You may have heard of various custom ROMs thrown around on this website and other privacy spheres. From /e/ OS to Graphene, we’ll discuss the differences and how to choose the best one for you.
To start, all Android ROMs are based on the same underlying code. Whether custom, or from a phone manufacturer, all versions of Android are based on the Android Open Source Project, where the base functions of a smart phone reside. From there, companies and communities build upon that code to create their own version of Android.
Tech companies generally add in Google’s tracking and spying software for convenience, and then add some of their own. They might also add some functions that are unique to them, that will help them stand out from their competitors.
Communities may also add in Google’s spyware if they are unaware of the trade-off they are making between the privacy of their users, and convenience, or if they just don’t value privacy (usually because they don’t know the importance of privacy).
The ROMs that we recommend and will cover in this article are all de-Googled, support device encryption, and contain no extra trackers or software that would otherwise impede privacy. This is the main concern of Pyre Phone, as these are the known and active threats to your privacy. The difference in these ROMs is between device compatibility, convenience and security.
Lineage OS is one of the longest-running custom ROMs available. It has a huge community of developers and users, and by far the most “forks” or offshoots of the main codebase. Lineage has the largest number of devices that are compatible of any custom ROM, which means that if you have an Android phone, it is fairly likely to be compatible with Lineage.
This is about as close to stock android as one can get, with some extra customisation options thrown in. Users familiar with android will be familiar with Lineage, and appreciate the additions they have made. This ROM is a great way to enter into the de-Googled realm of mobile Operating Systems, likely without changing android devices.
Pros and Cons:
+ Works with the largest number of Android phones
+ Very customisable and familiar interface
– Not as high emphasis on security as other custom ROMs
/e/ OS is a popular fork of Lineage OS, aimed at user friendliness and convenience. It comes with Micro-G installed, which allows the use of Google services. This works by feeding the Google servers just enough information for the apps needing Google services to function. This means that all your favourite apps will work on /e/ OS just as they would on a stock Android device. It does mean there is some communication between your device and Google, but nothing that can identify you on its own.
/e/ OS comes bundled with a bunch of helpful apps like navigation and a combined app store that have you ready to go right from the first boot, and even offers their own version of services that Google offers, such as cloud storage. The interface is most similar to iPhone by default, so if you are used to iPhone, this may be an easier transition to Android. You can still customise it to make it more like traditional Android.
For a Samsung device, this is the best option, as /e/ has the most recent updates for these devices, and is continuing support where Lineage has stopped.
Pros and Cons:
+ Works with a large number of Android phones
+ Comes installed with additions that make the transition to a de-Googled phone easier
– Some default apps require an /e/ account to function (just download another notes app)
– Based on Lineage OS, so usability and compatibility have been prioritised over security
Calyx is a custom ROM for pixel phones, aimed at making security and privacy a priority, but not at the expense of convenience. Calyx comes with the option to enable Micro-G, which means you can use apps that rely on Google services to their full potential. There’s also full access to gestures, and customisability to the look and feel of the ROM.
There are a bunch of good applications preinstalled such as Signal (my favourite messaging app), the tor browser, F-Droid and the Aurora Store. Users are equipped by default with some powerful privacy tools and the ability to get the other apps they need.
For a Pixel, or a Xiaomi Mi A2, where apps dependent on Google services are required, Calyx is a great option that gives more security and privacy than most other custom ROMs.
Pros and Cons:
+ Great default apps that improve privacy and convenience
+ More security and privacy than many other custom ROMs
– Does still prioritise usability and app compatibility over security at times
– Limited device compatibility
This is the most secure and private custom ROM available right now. Graphene took the base Android Open Source Project, and prioritised security above all else, at the cost of some convenience and creature comforts.
Most of the regular Android features are present, and if you’ve used Android before, you will be comfortable using Graphene. The sacrifices necessary to make Graphene as secure and private as it is mostly involve compatibility with popular apps that rely on Google services.
As the majority of the project’s work has been dedicated to hardening the security of Android, many of Graphene’s security developments have been added to the stock Android Project. Graphene OS is not compatible with Micro-G, so there is no support for any Google services, meaning some Google-dependent apps will not work properly or at all. The ROM is also missing some of the gesture controls and customisability found in other ROMs.
Often companies will have a mobile version of their website that has the same functionality as their app, which can still be used from the safety of Graphene’s security-hardened browser. This means that there are often workarounds for the incompatibilities with some apps. Incompatible apps should be carefully considered as to whether they should be installed, or used at all.
The project only supports devices that meet the strict hardware security requirements, which means only newer Pixel devices are supported at the moment. Ironically, upon removal of Google, combined with some security hardening, Pixel devices are among the most secure and private phones available.
Pros and Cons:
+ One of the most private and secure phones you can get
+ Feels like a good, familiar Android smartphone
– Some compatibility issues with popular apps
– Limited device compatibility
Which Custom ROM is Right For you?
The good thing about all of these ROMs is that they are all de-Googled. This fact alone makes any of these a great option for reducing the number of negative influences in your life, and taking back your privacy.
If you have a Pixel device (from 3 onward), and you don’t need apps that rely on Google services, Graphene OS is the one of the most secure and private phones available. It might even be a good idea to try it to see which apps you truly need on your phone, encouraging maximised digital minimalism.
If you have a Pixel device (even a 2), or a Xiaomi Mi A2, and you aren’t willing or ready to compromise on compatibility with apps, Calyx OS is a great option for the most security and privacy you can get while being fully compatible with popular apps.
If you value user friendliness and app compatibility, or if you have a Samsung device, /e/ is the best option available, ensuring your device is up to date with security patches and improvements beyond what Samsung is planning for their old devices. If you’re coming from iPhone, this may be a more comfortable transition to Android.
If you have any other device, check to see if it’s compatible with Lineage OS. You can install Micro-G if you need compatibility with apps that require Google services, or leave it out completely. Even though I have used an unofficial version of Lineage on my Xiaomi Mi A3, I would not recommend it for security reasons. If you have a device not compatible with Lineage, sometimes /e/ has it supported.
If you don’t have a device compatible with any of the custom ROMs mentioned here, get one! If you pick up a Pixel, you can try both Graphene and Calyx. You can flash your phone many times without having an impact on the health of your device, and you can decide which you prefer. You can always send your phone to us for flashing, or buy one from us already flashed with your ROM of choice.