Break Away From Android and iOS: 7 Free Open-Source Mobile OSes
PC Magazine|April 2021
Silicon Valley has long preached that technology, not truth, will set you free. The jury is still out on that. For instance, although smartphones have dramatically changed our world, they come with some serious drawbacks. Centralized app stores mean that useful apps can vanish in a heartbeat, while apps themselves use the sensors on these devices to monitor much of our lives. Perhaps worst of all, most of these devices cost plenty, yet they aren’t expected to function for more than a few years.
MAX EDDY, BEN MOORE

WHY MAKE THE SWITCH TO AN ALTERNATIVE MOBILE OS?

If you’re looking to improve your privacy dramatically or to take control of your personal information, or you just want to keep using your perfectly good Nexus 5 for a few more years, the answer may be replacing your phone’s operating system with a free, open-source alternative. It’s easy to think of the world in terms of Android and iOS, but there are many alternatives, with varying degrees of usability.

Some words of warning: None of these OSes offer the same kind of experience that Android and iOS users are accustomed to. Some have wildly different navigation schemes. Most won’t have access to all (or any) of the apps you use— those live nearly exclusively on the Google Play store and the Apple App Store. At least for Android-based devices, there are some alternative app stores and repositories, such as Amazon’s AppStore, APKMirror, and F-Droid. You do need to be careful when installing apps not specifically vetted by Google or Apple, however, so proceed at your own risk.

You also won’t enjoy the customer support you get with a mainstream device. You’re likely to get some strange looks if you show up at the Verizon store asking if they can help with Ubuntu Touch. Even getting these OSes onto your phone may be more of a DIY task than most people are willing to undertake.

GETTING STARTED WITH AN OPEN SOURCE MOBILE OS

Our goal isn’t to rigorously test all of these OSes to the same extent we do Android and iOS but rather introduce you to the world of alternative mobile experiences. We didn’t test every one of these systems for ourselves, but we highly recommend looking up videos that show the latest builds of these OSes running on various types of hardware to get a better idea of what to expect.

Note that we’ve presented these OSes in descending order of convenience. The ones at the top are widely supported and feature-complete, and the ones at the bottom are more experimental.

One more caveat: Though a few of the options listed below ship on their own hardware, most of the others will require you to own or buy specific devices. And none of them will work with an iPhone.

But if you’re willing to put in the elbow grease (and make frequent backups of all your important information), a whole world of mobile experiences waits to be explored. And if you enjoy the journey, you may even be able to contribute to the creation of these platforms.

LineageOS

Not every older (or new) device may be getting Android 11, but LineageOS, which is based on that latest version of the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), offers a nontraditional upgrade path. For those who may not be aware, LineageOS began as a forked version of the now-defunct CyanogenMod, but it has since taken over the helm of the open-source mobile OS movement.

How does LineageOS differ from the version of Android you find on a typical out-of-the-box smartphone? For one thing, it doesn’t come with any Google Apps or services installed (including the Google Play Store). You can still install these Google services on LineageOS while you install the operating system, but you can stick with the preinstalled open-source alternatives, too.

Another difference stems from the fact that Google’s (and every other manufacturer’s) version of Android is very different from the AOSP version. LineageOS has added modern conveniences and security features to its OS to differentiate it and close the gaps between the AOSP and highly tuned versions of Android. In use, LineageOS just looks like another version of Android. That’s a high compliment, given that some of the other entries in this list struggle in the UI and UX departments. It’s clean and sleek, and it appears to be one of the most stable alternative mobile OSes.

Another major advantage LineageOS holds over many of these other alternatives is the sheer number of devices it supports. If you head to LineageOS’s downloads page, you will find a list of devices from roughly two dozen manufacturers. For each device, there is a nightly build, a recovery build, and a link to recent changes. There’s also documentation for installing LineageOS on your hardware.

For some people, LineageOS isn’t far enough away from the grasp of Google. Enter ReplicantOS, a Free Software Foundation (FSF)-backed OS based on the LineageOS source code. Per its site, Replicant “does not include any of LineageOS’s proprietary components (programs, libraries, or firmware) and instead provides free software replacements for some of these.” It aims to rebuild Android completely with free software. But at the time of writing, it supports only a handful of devices, most of which are older Samsung handsets

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