/e/OS – a long term, end user review

It’s probably been over a year since I first started looking into degoogling – the process of gradually replacing different services made by big tech companies, such as Google and Microsoft, with privacy-respecting, preferable free, and ethically driven alternatives. It began with swapping out Google Calendar and Outlook with the Proton alternatives and other minor steps, or swapping out Google Drive with Nextcloud (at first hosted by Stuxhost). But one of the bigger steps was changing to a custom, de-googled android rom called /e/OS.

As I’m writing this, it’s been about 10 months since I made the jump. In this blog post, I’m gonna tell you more about the process of moving over, my first impressions with /e/OS, and my long-term review of it.

Note: When mentioning free software, I mean free as in freedom. For free as in zero cost, I’ll refer to it as “zero cost” or “free of charge”. See: What is Free Software?

Why degoogle?

To understand why I wanted to move to /e/OS, one must first understand why I wanted (and want) to degoogle in the first place.

For some time now, big tech companies like Google, Facebook (or Meta), and Microsoft has had monopoly-like control over several parts of the internet. The power that comes with this has been used for some good, such as the development of the Go programming language, but it’s also being abused in quite a few alarming ways.

Facebook has among other things meddled in democratic elections, and actively promoted violence in Myanmar. They’ve also done psychological experiments on their users by adding more anger in people feeds without their consent – essentially speaking promoting hate to see if it can generate them more money, and are often under fire for different violations of privacy, such as forcing behavioral advertising on Facebook and Instagram.

Google is possibly one of the worst actors here. As Digital Content Next has made very clear in their detailed report, a standard Android phone transmits your location information to Google 340 times a day (14 times per hour), and even collects data with internet turned off. They also try to pinpoint your position by pinging cell towers should you disable your GPS service.

I’ve talked about why I find such predatory practices bad several times, especially over at Mastodon, but a brief summary I once gave in a Discord-server goes like this:

Privacy wouldn’t necessarily be important had the digital world been completely isolated. The sad thing is that it now isn’t. In 2014 we saw mass cyber attacks by Russia in their invasion of Ukraine, and we have since then also seen tons of examples of how digital misinformation is used to make countries crumble (2016 election). We now know, better than ever, that the “cyberworld” and the 3D world we live in are very closely tied, and that more and more of us spend more and more time in the cyberworld.

With only the metadata that you leave behind (where a photo was taken, from where, when and to whom a message was sent, the date and time of your posts, when you play games, which website you visit etc.) you can already build a pretty good profile of your intimate relationships and of you as a person. Someone could see who I send messages to most often and when and with that ID my (now ex) girlfriend and the rest of my family. With my browser metadata people would also discover that I really enjoy certain games, and discover what videos and even porn I prefer – I like to keep that stuff private.

Every single sign of affection I give to my girlfriend, every single emotion I feel around my family, every time I feel alone and want to watch a certain show, every time I get excited over a commit on GitHub or whatever it is- should it be tracked, it will stop being a wholesome, innocent display of emotion and humanity, and instead become raw material for a mass surveillance machine which, more often than not, is used to do harm.

Have you ever heard of someone surveilling an entire country in order to do good? I can’t speak for anyone other than myself, but I don’t want to live in or help build a world where everything about me is logged and where I can’t tell my girlfriend I love her without some company tracking it and using it against me in the 3D world. And I hope that you don’t either.

…and this is where /e/OS comes into the picture.

What is /e/OS?

/e/OS is a free, no-cost fork of LineageOS which takes an extra step in removing Google products and frameworks. They’ve replaced all Google apps with their own forks of different kinds of free software, use microG instead of Google Play Services, and has removed all reliance on Google services such as Google DNS. All of this while attempting to keep all stock Android functionality. /e/OS also swaps out the launcher with their own one called BlissLauncher (not available on F-droid), but more about this later.

/e/OS also comes with it’s own Advanced Privacy settings, which allow you to block all trackers on your system, cover up your IP address, and spoof your location without installing third party software. This is super handy, as it allows you to keep big tech out of your phone even if you have to use Google apps or apps that use Google services (such as analytics).

Perhaps one of the neatest selling points for /e/OS is how it’s easy to install with little tech knowledge. With the help of their Easy Installer you’ll get a semi-automated and guided install that anyone can do. It doesn’t get rid of all the scary screens such as when you’re unlocking your boot loader, but it still makes the process easier. If this is too hard, you can also buy a phone with /e/OS preinstalled from Murena.

The /e/OS developers claim that this makes it possible for you to use all your favourite apps (proprietary or not) without loosing any major function. From my experience, this is mostly true. However, there are drawbacks.

My experience daily driving /e/OS

Note: I’ve only ever used /e/OS on a Fairphone 4. This is my experience on this exact device. There’s no guarantee that you’ll have the same experience on ie. a OnePlus Nord.

Lets start with the positive.

There has never been a single minute since I installed /e/OS on my Fairphone 4 in January that I’ve felt that this system is unusable or unfit for daily use. I’ve been frustrated over stuff (as one get’s with a phone) but I’ve never thought “this isn’t ready” or “I should just go back to stock android”.

I’ve been able to use almost all the apps that I used back on stock, and there are very few apps which have lost functionality. The only apps I can remember that just broke are iReal Pro, Disney Plus, and Pokemon Go. Everything else, be it my banking, school stuff, email, streaming services (not Disney), worked out of the box. In some cases, /e/OS actually made it better since the apps weren’t able to load in ads via Google services.

Some apps are also somewhat broken. In my case, Snapchat doesn’t want to record any sound when I record a video, but still has access to my microphone and sends voice messages without fault. There’re probably more examples, but none that I’ve found which aren’t Norway-specific.

I’ve also found the Advanced Privacy settings to be fantastic, especially after they made it into three separate toggleable switches so you can customize you settings easily, instead of having a single “all or nothing”-switch.

Screenshot of Advanced Privacy settings showing how 0 trackers have profiled me the last 24 hours, and how over 270 trackers are blocked system wide.
Screenshot from Advanced Privacy showing how effective the tracker-blocker is – at least according to itself

I’ve also had zero issues with any of the hardware on my phone. Wifi, bluetooth, calling, everything works completely out of the box with absolutely no fuzz. Wifi hotspot also works flawlessy, and my GPS is super precise. All of this feels just as good as on stock android. Same goes for battery life.

But even though /e/OS deserves quite a lot of praise, it also has it’s drawbacks. The one that has caused me the most pain is without a doubt their custom launcher, BlissLauncher.

Ignorance is bliss? Bliss is ignorance?

I’ve had to deal with a lot of crappy software in life. Be it windows-native programs that don’t wanna run through Wine, buggy programs that crash whenever you try to do normal day-to-day stuff, the insane bloatware that is commonly referred to as “Snapchat” and “Facebook”, or just Avid fucking Sibelius (Tantacrul has a good video on it, piped-link) in composition class – I know shitty software when I see it, and BlissLauncher is definitely it.

At a glance it doesn’t look too bad – it looks like your average clone of the iOS interface, which even though I personally dislike, I understand why people like.

Screenshot from Fairphone

It’s kind of uncanny how much it resembles iOS while clearly not being iOS. You can even see it on the app icons, such as Maps and Music. In fact, Music has the same app icon as the iOS variant, just that the colors on the background and foreground has been swapped.

However, what BlissLauncher gives in looks, it far from keeps in function. Whenever I did a version upgrade of /e/OS, all my apps got rearranged with the bottom row being moved over to the next page. Not a game breaker, but sure as hell a pain in the ass, especially considering how hard moving apps around is in BlissLauncher:

Not to mention that you can’t even rearrange apps in folders (at least not as of September before I changed launcher)

BlissLauncher has also had a horrible track record when it comes to crashing out of the blue, and becoming visually unappealing – apps get weird inward shadows, and sometimes it looks like the same app has two icons inside of one. It’s hard to explain using words, and sadly I do not have any screenshots of this.

Eventually, I gave up on BlissLauncher and installed a fork of OLauncher instead. This both made my phone more minimal and streamlined, and fixed all of my issues with BlissLauncher. There is not a shred of doubt in my mind that BlissLauncher is the biggest pain point I’ve had to deal with when it comes to /e/OS, or just mobile software generally.

Sadly, it doesn’t stop there.

The preinstalled apps that you can’t get rid of.

In order to replace all of the preinstalled Google apps and other proprietary apps that comes when you purchase a “normal” android phone. This way, you’d get a useable, mostly free operative system right out of the install. This is super great, and really beneficial! However, a lot of the apps are subpar, and you’re not able to uninstall them.

The buggiest app of them all, is undoubtedly the Murena App Lounge. The App Lounge is a fork of Aurora Store which attempts to combine the F-droid and Play Store repositories. If this is done correctly, it will expose more people to more free software instead of their proprietary counterparts. The only issue is, it fails miserably.

Basic features such as not auto-updating while on cellular data don’t work properly (I ran out last month due to auto-updates that I specifically set to only on unmetered wifi), and the app often gets stuck during an update or install. The only way to fix the breakage is to go into your system settings, and delete all User data and Cache.

In other words, applying any custom settings to App Longue becomes futile as it’s going to break one day and require you to specifically delete all of those settings. I understand what /e/OS wants to achieve with the App Longue, but as of right now it doesn’t work. I’ve defaulted to installing stuff from the Aurora Store instead – after seeing if there’s an option available on F-droid that is.

I’m honestly baffled by how /e/OS, a custom ROM which is “fueled by open source” doesn’t allow you to remove bloatware that you yourself don’t want there. No, I do not want to use your browser, I want to use Firefox Focus instead. This reminds me of a certain other operative system for PCs that doesn’t allow you to remove a browser. Real shame that I can’t remember it’s name.

Some of their apps are also just straight up unuseable without online accounts, such as the Notes-app. I cannot for the life of me figure out why the hell I need to register for a Murena account in order to take notes locally on my phone, and even less so why I shouldn’t be allowed to uninstall it – hell, at least let me disable it!

What’s even worse is that the god forsaken Bliss launcher doesn’t even have an app drawer so that I can’t even hide them, so they just have to take up space on your home screen! The absolute best thing you can do that doesn’t require rooting your phone is to move it all into a folder (oh, good luck btw, moving apps are tedious if you forgot about that) and have it take up one space in the grid.

Seriously. With so much talk about how YOU should own your hardware and software instead of big tech, I’d at least expect /e/OS to let me uninstall apps that I don’t want. We’re trying to escape big tech, not become it.

Final verdict

So, will I keep using /e/OS, and do I recommend others to use it? The short answer here is yesn’t.

I will keep using /e/OS for the time being, but that is only because GrapheneOS doesn’t support the Fairphone 4, which I intend to keep until it dies. My biggest /e/OS pain point dissapeared when I installed OLauncher, but stuff like not being able to control what software I want to have installed pains me. /e/OS is great, and in many ways makes up for a lot of it’s pain points if you value privacy, but I want to test out the alternatives right now.

If you’ve read all the way to the bottom of this article, I wholeheartedly recommend that you check out the project, and maybe donate if you can afford it – after all, the project won’t improve without funding. If you’re interested in tech and don’t want Google up your ass 24/7, it’s worth giving this a shot. If you’re more after features, this might not be it for you though.

/e/OS isn’t exactly made for those with zero knowledge of tech, but you don’t have to be a tech savvy person to use it. I’m pretty sure my grandparents could manage to use it as their daily driver, at least until App Lounge breaks when they want to install something. However, they would still be able to use it, and so should you.

Update 28.10:

As of today, I’m rolling my phone back to stock android. From my mastodon account:

I’m rolling back my Fairphone to stock after almost 11 months on /e/OS. While the project is amazing, and more than just useable as a daily driver, the bugs which come from the nature of the project are starting to irritate me a bit too much.

Be it recording sound not working, Spotify randomly pausing, or microG not passing different security checks, it’s all become too inconvenient for my current situation.

I still stand by everything I wrote in my review of it.

update: went with lineage

https://mstdn.social/@runarcn/111311128842607524

It’s sad to see how Android which is originally a free project has essentially become proprietary due to Google introducing proprietary libraries. I see this as a lesson in why we should refuse to use completely nonfree libraries in our projects, as they remove the developers control and the users freedom to use something else in the future.

https://mstdn.social/@runarcn/111311145278200123


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