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Lite Apps on Android for the Masses

Aug. 19, 2019

The fact that lite apps are not available in all markets is a major problem. This is true for mainline apps from Facebook or Google and then unfortunately for apps from surprising sources like Mozilla. As your Android device ages these apps are lifelines to keeping functionality of older devices that are still perfectly fine to use, but modern apps are so bloated they run terribly on anything but recent flagships.

One of the biggest benefits of Android is that you can make your hardware last longer. If you choose the right device, you can perform your own repairs, replace the battery and even install a custom ROM keeping the device up-to-date on software and security. A few months ago after a phone shuffle in our house, I ended up with an ancient Honor 5x as my daily driver. 

Ending up with a phone from 2014

In our house we do everything we can to repair, recycle, and reuse electronics. Rarely do we find the opportunity to spend money on a new device. Often we are attempting to extend the life of our existing devices or receiving an older device from a friend or family member. So when we had a phone needing repair, it ended up shuffling everyone’s phones around so who needed what option had the right device. This is precisely why we all have Android devices. 

This isn’t an Android vs. iOS debate. Apple does a fine job supporting their hardware, often with 5 years of security updates. In reality Android OEM manufacturers should be held to the same expectation. What I prefer with Android devices is the ROM and OSS app ecosystems. Not only do I not have to use the Google Play store, I don’t even have to use Google’s version of Android. Just recently LineageOS 16 for the Samsung Galaxy S4 updates the device originally released in 2013(!) up to Android Pie. With an easily replaceable battery, this means that device will last at least another 2 years if well maintained. 

Sidenote: This is my new challenge. I just updated a friend to an Honor 8x from a Galaxy S4 and I now have my hands on the old device. Amazingly this friend was not only still running the original version of Android the phone came with, he didn’t see any problems. Other than the camera (which is why he begrudgingly updated) the phone was just fine for his use. Now that I have a Galaxy S4, the first thing that I’m going to do is root, install LineageOS 16 and use it exclusively as my daily driver to see how well it does in 2019. 

So back to my previous story on how I am now using an Honor 5x. After the house shuffle the Huawei phone became my daily driver. Since I’m the techie of the house, I ended up with the least capable of the devices around that also needed the most work. In a single weekend I swapped the batteries in the Honor 5x and a Nexus 5x and installed LineageOS on both. The Nexus 5x for my son worked perfectly and couldn’t be happier for his use case, which is almost entirely YouTube and sending me memes via WhatsApp. 

The Honor 5x functioned just fine. Photos are definitely subpar and the battery lasts about a day (longer would be great) but all-in-all, it’s still a very capable device. Where I ran into trouble was loading certain apps and how many apps were running in the background. So, I reflashed LineageOS and the pico GApps to reduce the amount of Google running on the device to a bare minimum. This increased performance significantly. Following this lead I installed as many “lite” apps as I could, much the same as installing Ubuntu on an older laptop only using apps that have as few window decorations and run natively (A 2012 laptop with 2GB of RAM is not a fan of Electron). 

Lite App Fallacy

Since the rest of the world primarily runs on Android, most of which on very low-spec’d devices, major tech firms like Google and Facebook have made lite versions of their apps. Depending on how low spec’d your device is, you have mixed results. However, the main benefit is that these apps are more capable and take up less room than their flagship parents. 

Google has doubled down on this approach. In 2017 Google announced Android Go, mainly targeted at devices with 1GB of memory or less. Designed to take up less space (often installed on devices with only 8 GB of storage) and load faster on low memory, its been received with mixed results. Then in February, Google rolled out slimmed down apps, including Google Assistant, on KaiOS devices.

Its not just Google, although they have several lite apps for both Android and KaiOS. Facebook also has lite version of Messenger, Instagram, plus the main Facebook app. There are plenty of lite or Go apps that service the low-end devices around the world including Uber, Kindle, Twitter, Line (my favorite) and even Skype.  But that’s the problem. These app developers pick and choose where the lite versions of apps are available, with most not available in North America. 

This is a shame. When comparing the apps available from these developers between the standard and lite versions, you realize just how much you’re getting ripped off with the standard version. Standard apps can take up to 500 MB of storage, with updates being 100 or more MB. I’ve yet to see a lite version of an app take up over 50 MB.

…these developers aren’t just hiding features (like YouTube Go allowing downloading videos) but are also lazily robbing you of the storage on your device

There are several reasons you’d run a lite version of an app; it’s not just the storage. Most of these apps take up very little resources while running, improving the performance of low to mid-range or older devices. Plus, they use less battery both in use and when in the background. Not having lite apps in the Play Store for North America shows that these developers aren’t just hiding features (like YouTube Go allowing downloading videos) but are also lazily robbing you of the storage on your device. I can without a doubt say I can use Instagram without live streaming, Stories and other nonsense that’s in the main app. So why not give me the option?

This is even true with the Firefox browser. Mozilla makes a lite version of the browser, but its not available in the North American Play Store. I was able to find it in the F-Droid store, which is again why I love Android. 

So What to do About It

I want to see lite versions available in every store. I want to see app developers stop stealing resources from my devices. Just because I might have 6 GB of memory and 128 GB of storage doesn’t mean you can allow your app to become bloated. Using what lite apps I have access to, I want all my apps to be lite versions.

Luckily, there are alternate apps from other sources to fill in the gaps. Right now my favorite apps are FeedMe, Twidere, NewPipe and Slide. These are available in the F-Droid store and allow you to configure them to use as little resources as possible.

Technically not available in F-Droid but in the Play Store, this is an RSS reader that connects to your Feedly account. Using this app, I could set if it downloads pictures, the frequency of updates and even select to save the articles for offline. You can also set which browser to use, how to view images and even set the offline storage location to the SD card. 

This is seriously the best Twitter app in the market. Twidere allows you to configure just about everything including if images appear, the size of the images, avatars, and even how the text appears. You can optimize this app to use as little resources as possible or enable streaming and full size images to fix what’s broken in the native Twitter app.

This is the best app on Android full stop. NewPipe is a YouTube viewer that allows you set the resolution of videos to save bandwidth, pop videos out into a small player and even play any video in the background as audio only. You can also download either video or audio of videos, subscribe to channels all without creating a YouTube account.

I just started using this Reddit client. Same as all the others, it allows you to set how much data to use, how to load images and even set the subreddits with comments to offline mode. I’m not much of a Reddit user but trying to use more and this has been the best experience for me. 

Not if only we could get more apps and app developers to follow this model with the core apps.

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Email: Twitter: @domcorriveau

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