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Making a Bare Bones Open Source Smartphone

posted 31 Jan 2015, 14:21 by Andrew at Lycom   [ updated 24 Jun 2015, 05:39 ]
So, finally I decide to properly “buy” a smartphone – ended up with a refurb Google Nexus 5 as it is sufficiently “old” to be relatively cheap (for the spec) now. It’s pretty good, and allows me to play with getting NFC / Yubikey setup working – but that’s not the subject of this post.

What I’m left with is my “old” Alcatel OneTouch S’Pop Mobile. But actually not old, its entry level specs just can’t cope with the increasing demands of newer Android builds and updated apps. So, I decided to re-use it as a budget work smartphone for backup situations.
Setting up the Phone

There is no CyanogenMod image for this model, so this is what I did.

I did a Factory Reset of the phone. I chose not to connect to a Google account on first setup. Next, in Security / allow ‘Unknown Sources’ of apps and download the Framarootrooting application. Run it and select an ‘exploit’ (I chose Boromir and it worked for me):
Go to the F-Droid open source Android repository and install the latest apk. You can then start adding various free apps to your phone:



I used one of the root checkers to verify I had root access on my phone (I did), and then added the following:
Titanium Backup (I donated to upgrade to Pro - well worth it)
SMSBackup+
K-9 Mail
OI File Manager
OI Notepad
SecDroid
AnySoft Keyboard
DuckDuckGO
ADW.Launcher
Firefox

to get me started.

Now, using Titanium Backup Pro I began the process of backing up, then freezing all the stock applications I no longer want or need to use – a bit trial and error but essentially I removed all the Google Play services, all the Google apps (the aim is to be lightweight and Google-free), and (hooray!) all the crudware that Alcatel and Orange (now EE) pre-installed on my phone when I bought it.

Screenshot_2015-01-18-11-27-47

Do some reboots to check all is well, and then notice how much faster and responsive this phone is now we’ve given it less to do.

I set up the ADW.Launcher as my desktop in Android to replace the default. I’m living with the fact that this phone will now be stuck on an older Android build and will lack the pizazz of later releases, so this allows me to customise the interface to make the best of this:

Screenshot_2015-01-18-11-20-25

Again, reboots to check all is OK. Then set up the remaining apps I need to get started.

K-9 Mail – this is a really handy, lightweight Mail client for Android. I set it up to connect to my corporate Gmail IMAP account and it works well.

Firefox – no Chrome for this build, but Firefox is great as usual.

DuckDuckGo – I use this as the default search engine /widget.

As time goes on, I will add more apps from F-Droid as and when I need them.
The End Result

So, what I ended up with is a very usable little mobile smartphone.

Screenshot_2015-01-18-11-29-12

Pros

  • battery life is great (by comparison with when it was running a more extensive Android setup)
  • very fast and responsive
  • full set of basic apps (email, web, network & security apps)
  • rooted phone, with fully customisable desktop and launcher
  • still works well as a phone

Cons

  • it’s still an old release of Android
  • no access to Google Play apps – make the best of Open Source / F-Droid replacements
  • root access, but no busybox shell (would have to install a custom ROM like CyanogenMod to get this)
  • lacks the smooth integration of components you get with Google (e.g. a unified mail / calendar / contacts suite) – you will need to investigate Open Source replacements to achieve that
I’m quite pleased with the result. I actually think it works better as a phone now that it is unencumbered by all the appware bloat that we tend to put on our smartphones.