With more than 60% market share Android devices are dominating the smartphone market for a long time. But the most devices have one in common: a nosy operating system that likes to experience as much as possible about the user.
Hallo Welt Systeme UG – a german startup from Remscheid – aims to change this. With the Volla Phone they pushed a completely Google-free Android smartphone to the market in late 2020. Sounds good, but is it worth it?
Google-free Android smartphones aren’t novelty – but having the possibility to simply buy it without tinkering is specials. Until now it was required to buy appropriate devices and install a new operating system on them in order to have Android without Google specifics. The most popular alterantive operating system might be LineageOS – in forums such as XDA Developers a huge community focusses on crafting ROMs. Many of those ROMs lack the so-called “Gapps” – Google services such as Play Store, Gmail or YouTube. With CalyxOS and GrapheneOS there are two operating systems focussing heavily on security and data privacy.
Smartphone compatibility is the biggest problem with alternative ROMs. While LineageOS basically supports a broad range of devices, this is not the case for CalyxOS. The Google Pixel and OnePlus devices are usually well supported, other vendors might vary..
I remember my last experiments with a Xiaomi Mi 9 one year ago. It was said that it would be easy to “root” the device in order to install another operating system. Unfortunately this never happend – even though I created an account in the vendor forums and followed the documentation. I found hints that it might have helped to use the Xiaomi cloud for at least days with enabled internet connection – but that’s definitely not an option from a data privacy standpoint.
Long story short – looks like rooting Android devices is becoming complicated and so I was not interested in yet another experiment.
The last couple of years I’ve been using an Apple iPhone 8 Plus and the most of the time I was satisfied with. Unfortunately synchronizing data (music, podcasts, documents) without cloud services became really problematic when I moved to Linux only one year ago. While it was possible to synchronize these data in the beginning, this function disappeared for me with the latest iOS major update. To synchronize data I would have to use macOS or Microsoft Windows – both is not an option for me.
My usage behaviour is not comprehensive – I try not to stick to the smartphone, I’m not playing any games. My daily display time is roughly 1 hour and consists of the following:
- Messaging using Signal and Threema
- Reading and writing mails
- Browsing the web
Other tasks include:
- Exchanging data with a private Nextcloud instance
- Managing passwords and two-factor codes
- Listening to music and podcasts
- Checking the weather
- Creating notes and checklists
- Taking pictures
I really wanted to have a camera with two lenses to have somewhat better photos (the best camera is the one you always carry with you).
The Volla Phone tries to accomplish two goals: increasing data privacy and focussing on essentials. As a result, incoming notifcations will not enable the screen, pressing the home button will show a view called Springboard and not an app drawer. In this view you can enter text commands – it will also show recent SMS conversations and shortcuts to core functionality.
Back in 2017 the startup was founded, work on a very first prototype started in 2018. In 2019, a second prototype and the first kickstart campaign were announced. In 2020 the hardware design was finalized and first supporters received their devices. Since then the 360 EUR smartphone is also available on their own online shop.
The device is based on the identical Gigaset GS290 but has some smaller differences (e.g. older Bluetooth and WLAN modules):
|Dimensions||6,3 Zoll with V-Notch (2340×1080 Pixel, 430 nits)|
|SoC||Mediatek Helio P23 OctaCore (8x 2.20 GHz)|
|Storage||64 GB + microSDHC|
|Front camera||16 MP|
|Rear camera||16 MP + 2 MP|
|SIM||2x Nano SIM, 4G LTE CAT6, VoLTE, VoWiFi|
|Connectivity||GPS/AGPS, Bluetooth 4.2, WiFi 4 (2.4 GHz, 5 GHz)|
|Ports||USB-C, 3.5mm jack|
|Battery||4.700 mAh, fast charging via 9V2A, wireless charging|
|Miscellaneous||Fingerprint sensor, NFC|
The delivery contents also includes:
- Transculent protection case
- USB cable an EU power supply
- SIM ejector
The online shop also offers an additional case and a display protection glass. Gigaset accessoires should fit, too.
The device’s first sight is positive, rests comfortably in the hand and has a decent weight – even though I would have prefered a smaller device. The device boot time is long, it takes up to 90 seconds – luckily it isn’t needed to reboot that often.
The AOSP-based Volla OS knows how to convince: it is minimalistic and doesn’t annoy with pre-installed bloatware. The optional Aurora Store is a more data friendly alternative to Google Play Store and can be configured if requested. By default, an anonymous account of the project is used, but you can also use your personal Google account. F-Droid is pre-installed and only offers free and open-source software. It is not required to create vendor portal account..
Currently, Volla OS still uses Android 9 as basis, but an update to Android 10 was promised. The Volla Phone added-value is that the community was involved at a very early stage. As alternative, the Ubuntu Touch and Sailfish OS operating systems may be used. During checkout, you can already select Ubuntu Touch.
After pairing Bluetooth devices, contacts are not synchronized automatically – very useful if you connect to a rental car. Because of a partnetship with hide.me a month of free VPN access is offered.
Not only did I need to find alternatives for all my iOS apps – I also wanted to find more data friendly Android apps. After some researching and tests I came up with the following selection:
- AudioAnchor – audio book / podcast player
- ConnectBot – SSH client
- DuckDuckGo Privacy Browser
- K-9 Mail
- FreeOTP+ – two-factor authentication
- MuPDF Viewer
- Schlichter Rechner
For Threema and banking and public transportation apps I was temporarily using the Aurora store. The integration mail client doesn’t support subfolders; also a calculator, a PDF viewer and a weather app were missing. Pre-installed applications include Fennec (Firefox without proprietary code and telemetry) and DAVx⁵ for CalDav and CardDav. RadarWeather requires an OpenWeatherMap API key. UntrackMe is very useful for me as it converts social media links (YouTube, Twitter, Reddit,…) to more data friendly alternativ frontends (Invidiou.us, Nitter, Teddit,…).
Review after 2 months
I’m still amazed by the phantastic battery lifetime. My usage behavior and disabled WLAN over night results in 5 to 6 days of battery – I never had this before. The fingerprint scanner works reliably and fast.
The 4 years old (Q3/2017) still fits my requirements. Things I consider problematic include the low volume during phone calls. I have to max out the volume to understand dialog partners when having a walk outside – also the sound quality is not comparable with the iPhone. In general, volume levels are strange. It feels like only the first 6 levels change the volume – levels beyond do not increate the volume at all. The lowest level could be more quiet. Same goes for the brightness – the lowest level is still too bright for nightly browsing.
The camera focus needs to be improved – it is quite slow and often not very precise. With natural light available photos are reasonable – but definitely not comparable to the iPhone. But this comparison is not fair as the iPhone has additional chips for real-time image stabilization and optimization based on machine learning.
I’d love to see better volume levels and better sound in general – more bass and clearity. I can’t understand why a device in 2021 still has no stereo speakers. A better camera experience would be great – maybe this could already be fixed using software improvements. Also I’d like to see a Swipe-enabled keyboard.
Genereally I like the idea behind the Springboard, but it is missing too much functionality for my taste. It would be great if recent conversations would include Signal chats in additional to SMS. Also it would be great to have the possibility to customize the app shortcut list.
Last but not least it would be awesome to have an optional smaller device. I know, phablets are famous and they might have their use-case – but I’d be thankful if my smartphone fits right in my pocket.
In summary the Volla Phone knows how to convince – it offers everything you will need everyday without requiring proprietary serviced and cryptic data privacy mechanisms. Free and open-source apps aren’t always as good as their models – but I see a positive trend here. The battery lifetime is just awesome.
Camera and sound need to be improved, but I’m optimistic. Hallo Welt Systeme UG involved the communit at a early stage and still collaborates actively. I haven’t tried the alterantives Ubuntu Touch and Sailfish OS, yet – maybe I will do so later.
For me the Volla Phone is a great compromise between everyday usability and data privacy – exactly what I was looking for. I’m excited to see which changes Volla OS 10 will bring.