Mobile OSs 6 - Android Alternatives and custom ROMs


Author: InvisibleUser Team

Learn how to reach optimal mobile OS privacy. In this chapter, we will focus on open-source operating systems, so we will review privacy features of Android alternatives. After talking about LineageOS as the perfect Android replacement, we will now mention some smaller mobile OSs.

Since mid-2018, the world uses mobile devices more than desktop PCs (including laptops) computers. That makes mobile OS privacy even more important than privacy on the desktop platform.

In this and the following posts, we will introduce mobile OSs. They are widely used and it is therefore important to bring privacy to your handset. In this series, we will review the OSs iOS, Android, LineageOS and other custom ROMs with privacy features in mind.

This article is part of a series, all 6 parts are here:

Custom ROM Community

There is an entire community around custom ROMs and building your own smartphone OS. We have talked about LineageOS in “Mobile OSs 3 - LineageOS Privacy Features Review”, “Mobile OSs 4 - LineageOS Apps“ and “Mobile OSs 5 - Installing LineageOS”.

The LineageOS wiki is fantastic and will teach you everything there is to know about building your own OS from source code or installing a build that you can download from the LineageOS website. If you are interested, please check them out.

That said, LineageOS is by far not the only one. There are many other mobile OSs and custom ROMs. For some open-source OSs on mobile, you will have to go through the installation process, but other Android alternatives are also pre-installed on devices by OEMs. Those are usually available from retailers or found on eBay if it is an older smartphone.

A number of Android alternatives is not pre-installed on devices and you have to do it yourself or buy a phone where someone else installed the OS for you on Ebay. We do not necessarily recommend these small projects, because they could be discontinued in the future.

Below, we will compile two lists. The first one is for alternative mobile OSs that are used by OEMs on some of their devices. The second list is a collection of custom ROMs, similar to LineageOS. The systems in the custom ROMs section are not available pre-installed on devices. There have been many other mobile OSs in the past, but we will not list discontinued projects like the three Linux-based systems Firefox OS, Nokia’s Maemo and MeeGoo. Comparison of mobile OSs on Wikipedia

Some are simply better than others. Recommended OSs are marked with a 💡 . The unmarked OSs are either hard to install, unsupported on many devices or likely to be discontinued.

Mobile OSs as Android Alternatives

Here, we will list mobile OSs as Android alternatives. They are available pre-installed on devices:

💡 Ubuntu Touch (Linux-based)

Besides LineageOS, we can really recommmend Ubuntu Touch. It was developed by Canonical, but they discontinued it and it is now maintained by the UBports community, a German foundation. Ubuntu Touch is much easier to install than custom ROMs like LineageOS. It comes with a GUI installer that does everything automatically for you. With LineageOS, you have to arrange it all manually. The only downside of Ubuntu Touch is that it does not run Android apps easily and is only available on a small number of devices. If you are a mobile developer, you could port the OS to any Android device and share it with the community.

Ubuntu Touch is pre-installed on a number of BQ Aquaris Ubuntu Edition and Meizu Ubuntu Edition devices (source). You can also install it yourself on the supported phones.

The great thing about Ubuntu Touch is that you do not need to use command line tools. The GUI installer for Windows, Mac and Linux is fantastic and you can get the program on the Ubuntu Touch website.

Ubuntu Touch is not Android, but Linux-based, so the apps for the OS have to be developed specifically for the platform. There is, however, an Android container called Anbox which lets you run Android apps on Ubuntu touch, it works most of the time.

From the start, Ubuntu Touch has an email app, some games, a podcasts app, an image app, calendar, contacts and apps for SMS and phone calls. You will not have any issues finding suitable software. Ubuntu Touch provides a full Ubuntu desktop when connected to an external monitor. In this video, you get an overview over the OS.

Tizen (Linux-based)

This OS is pre-installed on affordable Samsung Z devices (Z1-4, 75€). Tizen was developed by the Linux Foundation and Samsung Electronics. It has an interface written in HTML and is used on smartphones, wearable devices and smartTVs. Tizen is based on RHEL/Fedora.

Sailfish OS (Linux-based)

This is actually a general purpose Linux distribution, but installed on smartphones, most of the time. It is somewhat geared toward use by companies and was developed by the Finnish company Jolla, in cooperation with Sailfish and the Mer project communities. As a middleware between the Linux kernel and the UI, it uses the Mer core stack. This and the kernel are open-source, but the UI is proprietary on the phones that are shipped to customers. That makes it only partially open-source, but it is still better than a proprietary system. A major selling point of Sailfish OS is that Android apps run natively.

The OS comes pre-installed on the Jolla C smartphone for 170€, which is quite popular in Asia and Russia. You can also install it yourself if you want to use it on Sony Xperia (official), Motorola, Google Nexus and Samsung devices. The Jolla C is the one we would recommend if you want to buy a phone, instead of installing a custom ROM.

Custom ROMs as Android Replacements

Here, we will list custom ROMs as Android alternatives . They are not available pre-installed on devices:

💡 LineageOS (Android-based)

This is by far the biggest custom ROM and in our eyes the best choice for you if you are a privacy advocate, but need a modern, functional smartphone. More information in our guide “Mobile OSs 3 - LineageOS Privacy Features Review

💡 /e/ (Android-based)

e (or /e/) is a fork of LineageOS and even more privacy-focused. It comes with a lot of privacy software pre-installed, including an SMS and instant messaging app based on Signal, which we highly appreciate. It has a customised search engine forked from Searx. Searx is an engine does not track you, unlike Google.

/e/ is an ambitious project, but quite small and does not have as many developers as LineageOS to support it. That is, however, not a problem, since they use LineageOS as a base and do not have to program the entire system from the ground up. /e/ is not very popular yet and currently has an active user base of 1,700 users.

The /e/ developers offer to install the OS on your phone for you on their website. They also sell Samsung Galaxy phones with /e/. Another option is to install it yourself on one of the 81 supported devices.

💡 OmniROM (Android-based)

OmniROM is another ROM built from Android’s open-source base. It is a community-driven project and the developers want you to contribute, whether you are new to programming or a professional. It focuses on stability, which is achieved through many enhancements the developers made. Adjustments were, for example, Omni Switch for customisation options and Open Delta, which is a multi-window mode. Install it and #GetOmnified!

OmniROM releases weekly builds for the 36 supported devices. Those include the most recent Google Nexus phones and tablets and a few devices from Sony and Oppo. The developers have a forum and publish the code on GitHub and Gerrit.

History of OmniROM:

While LineageOS is based on the discontinued custom-ROM CyanogenMod, OmniROM was created as a reaction to it. The OmniROM developers did not like the direction CyanogenMod was heading, they found that it became commercialized through the foundation of the CyanogenMod company by CyanogenMod’s founder. Some of the original developers left CyanogenMod. Those people were “Chainfire, XplodedWild und Dees_Troy”,who are widely known for developing the SuperSU app (roots Android phones), the Focal Camera app and TWRP Custom Recovery. These developers teamed up with “Xplodwild” to create OmniROM.

Plasma Mobile (Linux-based)

This is the mobile OS from the KDE project and based on KDE neon, which is a Linux distro forked from Ubuntu 18.04 LTS. Just like Ubuntu Touch, it has a GUI installer for Debian/Ubuntu Linux. It is a very sleek and modern OS, just like KDE Plasma itself on desktop.

Plasma Mobile is available for mobile arm64 CPUs and also compiled for PC in an amd64 edition. You can download it from the KDE Plasma website.

Supported devices are found here (only Nexus 5X). There is also a version based on Debian and postmarketOS, which is a real Linux distro for phones. The latter does not come from KDE and is based on the security distro Alpine Linux, but uses the Plasma Mobile user interface.

DirtyUnicorns (Android-based)

A stable and customisable OS for your phone. It has a focus on enhancing the stock Android experience. Their motto is: “Go dirty, never go clean!” The supported devices are found here.

SlimRoms (Android-based)

Lightweight mobile OS with a clean and barebones interface, it is derived from the LineageOS kernel. Supported devices are found here.

Paranoid Android (Android-based)

A lightweight OS with a smooth user experience. Its goal is to extend Android’s functionality and design with the same philosophy as Google. Despite the name, it is not privacy-focused. Supported devices are found here.

Besides the OSs mentioned in this post, there are a few niche products, proprietary (e.g. KaiOS, OxygenOS, MIUI) or open-source Android derivatives. We will only mention the most important Android alternatives, but if you are interested, there is a full list on Wikipedia.


Mobile OSs 5 - Installing LineageOS


Why SMS are dangerous to Privacy