Ein Jahr mit GrapheneOS 🇬🇧

Das ist ein englischsprachiger Artikel, den ich bei einem amerikanischen Onlinemagazin mit dem Fokus auf Privatsphäre, eingereicht habe.

12 months ago, I was fully on Apple. MacBook, iPad, iPhone, iMac, the whole shebang. I met SJ in 1995, I developed for Next, what else could I have used?

I had every iPhone from model 1, albeit the first version not being sold in my country. I never touched Android.

In the matter of years, I got aware of Little Snitch and later on I learnt about tools such as AdGuard Pro and Lockdown Privacy. I found the iPhone awesome, because I could run ProtonVPN and AdGuard Pro in parallel. It is not always stable, but I was willing to pay the price. I looked at Android and figured out, on Android you can‘t run a VPN in parallel to a tracker blocker, such as AdGuard Pro. At least I could not figure out how. So I was very happy having an iPhone which allowed me to. 

Maintaining AdGuard Pro filters was a hobby, at first. I enjoyed seeing the entries and smiled when I blocked them. But with time every new release of iOS showed me more and more connections to Apple, every new version of an app seemed to send more and more data. A hobby became a burden. Maintaining my freedom was becoming time consuming. I was sure it would not get better. Another driver was the announcement of Apple to consider me a potential child abuser. Why else would they want to scan my photos? This was the announcement of a break-in, an intrusion of my home, my privacy, my life. I needed help.

So I looked around and thought LineageOS to be a good choice. GrapheneOS was no choice for me, because I did not want to buy a Google product. I bought a Faiphone, because I liked their philosophy. This together with LineageOS should be the way to go. Being a non-techie, I had issues installing LineageOS. Fairphone makes it fairly easy to get rid off OEM blocking, but LineageOS was difficult. After some searching, chatting in communities (the Fairphone ones) I got it running.

But I was not satisfied. The photos were poor quality compared to my iPhone 12. But the biggest concern for me was the update process. I had trouble to install LineageOS and to me then, it seemed there is no easy upgrade procedure. Installing LineageOS always from scratch would cause a heart attack sooner or later. And I noticed that lots of LineageOS versions are not updated, not maintained anymore. This may not happen with the Fairphone, but who knows.

I needed an alternative.

Listening to Michael‘s podcast and having no other options in sight, I decided to give GrapheneOS a try. I bought a Pixel 4a, a wonderful little phone, quite cheap. Great to learn and play and see if this is the way to go.

I looked at the installation process. After all the hassle I had with LineageOS I was concerned. But also confident. I used the CLI instructions, because I had no chromium based browser installed. And did not want to. 

I was prepared to get disappointed. Which I did. It was so easy to install GrapheneOS on my Pixel 4a, the description was flawless, made for dummies like me. I could hardly believe it. And did not feel challenged. Who says privacy is for Einsteins and techies? Not me, anymore.

I ran it in parallel with my iPhone 12 to see and compare. Not a fair comparison, a €300+ phone with a €1000+ phone.

I installed AdGuard Pro on the Pixel as well and compared both for a day. The iPhone entries meant noise, heavy metal noise, permanent connections. GrapheneOS entries? None. At least none I did not initiate. Peace. Nirvana. Silence. I could hardly believe it. I was assuming that AdGuard on Android must have limitations due to the underlying Android. Maybe Google prohibits stuff. I spoke to the AdGuard developers, but they ensured me, I was wrong.

I could not believe it. On top of this, I only installed apps from f-droid store, ran them through exodus-privacy first and checked the AdGuard entries when I started them initially. Very few apps I installed connected to sites I considered dangerous or collecting unneeded data. If so, I deleted them and looked for alternatives.

I had lots of work to do on my iPhone, to not get regular beeps and messages, and indications etc. But I managed. On GrapheneOS it was so much easier. 

What I liked best on GrapheneOS: The firewall. You can download an app, install it, go into settings and tell it not to connect to the network. Games, my corona app, whatever I used, I could say: Don‘t send anything. I loved that. Easy, effective. I have to admit: There was only one app where I used this explicitly: The corona app in Germany. It stores the vaccination certificates but also connects to the internet to check if someone around you got positive. I did not want this, but did want to show my vaccinations. 10 second effort, 100% protection. Awesome.

But there were disadvantages as well. The biggest one for me: The pictures with Pixel 4a and GrapheneOS were crap. No comparison to even the oldest available iPhone and surely not to the iPhone 12. The question for me was: Hardware or software issue? Surely, the cam on the Pixel 4a is no comparison to the iPhone 12. Additionally, Google and Apple spend huge efforts in their apps, using AI and other tricks to make pictures great. The question for me, who took 20.000 iPhone pictures (mostly great) on a trip around the world: Can I live with this? Or do I have to carry a camera with me on top of the phone? 

Second issue for me was: I could not run the ProtonVPN and AdGuard Pro in parallel, as on the iPhone. At home, this was no issue. I have a tracker blocker (eBlocker) and a VPN firewall. But on the road?

iOS is so polished, so smooth and all the apps are so well integrated. Calendar, Mail, Contacts, everything worked perfectly together. On my GrapheneOS it looked more like nothing worked really together. etar (for calendar), the contacts app etc. looked not only old by design but were not integrated. For someone fed by iOS for 14 years, difficult. On top of this, I have macOS, Linux, iPadOS and GrapheneOS. How do I synch my data between those?

Another minor issue was that some (or all) apps from the iPhone were not available on f-droid. I did not and never wanted to access Google, Maps, Playstore, search engine, anything. For example my banking app on the iPhone was only available via Google PlayStore. I did banking on the road, bought and sold shares. On a Pixel 4a with internet websites not optimised for the phone (I think they want we use the apps, so they can track us better. At least my bank app uses Google, Adobe and much more) it was almost impossible.

I also think there is no really good photo management app, comparable to Apple Photos. I am sure some of you will now scream and shout a name… I have tried various. And use Simple Gallery.

One app I have no solution for: Audirvāna. I have high end system driven by a Mac Mini and using Audirvāna. For the time being, I have to use VNC from a notebook, which is a pain in the butt. A new privacy project to migrate the library off the Mac.

But the biggest of all issues to me was: The new UI. I was used, for 14 years, to the iPhone UI. All its changes over the time. It all felt natural. Switching to GrapheneOS was like driving a new care on the left side with 10 wheels, no gears etc. The flow felt different, even wrong. iOS felt natural, right, smooth. GrapheneOS felt grumpy, rough, raw. Nothing looked as it should, felt as it should, was where it should, acted as it should.

I guess this happens to everyone switching from iOS to Android or vice versa. 

I told myself to give it a try. Three months. Then I would either sell my iPhone or give up with Android and live an Apple life and try to protect myself as much as I can.

Some of my problems have been resolved. 

By accident I came across the GCAM Services Provider.

This app „simulates“ the Google Play Services that the Google Camera app (Gcam) requires, allowing the camera app to be used on devices without Google Play Services. Note that this app comes without UI and therefore has no icon in the app drawer. But of course it is listed in the Android settings (e.g. for uninstallation).“

Description of GCAM Services Provider

I found a link with some Google Camera Ports and downloaded an app. The picture quality on my Pixel 4a increased, but still not comparable to the iPhone. This was solved with two new introductions: The Pixel 6 Pro and the camera app from GrapheneOS. I compared the results from the Google Cam Port and GrapheneOS Cam app on my Pixel 6 Pro. I can hardly find a difference. But then, maybe the port is also not exactly comparable, I don’t know. But: Writing this, I am sitting in Mauritius and take many photos and do not miss my iPhone.

The issue with the contacts and calendar allowed me to learn about NextCloud. I read, learnt, installed it on a Raspi and it works seamlessly. I do not import them to my macOS or iPadOS but use the webUI. For Linux and GrapheneOS I synch the data which allows me to have backups. Still the integration between the apps on GrapheneOS is not as smooth as on iOS but I can easily live with it. I alternatively use Tutanota which contains secure address book and secure calendar. I wait for Proton to deliver apks for this outside the store.

The second issue mentioned above solved itself. I got rid off AdGuard Pro. I simply don‘t need it. The blocking entries it showed were so rare, it was not worth it anymore. So I use a VPN or nothing, when at home. I use AdAway once in a while. When I am installing a new app, only at home, I activate AdAway to see what the app does when I start it. My firewall and eBlocker would see unwelcome tracker and block them, most likely, but I want to see it on my device. When the app is tested, I deactivate AdAway. No need.

And this is the biggest of all experiences: I spend less time thinking about this, caring about the tracking and surveillance. Because on my GrapheneOS, there is simply none. 

Case closed, your honor.