Android without Google (Part 2: Moving to CalyxOS)

Once you’ve installed CalyxOS on your (Pixel) phone you’re ready to play with settings and preinstalled apps. If you’d like to give it a clean start you can simply reset to factory settings as you would with stock ROM (Settings -> System -> Advanced -> Reset Options -> Delete all data). Make sure not to delete your eSIM if you’re using one. After the phone restarts you need to go through the initial setup again (language, time zone, WiFi, etc…)

I’ve encountered one little issue after updating to June 2021 release (CalyxOS 2.61): as I’m using an eSIM I noticed that it’s not found during initial setup anymore. However, if you did not delete it while resetting the phone – it’ll be still there: go to Network and Internet -> Mobile network -> Download a SIM instead. It will take a couple of seconds and then finally offers to scan a QR code. Cancel QR code scanning and you will have your eSIM in place. Just enable it and all should be fine. Not sure if this might be a bug as CalyxOS 2.60 would recognize the eSIM automatically upon first setup.

During first setup you will be asked if you’d like to have microG activated. My recommendation would be to do so. It will leave you with some compatibility with apps from Play Store while at the same time is minimizing data sent to Google. From my perspective it seems like valid workaround without compromising too much of your privacy. Having that said, I’d also install Aurora Store so you can at least install non-paid apps from Play Store (i.e. Paypal or your banking app, Spotify, etc.)

As you’ve decided to say good bye to Google’s services you need some alternatives instead. I’ve began to dismiss most of those services already a couple of years ago and switched to more privacy friendly apps and services back then. However I was still depending on Google’s Play Store and Play Services. Let’s see how you can replace your beloved apps (if possible).

During setup you’ll have the chance to install a couple of apps already. I’d recommend choosing at least:

  • Aurora Store
  • DAVx5
  • DuckDuckGo
  • K-9 Mail (skip it if you like to go for FairEmail instead, s. below)
  • Organic Maps (available since CalyxOS 2.61)
  • Tasks
  • Signal
  • Weather

First thing you should do now is fire up F-Droid and go through the settings. If you opted to install Tor-Browser or any other app from Guardian Project you should enable their repositories: F-Droid -> Settings -> Repositories -> enable “Guardian Project” (leave “Archive” unchecked).

If you want to install free apps from Play Store and you’ve installed Aurora Store, also make sure to configure it. You can choose “Aurora Services” as installation method. Also I’d filter all apps from Google and F-Droid: Aurora Store -> Settings -> Filters as you probably do not want at all apps by the former, but prefer apps by the latter to be installed via F-Droid itself.

Email, contacts, calendar

One of the most important things is probably getting your mail, contacts and calendar to your phone. There are a couple of privacy friendly providers but being located in Germany I can recommend Posteo and mailbox.org. Both will charge you a rate as low as 1€/month and work really great. In order to sync contacts and calendar I’d recommend using DAVx5 (you can already select to install it during the setup wizard or use F-Droid). You can find a list of recommended/tested settings for a couple of providers here. The default calendar and address book app seem both pretty fine for me.

As mail client I’d recommend using either K-9 Mail or FairEmail (both via F-Droid). To support FairEmail and gain access to all Pro features I’d recommend spending a few bucks – totally worth it.

Messenger

Having privacy concerns you would probably not be using anything which is in Facebook’s claws, so WhatsApp should not be on your messenger list anyway. If it still is you can install it via Aurora App Store. I’m pretty happy without it for years though, using Signal and Threema. A few hints on setting up those two in CalyxOS:

Signal

You can install Signal right away during CalyxOS first setup wizard. If you’re using Signal for the first time you’ll be fine with it as is. However if you’d like to import your conversations from a backup or your old phone chances are that the version which comes with CalyxOS is outdated and thus won’t import chats from a more current version. You can either update Signal through Aurora Store (easiest solution) or – if you do not want to use Aurora Store – you can download the latest version of Signal from their website. If you do that make sure to check the signing certificate (don’t know why they do not provide a simple SHA256 sum…):

You will need a tool called “apksigner”. On Debian just run:

$ sudo apt install apksigner

Now make one line of the provided SHA256 fingerprint on their website and run:

$ apksigner verify --print-certs /path/to/Signal.apk | grep -i --color `echo "SHA256_FINGERPRINT_IN_ONE_LINE" | sed 's/://g'`

This should return something like this (example for an older Signal apk):

Signer #1 certificate SHA-256 digest: 29f34e5f27f211b424bc5bf9d67162c0eafba2da35af35c16416fc446276ba26

Now just transfer that apk to your phone, open “Files” app and tap on the apk (there will be a warning: you have to agree that you will take the risks…).

Threema

As Threema is a paid app you cannot install it via Aurora Store but you have to buy and download it via their website from here. It requires a one-time payment of less then 4€. You will receive a license key which you need for downloading and first start of the app. Make sure to verify the SHA256 sum before installing the apk file. Once installed it will either register with microG for notifications or will use polling (if you did not opt for microG during setup). It will also check for updates periodically (Threema -> Settings -> About).

System apps

TTS engine

CalyxOS does not come with a text-to-speech engine by default, you can install one from F-Droid, i.e. eSpeak.

Camera

The stock camera app does not really offer a lot of options, I installed Open Camera from F-Droid as a replacement.

Keyboard

If you like to have permanent numbers row on your keyboard, I’d recommend OpenBoard (it’s also based on AOSP keyboard).

App list

Here is just a short list of some apps which I find pretty useful. I had most of them installed already from Play Store before switching to CalyxOS. If an app is available on both – F-Droid and Aurora – I’d go for the F-Droid version.

AppReplacement
Mail clientK-9 Mail, FairEmail
MessengerThreema, Signal, Element
MapsOsmAnd, Organic Maps
TwitterTwidere X, AndStatus
YouTubeNewPipe
Multimedia PlayerVLC
2FA AuthenticatorAegis Authenticator, andOTP
Password ManagerKeePassDX
BrowserFennec, DuckDuckGo, Tor Browser

Apps from Play Store (via Aurora)

For some apps you will probably not find a valid replacement on F-Droid. Most of the apps installed from Play Store via Aurora Store work pretty well in CalyxOS. I found some issues with my mobile provider’s app which would hang once I select some menus and want to go back to start screen. Also an app by an insurance company failed a little as it would not let me use a fingerprint to login (which it does on stock Android). Besides that, all apps I installed so far worked fine:

  • Paypal
  • Spotify
  • Hue
  • eBay
  • Netflix
  • Booking.com
  • DB (German railway)

App recommendations

There are some apps which I’d like to highlight:

Feeder

Feeder is a very nice app for gathering news feeds. Of course you need to check if your favorite news site is offering feeds but in my experience they pretty much all do. Sometimes they are a little hard to find though. So once you have all your news feeds configured (this has to be done manually by typing the URL) make sure to take a backup (Feeder -> “3 dots menu” -> Export feeds to OPML). You can let Feeder search for updated feeds periodically or simply update the feeds manually. It replaced my favorite news stations app (which of course had trackers and is not open source software).

KDE Connect

KDE Connect is a very use- and powerful app if you want to connect your phone and your PC. You can share notifications, files, keyboard, address book, SMS/phone calls and more across your devices via a secure connection. You can also limit WiFi networks the Android app will listen to – in case you’re not connected to your own WiFi the app won’t listen for connections.

If you’re running KDE as your desktop environment you’re already good to go. If you’re more into Gnome go ahead and install GSConnect shell extension. There even seem to be very early versions for Windows and MacOSX available.

If you’re running a firewall on your desktop make sure to open ports 1714-1746 for tcp and udp. In case it’s ufw you’re running:

$ sudo ufw allow 1714:1764/udp
$ sudo ufw allow 1714:1764/tcp
$ sudo ufw reload

See the documentation here.

WebApps Sandboxed Browser

With WebApps Sandboxed Browser you can run web sites as “apps”. I.e., if you don’t want to install Amazon app, simply configure it here!

Conclusion

From my point of view CalyxOS adds a lot more privacy (it even comes with very basic firewall!) to your phone by sacrificing only a very small amount of convenience. As you probably carry your phone with you all the time – thus leaking a lot of data to Google – I think it’s worth trying to say goodbye to Google.

By enabling microG and installing Aurora Store it’s possible to have a convenient balance between privacy and usability. You can still install (most) of your beloved apps from Play Store (if not available on F-Droid and if they come with no costs) and still keep a lot more privacy compared to stock Android with Play Services. If you really want no connections to Google whatsoever CalyxOS has got you covered as well: simply do not enable microG during first setup and don’t install Aurora Store.

Of course this all depends on how much you care about your privacy and IT security and how much time you’re willing to invest in something like that. For myself stuff like this is fun. I already used most of the apps listed here anyway for a couple of years (they are available on Play Store as well) and thus the transition is not very hard. Also I (almost) do not miss any app. There is one exception though: Tasker. Unfortunately you can only buy it from Play Store. I really had some nice automation profiles configured in Tasker… 🙁

Anyway, if you’re a little into Android/privacy/security I’d recommend giving CalyxOS a try!