It’s common knowledge these days that by using a stock Android device, you expose yourself to an inordinate amount of tracking and privacy invasions by Google and possibly by many negligent or malicious apps available on the Google Play Store. However, there is an alternative: meet F-Droid.
If you’ve never heard of F-Droid and you are on an Android device, you are missing out on some great software. While it’s primarily used for those looking to de-Google their devices using custom Android operating systems like Lineage OS, Graphene OS, or Calyx OS, a custom ROM is not actually necessary to use the application. Anyone can download F-Droid, even those on stock Android, and get access to a large repository of free and open source applications.
What is F-Droid?
F-Droid is an alternative app store for Android. It’s similar to the Google Play Store, except all the applications are free and open source software (FOSS). It contains a library of over 4,000 vetted apps, some of which aren’t available on the Google Play Store. It also handles installation and updates so that you always have the most up-to-date software on your device.
F-Droid is a privacy-respecting app repository. It doesn’t track its users and you don’t need an account to install applications. It flags potentially undesirable behavior in its apps by listing what it calls “Anti-Features.” These are behaviors such as showing ads, tracking, or promoting non-free services.
Why should I install F-Droid?
F-Droid’s biggest advantage over the Google Play Store is that it allows you to set up a phone that is completely free of Google tracking. Plus, even if you don’t have a de-Googled phone, by installing F-Droid you will get access to many apps that aren’t available on the Play Store, such as apps that may break Google’s terms of service.
The best part about setting up a de-Googled phone is that you don’t have to entirely give up the Play Store to do this. There is an app on F-Droid called Aurora Store that will give you access to the Play Store’s repository of apps without having to sign-in with an account, thereby keeping your anonymity.
How does F-Droid work?
To use F-Droid, first you’ll need to install the client application on your device. Then, you’ll be able to browse the full repository of apps in the client. The first page lists the apps with the most recently added updates, but you can also browse apps by category and search. To install an app, simply tap on the app to enter a detailed view with a description and photos and tap the “Install” button.
If you’d like to see what apps are available before installing the application, you can view the full repository on the F-Droid website. When you’re ready to install your first app from F-Droid, you’ll have to accept the Android permission to allow apps to install from this source. When new versions are published of your installed apps, you’ll find them in the “Updates” tab, where you can manage downloading and installing the updates.
In the “Settings” tab, you can view a list of your installed apps, adjust update options, add additional app repositories, and more. In the “Nearby” tab, you can install apps from local sources, rather than the F-Droid servers, through another phone with F-Droid, an SD card, or a USB flash drive.
How do I install F-Droid?
F-Droid can be installed by navigating to the F-Droid homepage in a web browser on your Android device. Tap on the button that says “Download F-Droid” or scan the QR code and accept any prompts that ask to install an app from unknown sources. This will download and install F-Droid’s .apk file. The F-Droid client should now be installed on your device.
If you’d like to verify that your installation is secure, you can check the PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) signature. This is a cryptographic key that allows you to verify that your download wasn’t tampered with, by, for example, a man-in-the-middle attacker. It’s recommended to check this, but unless you’re being specifically targeted by a sophisticated adversary it’s probably unnecessary.
Is F-Droid safe? Will I get malware?
Just like with any app store, including the Google Play Store, you should be careful about which apps you install. However, F-Droid’s practices help to ensure that malicious software never makes it into the library. F-Droid apps are built and signed (the process to turn code into a packaged file that you can install) in two separate secure, offline virtual machines. This ensures that the open-source code that is publicly available corresponds to what is actually running inside the app.
As a rule of thumb, installing apps on F-Droid with a decently large following should be safe. This is because the more people that are interested in using an open source app, the more scrutiny it comes under, because a certain percentage of those users will have the knowledge and interest to audit the publicly available code. However, you should use your own judgement as nothing is 100% secure, and attackers and security practices are constantly evolving.
To learn more about F-Droid’s security model and previous independent audits, visit the documentation on F-Droid’s website.
Does my phone have to be rooted to use F-Droid?
An Android device does not have to be rooted to use and install the F-Droid client and its apps. There are, however, certain apps available on F-Droid that do require root permissions to function correctly. This requirement is typically clearly stated in the app description. If you have a device that is not rooted, you should still be able to use most of the apps on the F-Droid repository, but some will not be compatible.
Is F-Droid legal?
F-Droid is absolutely legal. It doesn’t contain any pirated software, only software that has a valid open-source license. It’s also unlikely that using F-Droid breaks your cell phone provider’s terms of service. You’re typically allowed to download software from any third parties you wish, although you are responsible if anything goes wrong. If you’re on a contract, you might want to double check the terms just to be safe, as this norm may vary depending on where you live.
Who develops and maintains F-Droid?
The F-Droid project was created in 2010 by a British software engineer by the name of Ciaran Gultnieks. It’s a non-profit volunteer project, and relies on a team of over 80 volunteer contributors to maintain the project and update the library. Their core infrastructure is handled by a private limited company in the UK, F-Droid Limited, that is controlled by the project founder. They handle donations for development through OpenCollective.
Is there an F-Droid for iOS?
At the time of writing, there is nothing exactly like the F-Droid app repository for iPhones. The iOS system is much more restrictive than Android in general, as Apple wants to maintain control as the only source for software on its devices.
The closest thing to F-Droid on iOS is probably Cydia, however it’s only for jail-broken devices (the equivalent of “rooting” on Android.) Additionally, the apps available on Cydia are not all open sourced and verified, and therefore are a bit more risky to download.
Why doesn’t F-Droid have reviews?
One of the things that may stand out to you if you’re used to other app stores like Google Play, is that F-Droid doesn’t publish any reviews for it’s apps. The reason for this is that F-Droid does not collect any information from it’s users, so it’s extremely difficult to filter out spam and bots in reviews.
There has been a long-term discussion and some recent development on how to securely add metrics to F-Droid so that users could see which apps are the most popular. Currently, F-Droid doesn’t even know which apps that people download, as this app list is only stored locally on your device.
Why doesn’t the search work in F-Droid?
It seems that F-Droid’s search function tends to favor the most recently updated applications rather than those that best meet the search query. Unless you know exactly what you are looking for, you may have to scroll quite far to get to what most users would determine to be an appropriate result.
It’s not entirely clear why development into the search functionality in F-Droid has lagged behind. Luckily, the open source community has stepped up to provide functional alternative client applications with improve search capabilities such as G-Droid, Foxy Droid, and Aurora Droid.
If you don’t care to install one of these alternative clients, you may have luck using the F-Droid website’s search function, which seems to be a bit better. Another alternative would be to search for app reviews and recommendations published online, such as here at Modern Private Life.
What does it mean to add an additional repository to F-Droid?
A software repository, or “repo”, is a location where software packages are stored. In regards to F-Droid, all of the applications available by default in the client are from F-Droid’s repository, a.k.a. a server owned/controlled by F-Droid. A neat feature of the F-Droid client is that it allows you to add other repositories, other sources of applications, to the client so that you can manage them all in one place.
A good example of why you might want to add a repository is one of the most popular apps on F-Droid, NewPipe. NewPipe is a YouTube wrapper application that allows you to maintain privacy and block advertisements while viewing YouTube videos. However, it needs to be frequently updated in order to function and F-Droid’s secure process just takes too much time. In this case, you can add NewPipe’s repository to the F-Droid client so that you always have the most up-to-date application.
Learn how to add a repository to F-Droid here.
I am a developer. Why should I upload my app to F-Droid?
As a developer, there are several advantages to uploading your application to F-Droid. First, you will have opened up your user base to a growing population that refuses to use the traditional Google Play Store due to privacy concerns. Going the extra step to get your application open-sourced and approved for F-Droid will garner much respect and appreciation among this community.
Second, many in this population have technical skill and are enthusiastic about supporting open-source projects. If you’re looking for help to develop your project further, you may find some of your best contributors through publishing your app to F-Droid. To learn more, check out their FAQ for app developers.