Murena and /e/ Foundation launch privacy-centric smartphones
De-Googled Android phone does the job, has a few rough edges
First Look The /e/ Foundation's de-Googled version of Android 10 has reached the market in a range of smartphones aimed at the privacy-conscious.
The idea of a privacy-centric version of Android is not new, and efforts to deliver are becoming friendlier all the time. The Register interviewed the founder of the /e/ Foundation in 2020, and reported on /e/ OS doing rather well in privacy tests the following year. Back then, the easiest way to get the OS was to buy a Fairphone, although there was also the option of reflashing one of a short list of supported devices.
Now there's another option: a range of brand-new Murena phones. The company supplied The Register with a Murena One for review, with a pre-release version of the /e/ OS installed.
We're not going to do a full review of the phone, because the hardware is not the real selling point here. It's a perfectly respectable modern phablet with a 6.53 inch IPS screen at 2242×1080, a Mediatek Helio P60 octo-core 2GHz SoC, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of onboard flash. The handset can accommodate either dual SIM cards, or one SIM and a microSD card. It has three cameras on the rear: standard 48MP, wide-angle 8MB and depth-sensing 5MP, plus a 25MP selfie camera on the front. A 4500 mAh battery and single USB-C port are present. A headphone socket is not.
This reporter is a fan of cheapo Chinese smartphones. In recent years, I've had an iRulu Victory V3, a PPTV King 7, an Umidigi F2 and most recently an Umidigi Bison. As smartphones from the budget end of the market go, this is a pretty decent device. It's light, it feels fast, and it comes with a case and a charger.
But the hardware is not the selling point – the software is the star. It's a de-Googled version of Android 10. It comes with a very clean home screen, populated by 14 app icons, four in the dock at the bottom, and noting resembling an app drawer.
It's the leanest Android setup we have ever seen, but all the usual core functionality is there. The difference is that none of the included apps are the usual suspects. For instance, the mapping app uses OpenStreetMap data, the email client says that it's forked from K9 Mail, and so on.
One of the more distinctive apps is Murena's App Lounge – a replacement app store. This can operate in anonymous mode or, oddly, you can log in with a Google account – but if you do so, credentials are forgotten each time you run it. The Lounge offers most familiar apps: we found it easy to install as Swiftkey, Signal, Telegram, WhatsApp, Twitter, DuoLingo, Skype and so on. Everything worked exactly as you'd normally expect on an Android device. Adding third-party app stores such as the all-FOSS F-Droid and Aptoide was easy.
The browser is a fork of Chromium, with built-in ad-blocking. As we surfed, some sites thought that we were in Switzerland, so /e/ OS's location-faking seemed to work well. We were able to connect to various email accounts easily enough, including Gmail and Hotmail. Everything we tried, from social media to instant-messaging apps, worked without a hitch.
- Android without Google – and yes it has apps: The Reg talks to founder about the /e/ smartphone
- Android OS vendor variants transmit data with no opt-out
- Fairphone makes wireless earbuds less foul, by charging batteries carefully
- Mobile networks really hate Apple's Private Relay: Some folks find iOS privacy feature blocked on their iPhones
Some of the built-in apps are rather basic. For instance, the Maps app has very few local points of interest. We needed to install an extra shim app, DAVx⁵, to get calendar sync working – 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 we'll revisit it once the final release arrives. We'll also test it on older devices to offer performance comparisons.
To be fair, this device is noticeably more expensive than the rock-bottom budget end of the market. But then again, if you have any concern about government spyware, you probably wouldn't just buy a Chinese device from the likes of AliExpress anyway.
The most privacy-conscious people I know mostly use Apple iPhones, partly because you don't need a Google account to use one. The Murena One is considerably cheaper than any Apple device, and it's more open as well. This pre-release version of /e/ OS still feels a little clunky in places, and the functionality is restricted compared to the full Google version of Android. But it works, it's fast and it was completely stable in our testing. It's an auspicious start. ®