For the last half-year I have used CyanogenMod on an Nexus 4 as my main phone. Recently the touch functionality stopped working on parts of the display, and the glass on the back has started to crack. It seems modern phones are not built to last. For comparison, before the N4 I used a Nokia N900 for around 3 years without any hardware damages (in my drawer now, still working). A few weeks ago I started looking for a replacement. My experience with CyanogenMod had been good, but the number of proprietary blobs on the N4 concerned me. Finding something better wasn’t easy though, so I’m documenting my experience here.
My requirements were, briefly, that I wanted a phone that I could buy locally that had a free software community around it that produced a stable environment. I have modest requirements for things I wouldn’t give up on: telephony, data connection (3G), email (IMAP+SMTP), chat (XMPP), and a web browser. I like the philosophy and openness around the Firefox OS but the more I have read about it, it seems unlikely that it would deliver what I need today. In particular none of the devices capable of running Firefox OS appealed to me, and the state of email reading seemed unclear. I’m sure I’ll revisit Firefox OS as an alternative for me in the future.
As I had been happy with CyanogenMod, but concerned about its freeness, it felt natural to move on and test the more free software friendly project Replicant. Replicant only supports a small number of devices. After talking with people in the #replicant IRC channel, it seemed the Samsung S3 would be a decent choice for me. The Samsung S2 would have worked as well, but it cost almost as much as the S3 where I looked. Despite the large number of Samsung S3 devices out there, it seems the prices even for used devices are high (around 2500 SEK in Sweden, ~380 USD). I ended up buying a brand new one for 3200 SEK (~500 USD) which felt expensive, especially after recalling the recent $199 sale for Nexus 4. Noticing that brand new Nexus 4 devices are still over 3000 SEK in Sweden comforted me a bit. I would have preferred a more robust phone, like the CAT B15, but the state of free software OSes on them seem unclear and I wanted something stable. So, enough about the background, let’s get started.
Building and installing Replicant on the device was straight forward. I followed the Replicant Samsung S3 Build instructions to build my own images. The only issue I had was that I had not set JAVA_HOME and the defaults were bad; make sure to set JAVA_HOME before building. I built everything on my Lenovo X201 running Debian Wheezy, with OpenJDK 6 as the Java implementation. Installing the newly built firmware was easy, I just followed the installation process documentation. I made sure to take a clockworkmod backup to an external SD card before wiping the old system. To get a really clean new device, I also re-formated /sdcard inside clockworkmod; I noticed there were some traces left of the old system there.
I spent about one week testing various configurations before settling on something I could use daily. A fair amount of time was spent looking into backup and restore options for Android devices. My idea was that I would take a backup of the apps I ran on the N4 and transfer them to the S3. The Android Debug Bridge (adb) has a backup/restore command, however it (intentionally) ignores apps marked as allowBackup=false which a number of apps has. It doesn’t seem possible to override that settings — so much for the freedom to backup your own device. I then discovered oandbackup. It can backup your entire system, saving each app (together with associated data) into a separate directory, for simple review and inspection before restore. You can do batch backups and batch restore. I couldn’t get it to automatically restore things, though, which would be neat for really automated re-installations (there is an open issue about this feature). After noticing that some apps did not like being moved from the N4 (running Android 4.2) to the S3 (running 4.0), I ended up installing most apps from scratch on a freshly installed Replicant. I use oandbackup to the external SD card so that I can quickly restore my phone. For backup/restore of SMS/MMS and Call Log, I use SMS Backup+ against my own IMAP server. Camera pictures are synced manually using adb when I am connected to my laptop.
There is a number of apps that deserve to be mentioned because they are what I use on a daily basis. All of them come via the free software market F-Droid. For email (IMAP/SMTP), I use K-9 Mail which is feature rich but still easy to use. For chat, I use Xabber. I use NewsBlur‘s free software app to read RSS flows. For two-factor authentication, I use Google Authenticator. I haven’t evaluated different PDF viewers, but the first one I tried (APV PDF Viewer) has worked fine so far. Handling a a synchronized address book and calendar deserve its own blog post because it is a challenging topic, but briefly, I’m currently using a combination of aCal and DAVdroid.
Finally, since Replicant is still work in progress, some words about stability and notes on what doesn’t work. This is probably the most interesting part if you are considering running Replicant on an S3 yourself. Overall system stability is flawless, I hadn’t had any crash or problem with the fundamental functionality (telephony, 3G, Camera). People have said graphics feels a bit laggy, but I cannot compare with the stock ROM and it doesn’t get in the way of daily use. First some notes about non-free aspects:
- Bluetooth doesn’t work by default. After installing /system/vendor/firmware/bcm4334.hcd (MD5 b6207104da0ca4a0b1da66448af7ed4c) pairing and testing with a Bluetooth headset worked fine.
- Front camera doesn’t work by default. After installing /system/vendor/firmware/fimc_is_fw.bin (MD5 52eeaf0889bc9206860075cd9b7f80b9and) and /system/vendor/firmware/setfile.bin (MD5 0e6fdeb378fb154c39fd508ae28eaf2a) it works. The extensions are *.bin but I don’t believe this code is executed on the main CPU.
- GPS doesn’t work by default. After installing /system/bin/gpsd (MD5 6757ed2e2a283259e67c62e6b2b9cfef), /system/lib/libsecril-client.so (MD5 a836df0f947d2aa2ef20dcb213317517), /system/lib/hw/gps.exynos4.so (MD5 1ea1d67f297dd52d59d40dbad9b02a0a) it works. This is code that runs on the main CPU, and even more alarming, it embeds a copy of OpenSSL and talks to various online servers for A-GPS, and is thus a likely (and probably not too challenging) attack vector for anyone wanting to remotely exploit any phone.
- Wifi doesn’t work, and I haven’t gotten this to work. There is a list of non-free S3 firmware on the Replicant wiki however my stock ROM did not ship with those files. I don’t believe any of the blobs run on the main CPU.
- NFC doesn’t work, and I haven’t gotten it to work. It seems the infrastructure for NFC is missing in Replicant 4.0, it doesn’t even expose the NFC hardware permission capability. This is quite unfortunate for me, since I daily work with YubiKey NEO and would have preferred to replace Google Authenticator with the YubiOATH that uses the NEO for OATH secret storage.
Some other observations:
- Panorama mode in the Camera crashes; see issue about it.
- There is a number of smaller graphical issues. I believe these are related to the EGL but haven’t understood the details. What I’ve noticed are the following issues. The task switcher doesn’t show mini screenshots of all running apps (the screenshots are just black). ZXing is not able to QR decode images (I’m told this is because Replicant uses a RGB color plane instead of the required YUV color plane). Video playback in the gallery is laggy to the point of being unusable. Video playback on Youtube in the default web browser works in full screen (not laggy), but not embedded in the webpage.
- MTP has been a bit unreliable, my main laptop is able to import photos, but another laptop (also running Debian Wheezy) just stalls when talking to it. This may be a host issue, I have experience similar issues with a Nexus 7 2nd generation device.
I am quite happy with the setup so far, and I will continue to use it as my primary phone.