the Google-free software to work 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 turn-by-turn navigation and even the Play Store.
iodé’s Android version is equipped with alternatives to all these services right out of the box, so when you start it for the first time, you feel at home – of course minus the Google messages. You can install Android apps as you normally would, using Google services like Maps, it works. However, its centerpiece is a pre-installed tool that automatically blocks shady trackers from spying on you and lets you control every bit of data that leaves and enters your phone.
I’ve been living with an iodeOS-powered Samsung Galaxy S10, lent by iode, for weeks now, and I can barely see the difference between its experience and Google’s Android. So should iodéOS be on your shortlist for your next smartphone? This is how it is to use a “removed Google” Android phone.
An Android phone that you can customize from scratch
iodéOS ‘presence was evident as soon as I started configuring it. Gone were the endless screens where Google asks for permission to collect data for diagnostics, location services, etc. During the iodéOS initialization process, I did not have to log in to anything or give it any data access, and it allowed me to choose which apps I would have on my phone by default.
Since iodéOS phones do not have Google’s essential suite of apps like phone, map, camera and messaging, iodé pre-installs open source alternatives, but you can choose to get rid of them and start over. It feels like a rare breadth of fresh air compared to the Android phones I’ve configured in the past, where each step feels like a privacy mine. Miss unchecking one option and your personal information is exposed.
iodéOS has a clean, Google Pixel-like Android look and a home screen – far from the highly customized OneUI skin that Samsung bundles on its phones. There are no bloatware, no ads, no annoying reminders to update the built-in apps, no sign-ups for custom services, nada.
How to fix iodéOS app?
What is also missing are any standard apps you may be familiar with, such as Youtube, Play Store or Google Maps. This is where the two key pillars to making iodéOS work for everyone and not seem like something a hacker would embark on are useful: the Aurora Store and the microG services.
With the Aurora Store, you can easily access the Play Store’s large catalog of apps on your Google-enabled phone. Plus, iodéOS features the F-Droid, a one-stop-shop for open source apps you wouldn’t even find in the Play Store. Although the process is hassle free and I had no trouble installing all my apps on iodéOS, there are drawbacks to not having Play Store on your Android phone.
Because 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 the Aurora Store with your primary Google Account, from which you’ve probably purchased all of your apps, there’s a chance it’s banned. But if you do not have any paid apps to download, you can log in to the 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 do not feel the absence of official Google components as you would on e.g. Huawei phones and I have never experienced a hiccup in my usual Android workflow.
Stop malicious trackers from spying on you
iodéOS ‘other highlight is the iodé app. It keeps track of who your apps share your data with and automatically blocks a channel if it registers in the list of shady trackers. You can also monitor your apps network traffic and manually add an address to the block list.
I was surprised to learn that most apps ran fine, even after I banned paths to the dozens of servers they actively shared my information with. Instagram, for example, collects data about every little move you make on its app. But when I blocked that tracker from iodine, it did not stop working. When I compared the online package traffic on the iodéOS Galaxy S10 with a regular Google Pixel 3, I found that the latter uploaded almost three times more data, most of which went to Google.
However, I hope that iodé in later updates releases a more accessible interface to its eponymous app. At the moment, it just presents you with lists of trackers that the installed apps are talking to, with no useful information about their reputation and purpose. It’s easy for someone to shut down a tracker they do not understand, and inadvertently end up paralyzing an app.
Better performance and endurance on Android without Google
Since the iodéOS-powered Galaxy S10 is not bound by native bloatware and Samsung’s countless redundant services running in the background, it’s also much smoother to operate and lasts longer on a single charge. The quality of the alternative camera app is not as refined as the one Samsung offers, but it gets the job done. If you want more, you can always jump online and grab GCam, an app that replicates Google’s unique image quality.
Another benefit of open source Android is that it will continue to receive software updates for years, unlike the standard Galaxy S10, which has just got its latest. At the time of testing, iodéOS was on the older Android 11 and the latest security patch. However, you have the option to switch back to OneUI as long as you come to terms with a few technical steps.
The refurbished Galaxy S10 I used cost 399 euros ($ 433) – about as much as a regular Galaxy S10 and iodine-bundled headphones and an adapter in the box. If you are technically minded and you already own one of the compatible phones, you can install iodéOS for free.
For privacy-conscious users, there is no better solution than iodéOS, and unlike other alternatives, it takes care of all the challenges of “removing-google” 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, as it has done in the past. So if you are looking for a new phone and do not want the latest hardware, iodéOS is worth a try.