GrapheneOS - A Short-Term Review
I’ve been running GrapheneOS, a custom Android OS built for privacy and security, on my Pixel 4 XL and have really been enjoying it. It’s been a couple weeks now so I think it’s time I share some thoughts on it.
If you haven’t seen my recent post on choosing a custom OS to install, it may be worth a read first if you’re unfamiliar with custom Android OSs/ROMs.
Exploring Custom Android ROMs
The out of the box experience was extremely bare… the fanciest thing GrapheneOS ships with is a browser. I see this as a good thing, as it lets you install only what you’ll use. There’s benefits to that all around. Privacy, security, battery life, storage space…
This minimalist approach to pre-installed apps is one of GrapheneOS’s biggest strengths since it lets you take your own approach to degoogling. It doesn’t ship with Google Play Services or MicroG. You’d be perfectly fine leaving it that way if you want to cut all ties with Google, but you’ll run into trouble if you need to run apps that depend on Play Services.
I’ve chosen to install Google Play Services and restrict its permissions to network only (which is necessary if you want push notifications in many apps). Because it’s installed as a normal user-level app I can simply uninstall it or move it to a different profile any time in the future if I want to get more serious about degoogling.
GrapheneOS doesn’t add any flashy features, but it does have lots of welcome security and privacy improvements. Some of my favorites…
- Restrict network permissions for individual apps
- Auto shut off bluetooth and wifi when not in use
- Obvious indicator when an app is using location
- Disabling apps when not in use
- Per-connection randomized MAC address in addition to Android’s default per-SSID randomized MAC address
One big improvement for me is standby battery life. I’m slightly surprised at that since I still have Google Play Services installed, even though it’s restricted. Days where I don’t use my phone much I really notice the extra battery life at the end of the day. It really makes you wonder just how much Google is doing in the background on the stock OS.
I’m also liking the ability to disable any app, but I wish disabled apps would still show up in the app drawer grayed out or something. It’s great for those apps that I only need once in a while and I would like to know aren’t up to anything funny in the background.
App compatibility is better than I expected but I’ve still run into a few hiccups. Some apps that use SMS verification, like Signal, bizarrely required me to temporarily grant Google Play Services the SMS permission to work. I’ve heard Signal is supposed to work just fine without Google Play Services, so I’m guessing it saw that I had Google Play Services installed, tried to use it, but didn’t expect its permissions to be so locked down. With apps like these I’d suggest to try setting them up before you install Google Play Services or disabling Google Play Services temporarily. Temporarily grant the SMS permission as an absolute last resort if you must.
I’m still using the Gmail app for now until I find something I like more. It’s the only app where notifications don’t work. I’ve actually come to appreciate this. I realize now I much more prefer having to check my email manually instead of being notified of every new message right away.
A game I tried to play with friends refused to launch. It might have something to do with not having Google Play Games but I haven’t bothered digging too far into it.
For the most part I’m using my phone the same way I was before installing GrapheneOS, just with fewer Google apps and the ones I do have being restricted and decoupled from the OS.
Missing features is a feature
Installing GrapheneOS means leaving behind some Pixel-specific features. But if you’re thinking about installing it that probably either isn’t a concern for you or it’s a big reason why you’re looking at GrapheneOS.
In any case here are the “features” I’ve personally noticed missing from GrapheneOS that were present in the stock OS.
- Now Playing – where your phone is constantly listening and logging every song it recognizes
- Current weather on the lock screen
- Google Cast support
- Selecting text and images on the recent apps overview
- Google Assistant, including call screening
I’m sure there are more but those are all the ones that come to mind right now. Each one is something I’ve easily found a more private alternative to or is something I’m glad to be rid of and just needed an extra push to stop using.
No joke, but the GrapheneOS devs put more time and effort into maintaining the OS than some phone manufacturers. Or at least that’s the impression I get from the rate of software updates. I’ve gotten three or four OS updates in the short time I’ve been on GrapheneOS. Plus their documentation and communication are excellent, putting even Google to shame in some areas. Two months ago when I was trying to figure out a very obscure bug on the stock OS (Google launched Android 13 in a very sorry state), it was the GrapheneOS devs I found who had a detailed explanation, workarounds, and even plans to fix it themselves if Google couldn’t be bothered to.
Like I said, the way I’ve set up GrapheneOS for myself is pretty similar to the way I had my phone set up on the stock OS. I’ve just decoupled Google from the OS, restricted the Google apps I still use, and I have the ability to easily go further with degoogling in the future.
It takes some time to set up, but if you value privacy and the ability to do with your phone as you please, consider GrapheneOS!