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Most Android devices come with Google Play, also known as the Play Store. This is a one-stop-shop for apps, games, music, and movies. It’s Android’s answer to Apple’s App Store.
Unlike on iOS, it’s relatively easy to swap out the Play Store for a different app store. But should you? There are quite a few reasons to answer with an emphatic “yes.”
1. No Company Should Have All That Power
App stores make finding and downloading software an easy task, as they host everything you need. As a user, the experience is much more pleasant than hunting the web for desktop installers.
But there’s a downside. This approach provides the company that runs the app store with a great deal of power over the software we use. Google decides what apps get into the store. It also has the authority to take apps down. Software you value dearly can go away at a moment’s notice, against your (or the developer’s) objections.
Google gets a cut of every sale made via the Play Store, as reimbursement for providing and maintaining the infrastructure. But Google also use the Play Store as a way to encourage Android phone manufacturers to do what it wants. Google has faced hefty fines in the past due to such monopolistic practices.
2. Google Play Isn’t Very Private
You need a Google account to access the Play Store. With it, Google logs every app you install.
You can go through your library and see a long list of all the apps you’ve installed on every Android device you’ve ever owned. Apps appear on this list even if you only kept them installed for a few seconds. You have to manually remove the ones you don’t want tied to your account.
Part of this is a requirement for the way mobile app stores work. In order to make your apps automatically download when you switch to a new device, or to track your purchases, Google has to tie this information to an account.
Unfortunately, if you don’t care about these features, there’s no provided way to access the Play Store with this functionality disabled. To use Google Play, you have to let Google keep tabs on what you’re doing.
3. You’ve Decided to Ditch Google
This need for a Google account means that if you’ve decided to ditch Google, then the Play Store isn’t an option for you. Unlike Google Maps or YouTube, you can’t dip in and out without signing in.
That means you need to find a new way to download apps to your Android device. Or you can settle for the apps that came pre-installed. If you want to keep it simple, a smartphone without Play Store access still does a lot more than a dumbphone while placing some limits on how distracting your phone can become.
4. Not All Apps Are in the Google Play Store
The Play Store may be the biggest place to find Android apps, but that doesn’t mean it has all of them. Frankly, some great apps aren’t in Google’s store.
Some apps aren’t there because they only work on custom ROMs or rooted devices. Others disappear from the Play Store because they run afoul of Google’s terms and conditions. Alternative app stores, for example, are not welcome in the Play Store.
In other cases, it’s a regional issue. An app may be on Google Play, but not available in your area or for your device.
By definition, this means you’ll have to look somewhere other than the Play Store. In some cases, an alternative app store will have what you’re looking for. Other times you will have to download and install the APK manually.
But Don’t Ditch the Google Play Store Just Yet
While there are valid reasons to seek out a Google Play Store alternative, that doesn’t mean everyone will want to make that choice. There are risks and downsides that come with leaving Google’s walled garden behind.
1. Dealing With Unknown Sources
To use an app store other than the Play Store on older versions of Android, you have to enable the ability to allow software from unknown sources. This can open you up to various forms of malicious software. Out of the box, Android does not let you install APKs directly.
Starting with Android 8 Oreo, Google changed this setting. Now, you can permit only certain apps to install APKs. This way your phone would block a rouge APK from an email attachment, but accept game downloads via sources like the Humble Bundle app.
2. Other App Stores Aren’t Necessarily Safe
While sketchy apps do occasionally slip through Google’s checks, the Play Store is a relatively safe place to download software. Risks come primarily in the form of tracking and apps requesting more permissions than they need. You’re less likely to encounter overt malware.
Alternative app stores come from organizations with fewer resources. Some, like the Amazon Appstore, may come from well-established names, but that doesn’t mean a store is safe; the Amazon Appstore can pose a security risk.
You have to do a bit of research and decide which sources are trustworthy. You might decide you prefer to stick with Google.
3. There Aren’t Enough Apps
At the end of the day, the Play Store has more Android apps than any other app store. Some may offer more enticing deals or provide more curated software, but Google’s shop is most likely to have what you want. Video game companion apps, apps for wearables, and modern car apps are all only found on Google Play.
If you tend to use a wide range of apps, then you may quickly tire of the limited options available elsewhere. That said, there’s nothing stopping you from using alternative app stores for some software and the Play Store for others. Well, almost nothing…
4. You Might Have Conflicting Updates
Alternative app stores don’t always offer the same app version that appears in Google Play. Sometimes the version numbers don’t match, especially when the secondary app store lags behind the Play Store. In other cases, software might possess features that aren’t supported in the Play Store-friendly version. You may also run into issues if you have multiple app stores installed that all try to deliver updates.
One convenience of smartphones is that you really don’t have to think much about where to find apps and how to keep them up-to-date. Once you start installing alternate app stores, this becomes an issue again.
Do You Have an Issue With Google?
If you don’t trust Google, then swapping out the Google Play Store is really only a starting point. Do you use Gmail? Google Docs? Google Assistant? If you have misgivings about the software giant, then you’re going to need to go further.
Can you use Android without Google? Absolutely, but like using an app store other than Google Play, your heart has to be in it.