Over the past years, I’ve been using LineageOS on a 2019 high end smartphone. It has served me well over the years. When LineageOS moved from Android 11 and 12, however, they wanted me to side-load a new ROM image instead of using the app based updater. As I wasn’t sure if this update would also require me to do a factory reset, I refrained from trying, as I shied the effort of reinstalling everything. But obviously, that was not a sustainable attitude, as I did not get security updates anymore. So the pressure rose, until I recently found a good combination of a real world smartphone hardware to upgrade to, at an acceptable price, and new features to make a switch worthwhile beyond the pure security update concern.
Which Smartphone to Buy
LineageOS supports a lot of devices, but not necessarily all of their features. For example: My high end smartphone of 2019 supported 5G and VoLTE, but both features were not supported by LineageOS 18 at the time. Not sure if LineageOS 20 supports them on that platform, but I didn’t want to upgrade to find out. Both are really desirable features for me, so I knew that my next smartphone with LineageOS must support them. The problem: By the time LineageOS is supported on a device, a successor is often already on the market, and buying a new older generation device from a reliable online shop is difficult.
New or Refurbished?
Another option: Buy a refurbished device. So far, I was a bit skeptical that this is a good idea, but recently, a friend bought a refurbished Samsung S22, which worked out pretty well. I like Samsung devices but LineageOS is not supported on recent models. So I started looking for another platform and it seems that LineageOS is well supported on Google Pixel devices. At the time of writing, Google has just launched the Pixel 8, but new Pixel 7 smartphones can still be bought online. Since buying a refurbished device has worked well for my friend, I decided to buy a Pixel 6 in ‘very good condition’ for €365. That’s half the price of a current Pixel 7! I wasn’t quite sure what ‘very good condition’ meant, but the device I received didn’t have any scratches and the only place I found some minor wear was around the USB port.
Bootloader Unlock and Go
Installing LineageOS on Pixel smartphones is straight forward: After activating the developer options to get an adb shell, one reboots into ‘recovery’ to unlock the bootloader with a simple shell command. No need for complicated manufacturer proprietary procedures like on other devices. Once unlocked, the LineageOS bootloader and the LineageOS image follow. For those without a need for privacy, it is then possible to install Google apps. Not my cup of tea, though. And finally, a wipe of the data partition finishes the installation. Overall, it just took a couple of minutes to go from the official Google Android image to LineageOS on the device. Very smooth!
5G, VoLTE and VoWifi
After booting my Pixel 6 with LineageOS 20 for the first time, it didn’t find my SIM card at first. That was a bit unnerving, but it turned out that SIM-1 was disabled in the settings. After enabling it, the device immediately found the modem and showed me that 5G logo I was missing on my private device for many years. Also, VoLTE started working out of the box immediately. A nice surprise: VoWifi works as well!
And while we are in this corner: Changing call forwarding settings requires a fallback to 2G, XCAP over IP does not seem to be supported in LineageOS 20 on the Pixel 6. That is a bit of a pity, because there is a switch in the network settings to disable 2G GSM for security reasons. I very much like this switch, not only for security reasons, but also because falling back to GSM in cities when running out of LTE coverage, e.g. in elevators, just prolongs the time until the device returns to LTE. So I’ve set the switch to on, which unfortunately then also prevents the change of call forwarding settings. A small price to pay.
Hardware and Software Improvements
So there we go, I now have a relatively recent smartphone again that respects my privacy and gets security updates once more. It is also interesting to see how hardware and software improved between 2019, 2021 and 2023:
The most processing intensive app I use on my phone is Open Street Maps for Android, or Osmand for short. It used to run quite smoothly on my 2019 device back in the days, but over the years, it started to take more and more time to show new parts of the map when moving it or zooming in. On the Pixel 6, despite being two years old now, Osmand behaves very smoothly again. Also, the platform now recognizes a significantly higher number of positioning satellites, which is good for accuracy.
In recent years, EU-Alert, which is based on the cell broadcast mechanism, has been introduced in quite a number of European countries, including Germany. While not supported on my old device and LineageOS 18, the menus for the feature are now visible in LineageOS 20, and I’m looking forward to finding out if it really works during the next EU-Alert test.
Another pain on LineageOS 18 was that while keyboards in multiple languages worked fine, multi-language word prediction did not work well at all. Version 20 fixes that.
On the hardware front, both front and back camera of the Pixel 6 are a definite improvement over the cameras in my 2019 device. Also, audio over Bluetooth when using XMPP voice calling over the Conversations app now uses a wideband instead of a narrowband codec. And even when not using a Bluetooth headset, audio quality of the speaker and microphone have again audibly improved over the already good audio quality of the previous device.
Things I’m Not Impressed About
Now let’s come to a few things that are missing or have not improved. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, the Pixel 6’s eSIM capability is not accessible in LineageOS. Not a problem for my use case, as I only use a single SIM card, but probably a limitation for others. I don’t think there’s an open source implementation of the software required for installing and using eSIMs yet, but let’s hope that will come over time.
Also a bit of a surprise: My 2019 smartphone had 8 GB of RAM. That sounds a lot at first, but when running memory intensive software like Osmand, other apps are quickly terminated in the background. The Pixel 6 of 2021 also has 8 GB RAM, just like the Pixel 7 and the recently launched Pixel 8 (2023). Other current high end smartphones like the Samsung S23 also come with 8 GB of RAM. In other words, RAM hasn’t grown in the past 4 years. Quite surprising. But let’s hope the memory management of LineageOS 20 (Android 13) has improved over LineageOS 18 (Android 11), because 8 GB of RAM is ample and running a maps application like Osmand, no matter how memory hungry it is, should not lead to other apps being terminated in the background.
So, long story short: The combination of buying a refurbished two year old Pixel 6 and putting LineageOS 20 on it not only gave me back security updates while preserving my privacy at a reasonable price, but also gave me many long wished for features and improvements. It was quite a bit of work to get the device set up again with all my apps and settings, but it was definitely worth it!