Browsing through an app store can be frustrating. Whenever you’re looking for a simple tool to tune your guitar or remind yourself to water the plants, the results immediately ask you for money or are entirely cluttered with ads.
Now, let’s not begrudge developers for wanting to make money—most of us don’t do our jobs for charity—but the scales have tipped to the point where your phone can be actively hard to use. This is why if you have an Android device, you may enjoy F-Droid.
This app store is an alternative to Google Play and only includes open-source applications which may ask for donations, but are generally free of both ads and in-app purchases. The fact that the applications are open source also makes them generally trustworthy—anyone on Earth can read through the code, making it highly likely for somebody to find out if there’s an apparent security vulnerability or privacy invasion.
Sideloading apps, meaning installing software from sources other than Google Play, is much easier on Android than iOS, as there’s no need for jailbreaking. And F-Droid makes it even easier by providing a vetted collection of open-source apps with no tracking and no ads.
How to set up F-Droid
On your Android device open your browser and head to F-Droid.org, tap on Download F-Droid, and open the resulting file. Unless you’ve previously allowed your browser to install software from sources other than Google Play, you’ll see a warning telling you your phone is not allowed to install unknown apps. To bypass this, tap Settings and then Allow from this source. Go back and your phone will ask you one more time if you want to install F-Droid—tap Install to finish.
You’ll need to go through similar steps to allow F-Droid to operate. The first time you try to install software from it, you will see the same message you saw in the browser. Tap Settings and then Allow from this source to give F-Droid permission to install apps. Hit the back button to install whatever application you want.
About security on F-Droid
It is generally a good idea to be cautious when sideloading applications on Android, as a malicious application could be devastating to your security and privacy. A team of volunteers maintains F-Droid, so you might rightfully be concerned about sketchy software slipping in.
That’s certainly a valid concern, but F-Droid currently has extensive security practices and has been examined meticulously during multiple security third-party audits. The platform also has a strict policy of not allowing any apps with tracking features, which is part of why researchers at the Yale Privacy Lab have stated that F-Droid is even more secure than Google Play.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exercise healthy skepticism while installing apps. You should still take control of your apps’ permissions and check your Android security settings constantly, as you would with any other app. But other than that, you can install software from F-Droid without much worry.
Our favorite apps on F-Droid
F-Droid isn’t going to replace Google Play for most people, but it’s a nice and simple alternative for finding free and safe apps before you dive into the swamp that is Google’s app store.
[Related: 12 essential apps for any Android phone]
If you don’t know where to start, here are some of our favorite apps on there. Tuner is a great app for tuning a guitar or any stringed instrument, while Tusky is a very good client for Mastodon. Unciv is a free version of the popular Civilization game series, stripped down graphically to run well on a phone but with all of the addictive gameplay. DNS66 makes it easy to block malware and other intrusive code, and Turmux lets you run a full-blown Linux command line on your phone, which opens up all kinds of possibilities.
We could go on, but the best way to find something relevant to you is to just dive in.