First look The degoogled version of Android 10 from the /e/ Foundation has hit the market in a range of smartphones aimed at the privacy-conscious.
The idea of a privacy-centric version of Android isn’t new, and delivery efforts are becoming more user-friendly. The register interviewed the founder of the /e/ Foundation in 2020 and reported that /e/OS did quite well in privacy tests the following year. At the time, the easiest way to get the OS was to buy a Fairphone, although there was also the option to reflash any of the supported devices.
Now there’s another option: a range of brand-new Murena phones. The company provided The register with a Murena One for review, with a pre-release OS /e/ installed.
We’re not going to do a full review of the phone, as the hardware isn’t the real selling point here. It’s a perfectly respectable modern phablet with a 6.53-inch 2242×1080 IPS display, Mediatek Helio P60 octa-core 2GHz SoC, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of onboard flash. The handset can accommodate either two SIM cards or a SIM card and a microSD card. It has three cameras on the back: 48MP standard, 8MB wide-angle and 5MP depth-sensing, plus a 25MP selfie camera on the front. A 4500 mAh battery and a single USB-C port are present. A headphone jack is not.
This journalist is a fan of cheap Chinese smartphones. For the past few years I’ve had an iRulu Victory V3, PPTV King 7, Umidigi F2, and more recently a Umidigi Bison. As far as budget market smartphones go, this is a pretty decent device. It’s light, fast and comes with a case and charger.
But the hardware isn’t the selling point – the software is the star. It’s a degoogled version of Android 10. It comes with a very clean home screen, filled with 14 app icons, four in the dock at the bottom, and noting resembling an app drawer .
It’s the lightest Android setup we’ve ever seen, but all the usual basic features are there. The difference is that none of the included apps are the usual suspects. For example, the mapping app uses OpenStreetMap data, the email client says it’s derived from K9 Mail, etc.
One of the most distinctive apps is Murena’s App Lounge, a replacement app store. It can work in anonymous mode or, oddly enough, you can sign in with a Google account – but if you do, credentials are forgotten each time you run it. The Lounge offers the most familiar apps: we found it easy to install like Swiftkey, Signal, Telegram, WhatsApp, Twitter, DuoLingo, Skype and so on. Everything worked exactly as one would normally expect on an Android device. Adding third-party app stores like the all-FOSS F-Droid and Aptoide was easy.
The browser is a fork of Chromium, with built-in ad blocking. As we were browsing, some sites thought we were in Switzerland, so the /e/ OS location simulation seemed to work fine. We were able to log in to various email accounts quite easily, including Gmail and Hotmail. Everything we tried, from social media to instant messaging apps, worked without a hitch.
Some of the built-in apps are pretty basic. For example, the Maps app has very few local points of interest. We had to install an additional shim app, DAVx⁵, for the calendar sync to work – but once that was done, our online calendar and address book worked fine in the built-in apps.
We were looking at a pre-release version of the OS, version 1.0 RC2, and will come back to it once the final version arrives. We will also test it on older devices to offer performance comparisons.
To be fair, this device is significantly more expensive than the lowest budget on the market. But then again, if you’re worried about government spyware, you probably wouldn’t just buy a Chinese device like AliExpress anyway.
The most privacy-conscious people I know mostly use Apple iPhones, in part because you don’t need a Google Account to use one. The Murena One is considerably cheaper than any Apple device, and it’s also more open. This pre-release version of /e/ OS still feels a bit clunky in places, and functionality is limited compared to the full Google version of Android. But it works, it’s fast, and it was completely stable in our tests. This is an auspicious start. ®