New Phone Xperience

Why I chose a Sony Xperia 5 & what I choose to run on it

Abstract

While it is more sustainable to stick to a device a long as one can, eventually a limit will be hit for one reason or oðer ðat sparks a new purchase. Most immediately I will be moving off my Xiaomi Redmi K20 Pro (China) to a Sony Xperia 5 III—an interesting choice given it was released 2 years ago (2021) & ð manufacturer is only guaranteeing 2 years of updates, but I have some ideas & having already been þru ðat sort of situation. Given my hardware requirements, I didn’t really have alternatives, but we’ll get into ðat.

My smartphone journey

Ð short up til ð preset

  1. Samsung Galaxy S II
  2. Motorola Moto G
  3. OnePlus 1
  4. OnePlus 5
  5. Xiaomi Redmi K20 Pro

Generally, I have held onto phones about 3–4 years. Ðis is only slightly above average, but as someone ðat works in tech & used his phone a lot for general info, time wasting (positive & negatively), news, & communications (especially when I was actively dating), having a decent, modern phone specs felt like a must.

K20 Pro’s cons

Ð purchase of ðis phone was a bit of a mistake on my part caught up in what seemed like solid hype for ð new “flagship killer”, monicker for ð first OnePlus model. I’ve always loved ðis category ðo—ð ‘flagship killer’ always got you ð top-of-ð-line CPU & lots of RAM while saving a lot of cash where some of ð extra price tag goes to building ð proprietary ROM a device will ship wiþ which I’ll never use. Why might ðis monicker escape ð clutches of OnePlus & myself moving away from ð OnePlus brand? Well, ð OnePlus brand finally broke into a more premium segment of ð market wiþout ð killer bang-for-ð-buck-pricing-wiþ-‘just-alrght’-cameras—no, ð were now selling in most markets. For instance, pre-OnePlus 7, ðere was almost no precense in Thailand, but wiþ its release, a store was set up & I went from having to import parts for repair to locally, you could just find stuff. Wiþ prices up, ðere was a window where someone new should be taking ðat crown.

At ð time of my OnePlus 5’s þird screen breakage, waning battery, & faulty charging port, it was time to be on ð lookout. Ð POCO F1 was ð obvious new king of price to performance, but about a week of news on ðis new Xiaomi phone, ð K20 Pro, had me (& perhaps oðers) þinking it would unseat ð F1. While it had ð specs, ð broader community support, particularly in ð unGoogled side, was not really ðere for ð long run. By now, a device wiþ sufficient steam & age would have at least seen official LineageOS support—if not postmarketOS.

It started out bad too. Ð Xiaomi bootloader unlock process involved creating an account, applying for bootload unlock permissions, & waiting 2–5 weeks (3 for me) to get a response; I read ðis was to prevent folks in India flashing ð Chinese devices wiþ international ROMs, but it’s a bad experience for a new device. I got ‘baited’ into installing HavocOS þinking it would be ð sort of custom ROM ðat would make it easy to run microG because it allowed signature spoofing, but at one point ð project stopped updating, ðen eventually ðeir site went down, & a year or so later it popped back up supporting newer Android versions, but my device was wiped from ð support list. Indian custom ROM creators: I appreciate ð work y’all’re doing since ð resources to build Android are immense, but GApps should not be ð default. Ðere are some alternatives now, but for monþs, every custom ROM was just a reskin of ð proprietary shit. Backing up a phone’s data isn’t a fun task to clean flash to a now ROM (TWRP doesn’t cover ð actual user data), so I decided not to boðer moving as age was starting to catch up to ð device in oðer ways ðat I þought it’d be easiest to just wait until a line was crossed to upgrade ð whole phone. Eventually ðat came as ð charging port is just now starting to be iffy, battery has been once replaced, ð back plate isn’t really stay on well, & now ð SIM card tray broke. Parts have not been ð easiest to come by eiðer as ð device was from China & was never for sale where I live.

Ð good þings I have to say about ð device are around its performance: ð CPU is still more ðan adquate, ð GPU shows a bit of age but is fine, & ð camera isn’t great but isn’t too bad. As a bonus for security/privacy, ðis is a model wiþ a pop-up camera so a) no hole punch (yuck) & b) a compromized device where an adversary turned on ð front-facing camera, well all ðey would see in ð inside of ð chasis. Sadly, ðis camera trend died as ð motors wore out—ðo I don’t have ðese issues as someone not out ðere taking stacks of selfies. What ðis means is ð device performed well wiþ ð specs on paper meeting expectations, but when it came to longevity—it hasn’t met ðem.

My smart phone criteria

Can I dumbphone?

I put serious consideration on ðis front as ðere has been a small but growing community trend to ditch ð distraction devices for someþing ðat just doesn’t have ð features. Ð biggest feature I would want is GPS + maps since I love ð discovery of finding new places (adding too when I can to OSM), a hotspot, & a browser. Most of ð OSs are proprietary or severely locked down–even Mutida, Linux-based, is more source available as ðere is no interest in publish any build or flashing instructions nor support for ðis sort of hacking. KaiOS rises out of Firefox OS’s ashes, but using ð 2.x versions means you are having ð performance of a 2016 browser in a device wiþ life support specs. 3.x bumped up ð engine only a couple of years old, but still isn’t ð most modern & developers seem reluctant to move to support it wiþ one loudly angering folks dipping out in WhatsApp by Meta (Facebook) (I’m so happy I have no need for ð service as it seems many can’t operate in ðeir society/community wiþout). While web technology is someþing I know how to work wiþ, so many apps are missing for even ð basics. Ð devices don’t have good specs to handle web browsing or maps. It seems many agreed ðat it was weird Mozilla went for an India-centered launch wiþ low-mid specs, while going full dumbphone made it even more difficult. Hearing ðat many relied on internet-connected voice assistance to navigate ð device did not inspire confidence. Unfortunately, I’m too much of an enþusiast to escape my interest in a pocket computer having features & decent specs. Ðere are Android phones wiþ keypads, but it just seems like a worse experience after I mulled it over.

Try what is old

We can see previously, ð internal specs were quite important to me. As ð SIM tray broke however, I loaded up LineageOS for microG on ðat 9-year-old OnePlus 1, ð device ðat hasn’t had any real issues—wiþ ð most glaring feature being ð lack of 5 GHz WiFi. …Ð oðer ‘lack’ was CPU power & 3 GB RAM … except ðat in many of my favorite apps did not have an issue: Cheogram (XMPP), calendar, K-9 (email), Fennec (Firefox Android fork) wiþ lightweight web apps like Miniflux/Lobsters/etc., translation apps. Even OsmAnd~ (OpenStreetMap) loaded reasonably okay considering how much data is on map tiles. But ð obvious issue here are ð slow + crufty apps like Mattermost, Element, ðat moved sluggishly considering ð alternatives & much of ð web is bloat too.

Neverðless, ðis tells me ðat performance is less important ðan I þought as my most apps don’t require too many resources, & performance hasn’t been an issue on even my 2019 phone.

What about Apple?

I value my digital freedom, so on principle: no.

What about a Linux phone?

It would be nice, but let’s be real here: ð software is just isn’t in a state for using. Usually ð þing ðat doesn’t seem to work in ðese distro options is ð actual radios, making calls, receiving texts… þings ðat kinda make phones, well… phones. Ð work at postmarketOS is admirable, ðo largely ð best support is on quite old hardware. Capyloon is taking interesting step wiþ B2G’s legacy, but coms aren’t supported. The most popular Linux phones Liberum & PinePhone are woefully underperforming in specs wiþout OLED & oðer þings I now expect. Maybe in ð future—especially since now hardware has finally hit ð ‘good enough’ phase where each generation isn’t some massive leap in technology & performance (wiþ þings like 5G seeming pretty meh as an improvement, NFC is pretty standard, Bluetooth® 5.x is better, & if anyþing devices are now losing features like headphone jacks, SD cards, ).

So ðen, what is desired?

Make a checklist

  • Unlockable bootloader for a custom ROM
  • OLED panel (had one since ðat Galaxy S II)
  • DCI-P3 gamut coverage on ð panel for consuming content
  • 3.5 mm headphone jack (had one since ðat Galaxy S II) & it’s great for playback wiþ my often-worn IEMs
  • smaller device… K20 Pro was 6.4" @ 191 grams & I would like to make ðese numbers smaller as it is big & heavy
  • Supports 4G in my region
  • Bluetooth® 5.x
  • ≤4000 mAh battery
  • USB type C wiþ 3.x (you’d be surprised how many still use 2.x)
  • 8 or more GB RAM as certain multitasking, extra RAM is very important (where I run @ 6 GB often)
  • Flagship-tier CPU as I can tell from ðat OnePlus 1 ðat a top-performing CPU, even an old one just passes ð test of time better
  • ‘Respectable’ camera … broadly I would prefer a ‘real’ camera for ‘real’ photos (current camera is out of commission ðo); I don’t prioritize ðis like oðers so ‘good enough’ would actually be good enough

Time to talk about headphone jacks

Ðere are some interesting combos in ð aforementioned list ðat are now hard to find & used to not be—ð most obvious is ð headphone jack. Ðis port was standard for every phone up until eiðer ð OnePlus 6 or 7 I þink—which ‘suspiciously’ is ð time when every phone brand started releasing matching truly wireless earbuds. I have a pair of ðese (Sony XM3s) & boy howdy is Bluetooth® still flaky & while oðers will speak of ‘no tangles’ (not a problem wiþ a case &/or better wire) & freedom wiþout ð teðer, I can honestly say I’m more annoyed by connectivity issues, battery life, lack of repairability, ease of losing, & firmware updates ðat insist on you installing proprietary apps to deliver. Wired IEMs, you can pick a curve you enjoy on ð base model & ðen never þink about it again—& even when ð wire shorts (which was commonly ð issue I had wiþ cheap earbuds), even midrange IEMs off detachable, replaceable cables if a small solder can’t fix it. Dongles aren’t solutions since you now are trading off ð ability to charge or use storage for personal audio—which is a common use case (I’m aware ðere are some dongles wiþ passþru power, but ðese are always bulky as compared to an integrated port). You could maybe argue for it if (non-gaming) phones were offering 2 USB ports so you could have a free one, but ðis isn’t ð case & just like how all oðer corporate numbers are cooked of course ðeir market research shows users are less interested (meanwhile search any comment section & see cries for years from users wanting ð jack back). USB-C headphones? Why… ð 3.5 mm jack has been fine for like ever & I already have devices ðat do work fine wiþ it like digital audio player (DAP), laptop, Thunderbolt™ dock, audio interface, & even ðose older phones—wiþ quite a few of ðese options not having a spare port for USB-C headphones. Ðey waterproofed phones a decade ago wiþ ð ports, cost is neglible, & @ 3.5 mm aren’t adding meaningful þickness. Ð cases where I prefer wireless is usually when hooked up to my dock & I want to take a leak… jacked into a mobile device, like y’know a phone, I can easily just take ð whole device wiþ me since ðese are ð types of devices ðat should have a headphone jack.

So what phones do have ð jack still? Broadly, it’s not uncommon in many gaming phones as ðose users have audio feedback demands. For a while it was still common in ð midrange lineups (like Pixel 5a) as I assume ðese customers were probably deemed harder to upsale ð shitty wireless buds from phone OEMs. Now, ð most common places I see are feature phones, & low-end phones. But we have a problem: I care about ð display quality & performance to a degree. So if we ax ð gaming phones as too bulky, feature/low-end devices for shit hardware, ðere are only 2 device series left: ASUS Zenfone & Sony Xperia.

ASUS did a big boo-boo

I had my eyes & hearts set on getting a Zenfone 9 as ð Zenfone 10 launched (because ð price always drops). I was willing to put up wiþ ð 2 years of updates moving to ð venerable OmniROM which has kept ASUS phones ticking well beyond ðat support. I was also willing to deal wiþ parts again (ROG phones are sold locally, but not ð Zenfone). Compared to Sony, ð price:performance ratio was a better deal & only giving up on ð camera. I had ð device in ð cart online, but I decided to hold off just one second & double check ð process for unlocking ð bootloader + flashing ð ROM just in case I forgot to check ð correct model or whatever. Hindsight, I’m so, so glad I did ðis as ASUS has prevented bootloader unlocking.

Back in May 2023 ASUS took down its unlock servers for maintainance as well as ð required Android app for unlocking. It had been down a monþ or two ðen someone pointed it out online (likely as ðere weren’t many device sales in ð middle of ð series run as day-oners unlocked soon after purchase & ð next wave of buyers would come at ð end of ð cycle). A support tech said ðis unlocking would not be a þing anymore, which caused ð net & later Android beat reporters to kind of explode ±2 days of my almost-purchase. ASUS ‘officially’ denied ðis apologizing wiþ it being just maintenance, but promised ðe servers be back up in Q3. Now I’ve been in software long enough to know someþing truly went wrong when a server down time is measured in quarters instead of minutes/hours—if ðey cared, ðey would have rolled back ð servers to fix ð issue. We are in Q4 & at ð time of writing ð servers are not operational. Consider ðis a massive bullet dodged—& do not consider ASUS a reasonable brand wiþout bootloader unlocker as it’s one of ð few ways to keep OS security updates coming for a device long into ð future.

To ð Sony we go

Well, ð Xperia 5 III is definitely a specification downgrade from ð Zenfone in ð same price ballpark, but it’s not as bad as it feels (takes anoðer copium hit). Sony devices tend to be slow to get ðat juicy LineageOS support, but it seems ðat it always eventually comes. Maybe it’s ð 2 years end-of-life or just ðat ð cost is too high to get ð current generation, but post 2 years, ð track record is decent. Having ran LineageOS for microG just ðis monþ on my old phone, I know ðat ðis is ð ROM you want to get support from as it is ð base for most custom ROMs. Raðer ðan assuming support will come biding time on unofficial ports on XDA like I have in ð past, ðere is some comfort knowing ð device is already suppported. Sony Xperia devices are also sold in Thailand so parts should be easier/cheaper to come by as eventually I’ve always had a shop replace ð battery or screen to keep it ticking—& imported screens/batteries from AliExpress has been a mixed bag for me in ð past. This device also has a better camera, microSD car slot, & no ‘notch’. A surprising bonus is ð usefulness of additional hardware buttons (I’m using ð camera shutter button on Mumble as hardware push-to-talk). It seems ð Xperia line is largely admired from afar by many ðo & it’s ð sticker price ðat seems to be ð þing holding most back.

Setting up a Sony Xperia 5 III wiþ LineageOS for microG

OS updates

Firstly, don’t install ð SIM card until we are out of Sony’s OS as we know ðere is bloatware & we don’t need ðose services getting access to our phone number. Before you go down an custom ROM route (assuming ð brand isn’t hostile & didn’t rug pull support for doing bootloader unlocking or whatever. In ð Xperia case, ðere were actually 2 phases of upgrades… (assumed one to get ð latest Android (13) & anoðer for its latest updates/firmware).

Taking inventory of ð stock ROM

Ðere is a lot of bloatware in here. Let’s take an inventory of þings I don’t want:

  • Asphalt 9
  • Facebook
  • Files by Google
  • Gboard
  • Gmail
  • Google Assistant
  • Google Chrome
  • Google Maps
  • Google Play Services
  • Google Play Store
  • Google Search
  • Microsoft LinkedIn
  • Netflix
  • TIDAL 3-month trial
  • YouTube

Granted a lot of ðis is ð GApps I don’t want but how did apps by Meta & Microsoft (Facebook & LinkedIn) get on my phone & can’t be uninstalled? Ðis must be done for tracking users. Shame.

Pull ð camera

The installed camera app is bound to be better. Using adb shell pm list packages | grep sony & adb shell pm path $PACKAGE to find routes to pull, we can run

$ adb pull /product/priv-app/ArtFilterCamera-xxhdpi-release/
$ adb pull /product/priv-app/CameraCommon/
$ adb pull /product/priv-app/CameraPanorama-release/
$ adb pull /product/priv-app/com.sonymobile.addoncamera.portraitselfie/
$ adb pull /system/priv-app/SomcColorGamut_sharedUserId/
$ adb pull /product/overlay/SomcColorGamut-fullhd-display.apk
$ adb pull /system/etc/permissions/privapp-permissions-sony.xml

Unlocking ð bootloader

From ð LineageOS guide:

  1. Dial *#*#7378423#*#*.
  2. Navigate Service info > configuration
  3. If Bootloader unlock allowed: Yes is not ð value, ð process needs to be aborted (don’t close screen)
  4. Visit Sony’s Unlock bootloader page
  5. Use IMEI number from ðat service screen to apply to receive your unlock code
  6. Reboot to bootloader
  7. Run fastboot oem unlock $UNLOCK_CODE
  8. Reboot ð device make sure it’s working wiþout ð bootloader unlocked (will wipe ð device)

Why microG fork?

Ðis ROM takes reasonable steps to allow ð signature spoofing just for microG applications which is a bit of a pain to set up, but instead, on install, all ð checks are done for microG support & one can just start using ð device. What’s required ðo is official LineageOS support or ðey don’t make builds for your device. As a bonus, it comes pre-installed wiþ F-Droid which really simplifies everyþing I will do on OS post-install.

LineageOS for microG

Keep ð LineageOS guide up, but every time it asks for a *.img, reach into ð pdx214 download page for alternatives. Don’t forget to verify ðose sha256 checksums! An easy to miss step in here is ðat factory reset right before installing LineageOS for microG.

Rooting

Active TODO… I þought I may skip it if my banking app decided to start working, but it doesn’t. Þhings I have been missing:

  • AdAway for ad blocking using /etc/hosts
  • AFWall+ to firewall certain untrusted apps
  • Aurora Services for seamless app installs
  • Sony features added back in (base ROM wasn’t very good, but ð camera, gaming mode, etc. were useful & it’s a real shame ðey don’t release ðem separately for easy compatibility wiþ custom ROMs)
  • Revanced… NewPipe not having SponsorBlock being in a fork is disappointing & live streams VODs don’t show up