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Privacy, hardware, and unfair comparisons

Nov. 9, 2021

One of the challenges of taking on a privacy-first approach to tech, and when recommending changes to other people, is the experience when changing hardware. As a Linux desktop enthusiast with a privacy emphasis and someone who installs third-party ROMs on my mobile, I spend a lot of time tinkering with old hardware. This is often for two reasons. One, I find it fun to refurbish old hardware for new uses. Two, I have an extremely low budget and acquiring old hardware is somewhere between cheap and free. But I often deal with very underwhelming experiences because I am using old hardware. I think this permeates through the user experience and leads to unfair comparisons that is stopping people from trying, and enjoying, alternative options with a privacy emphasis.

For example, last week was my sons birthday and he received a new phone. We were able to get a pretty good deal on a refurbished Samsung Galaxy S10e, which is a significant upgrade from the Nexus 5x he has been using for the last two years. So with him off playing with his new phone and a Razer Kishi controller for XBox cloud streaming (seriously in love with that experience), I got a chance to tinker and experiment with the old Nexus 5x. First on my list was installing a custom ROM and started with /e/ OS, a de-Googled version of Android.

I’ve spoken a lot about this project over the last few years, including many, many posts about using it on a Honor 5x for about a year. For as much as I loved using it on that device, it was far from perfect. This has very little to do with the ROM and is almost entirely the truly ancient hardware I was using. Apps are slow to open, camera is muddy and low quality, screen is low resolution and refresh rate. It is a $200 phone from 2015. Even when it was new the hardware wasn’t performant.

When I installed /e/ OS on the Nexus 5x, I found I really liked it! But, it comes with all the same problems. The Nexus 5x is also a budget phone from 2015 and a new operating system isn’t going to fix that. It has give the device new life and I get a good feeling using it knowing my personal data is just a little safer. However this is where we often get lost. I’ve been comparing my experience on the Nexus 5x to my current daily driver, the Pixel 3. Which, I have been comparing to the videos of the Pixel 6. This process often leads to people, just like me, to write off an alternative OS. It was just too slow and buggy.

But was it?

This is the same as when people try out a Linux desktop on an old laptop you had lying around, then say the desktop felt slow and buggy, while missing features. First, you didn’t give it equal footing for performance as you already locked it to old hardware. Two, you didn’t live with it. When you have to live with it, you find ways to make the tech work for you and optimize the experience. Third, you are comparing an OS put onto a device that it wasn’t made for. Of course the experience is different when you compare it to a device, like a Mac, that the OS and hardware have been optimized from the beginning to work together. This is why buying hardware from a company like System76, who builds their computers with Pop_OS in mind, is a much better way to compare how well Linux will work for you, instead of, “I threw it into a VM for a couple hours and everything felt slow.”

Forcing a new OS on old hardware is an unfair comparison. But, then getting hardware that is optimized for the OS is hard and expensive and something most of these developers cannot acquire. Back to /e/ OS, they have hardware you can buy directly from them that will come with their Android ROM pre-installed. Your options are:
1) The Fairphone, which isn’t available everywhere and is a mid to low end device.
2) A refurbished Samsung Galaxy S9, a three-year old device with a glued-in, non-replaceable battery.

I understand that part of /e/ OS’ mission is to reduce e-waste. But for context, the absolute best experience you could have is on an almost four-year old phone that will have a shorter shelf life due to the battery. This will be directly compared to the Pixel 6 or Galaxy 21 Ultra or the whatever the latest iPhone is.

So remember the trade-off we are asking people to make. We want them to use very old hardware with an OS that is significantly less capable than what they are currently using.

There is no way I could have told my son to let me install /e/ OS on his Nexus 5x and tell him to just use that from now on. He would immediately lose app access while still on a 6 year old device. It is an impossible scenario. I appreciate what these projects are doing and I actively use and support them, but let’s not miss the forest through the trees. Getting iOS and Android to be better with privacy and offering 3d. party options along with increased repairability is much better than just telling people to switch to Linux. We can’t just recommend people move to an off-grid cabin if they don’t like the society they have around them, we need to make the society better for everyone, including people who don’t want to use ancient hardware with an under-funded OS. Especially when many people need the new accessibility features. I keep coming back to my Pixel 3 because I rely so heavily on the live captions. Permanently switching is not an option. So, we need Google and Android to be better with privacy, not just ask people to go backwards.