Ask LH: Can I Buy A Smartphone That Doesn’t Link To The Cloud?

Ask LH: Can I Buy A Smartphone That Doesn’t Link To The Cloud?

Hey Lifehacker, My iPhone 4 is about to die and I will be looking for a replacement phone soon. I have a few privacy concerns with linking a smartphone device to a cloud account and would like to know what your thoughts are on the best “offline smartphone”. Currently my iPhone is not using iCloud, syncs to an offline contact list/calendar with my MacBook, and uses a standalone IMAP mail server.

A new iPhone is beyond my budget, unfortunately. Is an Android, Windows Phone or BlackBerry usable in this mode when “cloudless” and not linked to an account?

Cloud Closed

Phone picture from Shutterstock

Dear CC,

The answer to your question rather depends on what you mean by “usable”. Virtually every modern smartphone relies on you having an account associated with it in order to let you install apps — it’s often the first question you’ll be asked when you turn on a new phone for the first time.

At best, skipping this step means you’ll only be able to use the built-in basic features (making calls, sending texts, and perhaps email) — no extra apps, which does somewhat subvert the “point” of the phone. At worst, the phone won’t let you past the startup screen without signing in using some kind of account. Newer Android phones also use Hangouts to manage text messages, which makes it even harder to avoid having an account.

You also need to be clear about what you mean by “cloud”. Storage services such as iCloud or Dropbox are just one aspect of this. If you have been using your existing iPhone with an Apple Store account to buy music or apps, you’re using the same account as iCloud — you’re just being more selective about what data you share.

The approach you currently have is relatively easy to replicate, but ultimately painful. Any smartphone will let you set up a connection to your existing IMAP email service, you don’t have to enable automatic uploading of pictures to Google Drive or OneDrive or Dropbox or wherever, and you don’t have to sign up for services such as Google Now that mine your existing data. You can generally manually import contacts and calendars, though continual syncing is trickier — syncing a central calendar is the default for most services these days. If the phone insists on a sign-in, you can set up an account purely for that purpose, then disable syncing of any kind.

Bottom line? You won’t be getting the full value from your smartphone, and you might find yourself repeatedly dismissing various prompts, but it’s your choice to make the trade-off. If privacy-minded readers have specific model recommendations, we’d like to hear them in the comments.


Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our [contact text=”contact form”].


  • Buy any of the Nexus line or a OnePlus One and then install Cyanogenmod* and don’t install Google Apps. (refurb Nexus 4’s are dirt cheap, Nexus 5/OnePlus are relatively cheap and you can’t afford a Nexus 6 by the sounds)

    * or any other Custom ROM, all custom Android ROM’s have to have Google Apps installed separately to the ROM.

    Advantage of Android over other OS’s is that you can sideload apps. (many however may need Google Play Services to run)

  • Thanks for answering this question Lifehacker, I knmow the guy who sent it to you šŸ˜‰

    I forgot about having to sign in to the Apple Store account to install apps. Dammit there’s no escape!

    I’ve noticed that it’s possible to install apps without some kind of account on an old Nokia 208 feature phone. Perhaps a Nokia Asha is the solution, if all I want is contacts/calendar/e-mail/keyboard and I wish to stay off the ‘cloud’ grid…?

Show more comments

Comments are closed.

Log in to comment on this story!