Running Android Without Google

There are many reasons why someone would want to run Android without Google. Privacy concerns are one, but more practical reasons like the significant increase in battery life that you can expect are also worth considering. Purging Google from your Android is not without its compromises, but is easier than you might think.

Rooting The Phone and Installing CyanogenMod

For the most part, in order to root my phone and install a new version of Android, I followed the instructions on the CyanogenMod wiki, which in my case were those for the (now three years old) Samsung Galaxy S4. The basic procedure works from either a Windows or Linux computer but I opted for the latter to keep things as straightforward as possible.

Nothing is ever easy so I did end up deviating from CyanogenMod’s instructions in a couple of places, but despite this I still had the whole thing up and running before lunch.

“Failed to confirm end of file transfer sequence!”

The first problem I encountered was this issue when trying to flash with Heimdall.

ERROR: Failed to confirm end of file transfer sequence!
ERROR: RECOVERY upload failed!

Ending session...
ERROR: Failed to send end session packet!
Releasing device interface...

Heimdall hung on the blue barIn the end I gave up trying to fix this directly and decided to try CyanogenMod’s own custom recovery instead of the one that they link to in the how-to part of their wiki. Using this image instead everything went smoothly and I was able to follow the remaining instructions without many deviations.

Problems with “adb push filename.zip /sdcard/”

Trying to push the CyanogenMod build package to my SD card using “adb push” just would not work, for whatever reason. Rather than waste time trying to figure out why, I simply formatted the SD card then booted my phone back up into it’s original state and copied the file across through the file manager. As a result I then had to repeat the custom recovery installation steps as booting the phone back up restored the stock recovery.

Obviously at this point if you don’t want Google services on your phone skip the optional step to “download 3rd party applications packages, like Google Apps which are necessary to download apps from Google Play”.

First Impressions of CyanogenMod

CyanogenMod's set-up wizardOnce installed, CyanogenMod booted without issue. They use Google Analytics for usage tracking so you’ll probably want to opt-out of sending them any data by un-ticking the appropriate box in the start-up wizard. A simple bit of software exists on GitHub somewhere which removes this functionality properly, but for now I’m happy with simply opting out as I have no major qualm with Google Analytics.

The OS looks very different to what I’m used to, primarily because I’m now on a newer version of Android, but also because of the lack of proprietary software from both Samsung and Google. Even after playing around and installing some 3rd party apps, Android now only takes up ~600MB on my phone as opposed to somewhere close to five times that out of the box. CyanogenMod is snappy and, to my surprise, so far everything works without issue.

Android Apps Without Google Play

Jumping from out of the frying pan and into the fire,  the easiest way to get along without the Google Play store is to install the Amazon appstore. Amazon seem to be phrasing this out in favour of their newer “Amazon Underground” app but for now it can still be downloaded from their site: just follow the links for an Android tablet. If you don’t need any paid-for apps, F-Droid along with a healthy dose of side-loaded apk files might be a good alternative.

Most Google Apps have open-source alternatives which are the same as their proprietary brothers and sisters in almost every way, apart from the lack of Google. One thing that is notably absent from CyanogenMod, however, is any form of navigational software. When it comes to mapping apps, my personal favourite is (and has been for a long time) Locus Maps. I’m not sure if Locus Maps would be a workable alternative to Google Maps for drivers, but for walking and cycling I can’t recommend it enough. Unfortunately it does cost nearly £6 for the full version and it’s not possible to transfer a license from Google Play to the Amazon Appstore but considering how great Locus Maps is, I don’t mind buying it again.

These days CyanogenMod comes with it’s own web-browser called Gello. Based off  chromium (the open source base of Google Chrome), this seems to be a pretty decent browser. Having said that, I soon gave root access to CyanogenMod’s file browser and subsequently nuked Gello from the apps folder. I replaced it with Lightning Browser: a snappy, open source, privacy focused, lightweight little browser of which I am a huge fan.

The only app I thought I was going to have to go without was AirAudio. AirAudio allows me to stream any sound coming out my phone (from, for example, Lightning Browser or Spotify) over UPNP to a OSMC (formally XBMC) installation I have running on a Raspberry Pi – and from there out my speakers. The app is only available through the Google Play store and, although it’s free to download, operates in trial mode until you upgrade via an in-app purchase. I emailed the developer to see if he had any plans to bring the app to the Amazon Appstore and, to my delight, although he does not, he got straight back to me with a neat solution: I sent him the money via PayPal and he white-listed my phone’s MAC address and sent me a new apk file to install.

Using Android Without Google

Overall taking Google’s baby away from it was much easier than I expected it to be. It remains to be seen how I’m going to get on with this set up in the long run but so far, so good.

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