Everything You Need to Know
Over the past few years, I made a big change to the way I use my phone. I decided to use Android without Google.
Can I use Android without a Google account? As it turns out, giving up Google is possible, and the experience isn’t nearly as bad as you might think.
This is a look at what I’m still able to do on Android without relying on any of Google’s services, including Google Play Services, and what I have had to give up.
First, Why Use Android Without Google?
Only a particular set of people are willing to give up access to the Play Store and Google’s suite of apps. That said, you may be one of them. There are many reasons why you might want to use a Google-free Android phone; here are some of the big ones.
1. Google Has Gotten Out of Hand
When I first started using Google, it was to perform searches. Then it became a way to manage mail, which then turned into a place for instant messaging. Later, Google became a way to look at maps, which morphed into a GPS replacement steering me around town. Still further, it became a place for writing documents and storing files.
Google became a way to browse the web and sync every page I visited. Then it turned into a way to download and manage apps, track Android devices, and wipe them remotely. Search on Android became Google Now, which then became Google Assistant, a digital assistant that uses everything Google knows about us based on our activity.
I’m not inherently against sharing any of this information with a company, but to share it all with one company is a bit much. This leads us to the next reason.
2. You Want to Increase Your Privacy
Google Play Services runs in the background on every Android device that ships with the Play Store. This helps Google perform a number of tasks, from installing apps remotely to pulling up your location. These services also give third-party apps access to some of that functionality.
Opting to use Android without signing into a Google account reduces some of the information you’re giving away. That said, it won’t suddenly turn your device into a ghost. The act of pinging and connecting to cell towers makes mobile phones inherently trackable. But making this change reduces some of the information that you generate and share.
3. You Like Open Source
Android is an open source operating system, but most of the software that we use on our phones isn’t. If you’ve ever wanted to use only the open source bits, the easiest way is to replace your phone’s default firmware with a custom ROM.
This way, you know you’re getting the parts Google contributes to the Android Open Source Project. Sure, there are some proprietary bits that get your phone’s radios and sensors to work, but that’s the same compromise many of us make when we install Linux on our PCs.
Since it’s really hard to know which apps in the Play Store are open source, avoiding it entirely decreases your likelihood of installing something closed-source. You will still need to get apps from somewhere, but we’ll come back to that.
Why Shouldn’t You Go Google-Free?
You’re curious about using a non-Google Android phone. But hold on. Here are some reasons why you might want to exercise restraint.
1. You May Have to Give Up A Lot of Apps
You might not be able to continue using much of what you rely on right now. Saying goodbye to Google means losing out on the many Android apps that Google makes.
If you choose to go a step further, and use only open source software, like I did, this is even more drastic. Say goodbye to social networks, music streaming services, popular games, most navigation tools, cloud storage providers, video streaming sites, and many productivity tools.
There are alternatives to some of these apps available, but if you want to go 100% open source, you’re going to miss out on quite a bit.
2. Slower Updates
Alternative app stores may provide access to a good number of apps you would find on Google Play, but updates don’t roll out as quickly. Some of these sources fall weeks or months behind.
This isn’t solely a matter of losing out on the latest features either.
3. Security Risks
Slow updates can leave you open to known vulnerabilities. But that’s not the primary security risk you open yourself up to. The most common way to compromise a device is to install malicious software, typically unsuspectingly. Using an alternative app store means allowing your device to install software outside of the Play Store, opening yourself up to these kind of attacks.
Unfortunately, this is a trade-off you have to consider for yourself. Do you rely on the added security that comes from only installing software from the Play Store (which, for what it’s worth, can occasionally allow a piece of sketchy software slip by)? Or do you get your apps from elsewhere and run the risk of getting your hands on something that hasn’t been vetted?
What Apps Can You Use Out of the Box?
Even without installing a single app, our smartphones are already capable of doing a great deal. You can place calls, send text messages, take photos, maintain a calendar, listen to music, solve math problems, take notes, and browse the web without looking for additional software.
This is already more than what feature phones can do, and let’s be real, millions of people are still carrying one of those around without it having a negative effect on their lives. You can turn your Android phone into an advanced dumbphone and stop there.
How functional your phone will be out of the box depends on the manufacturer. LG, HTC, and Samsung devices come with a number of pre-installed apps you’ll only find on each company’s devices. These apps will continue to work without syncing your phone to a Google account.
On a Pixel device, the situation is a bit more challenging, since these devices come loaded with Google software. Even if you remove all the apps that require a Google account to function, you will still lose some features in the apps that remain.
For example, the dialer app still works fine, but it doesn’t automatically pull down contacts, and you can only pull up numbers that are saved to your device. The camera app take photos, but it doesn’t offer to automatically back them up to Google Photos. Play Music only plays files stored locally.
Frankly, this situation didn’t bother me. Despite the wide availability of music streaming services, I still buy albums and store my music locally. Even with access to cloud services, I back up much of my data to hard drives. When given the choice to sync my browsing history and tabs, I decline.
These are all habits I formed due to limited data plans, spotty coverage, inconsistent access to a reliable internet connection, and discomfort at the thought of trusting companies with such personal data. I say this to stress that there may be other benefits you lose by giving up Google that just didn’t occur to me, due to the way I use my phone.
That said, I needed more apps than this to continue doing what I expected from a smartphone.
How Do You Get More Apps Without Google?
There are a number of alternative app stores for Android, but I’m only going to go over a couple. Which one you prefer will vary depending on why you’re choosing to use Android without a Google account.
I didn’t just opt to use a smartphone without Google. I also wanted to exclusively use open source software. Because of this, I chose to install F-Droid, an app store of sorts that only contains free and open source software. Linux users may find that it feels more like a software repository. The service keeps logs of new apps and lets you revert to older releases if necessary.
F-Droid contains over a thousand apps, and I find I can get by using just its selection. That said, I don’t play many games on my phone, nor do I use it to browse social networks. Folks who do won’t find what they’re looking for here.
Download: F-Droid (Free)
The Amazon Appstore has been around since 2011 and now contains over 300,000 apps. If you don’t trust Google but still want your software distributed by another well-known name, Amazon may be the way to go. This is the default app store on Amazon Fire tablets, and its collection is large enough to keep folks who buy those devices satisfied.
The Appstore lacks access to Google software, but you shouldn’t have much trouble finding alternatives. You will also find apps from the major social networks. But for the privacy-conscious, I don’t see how trading Google for Amazon is at all an improvement.
We’ve compared the Amazon Appstore to Google Play if you’d like a deeper breakdown.
Download: Amazon Appstore (Free)
Other Google Play Alternatives
In addition to F-Droid and the Amazon Appstore, there are a few other Google Play alternatives. You might also consider checking the LG app store or Samsung’s app store if you own one of their devices.
Download Apps Directly From Your Browser
Though getting your software from an app store is the recommended model, you also have the option to download apps directly from websites. This is risky, so be careful which websites you trust. Some notable options include CNET and APK Mirror.
The downside to this approach is that you will not get automatic updates, which is a security vulnerability. I would suggest considering this as a last-ditch option for those must-have apps that you can’t find outside of the Play Store.
Replacing Must-Have Android Features
Yes, a smartphone is pretty smart just the way it is, but there are some features that many of us aren’t willing to give up. What you put into this category will vary, but these are the categories where I had to go searching for good options.
Search and Web Browsing
I don’t use my phone to browse the web all that much. When I do open a web browser, it’s usually to search for something. So I was very happy to find that DuckDuckGo, the search engine that doesn’t track you, has an Android app that combines the two experiences into one.
You can perform searches and open the resulting page all in the same place. You can also drop a widget at the top of your homescreen where you would usually see Google.
If half of your searches are on Wikipedia, you may want to install its dedicated Android app. That route is much faster than going through a browser.
Google Maps may work without an account, but I had already cut down on my usage even before giving up the Play Store. Instead I tried options like Sygic and Nokia Here. These apps are still available in places outside of the Play Store.
Since I decided to go the open source route, I eventually settled on OsmAnd. It’s not nearly as flashy as other navigation apps, but with the option to download free maps of most of the world, it does have its advantages. I recommend pairing OSMAnd with an address-locating app like Acastus, because the app is pretty bad at recognizing street addresses on its own.
Podcasts are a major form of entertainment for me. My previous favorite podcast app was BeyondPod, but now I’ve started using AntennaPod.
There are only a couple other options available in F-Droid, but if you aren’t working with that limitation, you shouldn’t have any problem at all finding a good podcast app in your alternative app store of choice.
Download: AntennaPod (Free)
Notes and To-Do Lists
I really like Google Keep, but I’m not a fan of the way it syncs everything to the cloud. This means I’m also put off by Evernote and similar alternatives. I prefer apps that only store my notes locally. Fortunately, there are quite a few options:
Really, That’s All You Needed?
Pretty much. My device came with a decent music player, and so does the OS that ships on most phones. If you need a recommendation, try Shuttle, which is available on the Amazon Appstore. You can also find Spotify, iHeartRadio, and Pandora there.
Living Without Google Play Services
Not signing into a Google account cuts the company off from your personal identity, but it doesn’t disconnect Google from your device. To really go Google-free, you must get rid of Google Play services. However, you can’t do so without a decent amount of effort. This is not one of those apps you can disable out of the box.
There are two choices you can make. The least invasive option is to root your phone, which will let you delete software you can’t otherwise remove. The second is to replace your phone’s default OS with a custom ROM. I went with the latter approach.
Even after you do this, some apps require Google Play Services to run. This means doing without some excellent third-party apps like Pushbullet. Unfortunately, the apps that need Google Play Services aren’t clearly marked.
As it turned out, my solution was to exclusively use software I could find in F-Droid. Despite this, you can presumably get by with whatever you find on Amazon or in alternative markets where Google apps aren’t available. You’ll be fine unless you start hunting around for APKs on the web.
What If I Just Use Google Play Services?
If you’re interested in cutting out Google, it’s probably because you don’t want to give the company so much information.
Well, take a moment to go to the Google Play services Play Store page and view the list of required permissions. You may not have done this before, since the background service comes pre-installed on most devices and generally only draws attention to itself when it crashes. Anyway, notice how you’re granting access to just about everything.
This is no shameful secret or anything. You can visit the Google Developers site to see how Google Play services are intended to integrate with Android and Android apps. Most of those permissions are likely in place to enable this integration. Nevertheless, that’s a lot of permission you’re giving to an app that connects to remote servers, typically without notice.
But I Can’t Do Without Google!
Okay, you don’t have to cut yourself off entirely. You still have the option to sign into Google sites in your mobile browser the same way you would from a PC. The experience won’t be quite as good as using native apps, but if you’re concerned about privacy, this option lets you browse in incognito mode or clear cookies manually whenever you wish.
So, Is Using Android Without Google Worth It?
We have surrendered a great deal of personal information to smartphone makers, but this is hardly a story unique to Android, or even iOS for that matter. We’ve accepted this trade-off with every social network, free email provider, online maps site, and seemingly every other internet-driven service.
There are many ways to cope with this new reality, but as we see at the beginning of every EULA agreement, you either accept this or you opt out.
I’m not out to encourage everyone to give up Google. The company has done some good. Even without the Play Store, Android as a whole is predominantly a Google project. But Android devices (and Chromebooks too) are based on Linux, which gives an open source guy like myself the freedom to make these sort of adjustments.
Going Google-free gives privacy-minded users the option to take a bit more control over their devices. It gives minimalists the ability to strip out whatever isn’t necessary to place calls and browse the web. Doing this also gives us all the capability to opt out without having to throw away our phones.
And if Android just isn’t for you, there are some Linux smartphone operating systems worth considering.