Custom Android ROMs for the Average Person

 

CyanogenMod Graphic

I just recently finished up a months long ambition to switch my cell phone over to CyanogenMod custom ROM. This is something I’ve been wanting to do/researching for a while now. I’ve found a ton of information on the subject, but as a ‘non-techie’ person, I’ve found it very confusing and difficult to parse out. Now that I’ve done it though, I don’t think it’s actually that hard, so I want to try to give a basic intro to the concept for someone who’s unfamiliar with it (as I was a few months ago). This is NOT going to teach you how to put a custom ROM on your phone. The goal is to help you understand what you’re reading/watching as you research how to do it on your particular phone.

 

Why

Why would you want to ‘flash a custom ROM’? Well, for most people who are doing it, it’s a desire to play with their phones, update the look or ‘feel’ of the phone or otherwise just geek out about phones. That’s why I’m writing this guide, because basically everything I could find on the process was from a fairly geeky/technical perspective and seemed to assume that you know all sorts of things about phones and how they work that I and my non-techie friends are clueless about.

What’s wrong with the Android that’s already on your phone? Well, there’s been plenty written about that, by more knowledgeable folks than I, but basically the big issue is slow updates that eventually stop (my phone, which was a flagship phone in 2013 was running android 4.2.2 that it shipped with in 2013) this leaves security vulnerabilities unpatched, which is bad news. In addition to that, there are lots of functions/apps installed by the manufacturers which you might or might not want, and which may have privacy issues. Lastly, in many custom ROMS, most notably CyanogenMod, you have better control of the privacy settings on all your apps, like iOs allows. So, you can disable location, or contacts access, or any other permission that an app asks for. This is a big deal. However, Google has (finally) added that in to Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which is what most premier devices are shipping with today (June 2016).

 

Should you do it?

If you are using an older android device, and don’t want to switch, I would recommend it. If you’re using anything that currently has the latest version of Android (6.0 at the moment) or you don’t mind switching to an iOs device, then I wouldn’t worry about this.

 

Some definitions:

Bootloader

This is what starts your phone up, and allows it to boot up the operating system.

Why is it important?
Many manufacturers lock the bootloader, which prevents you from doing any of the things you need to do to load a new ROM.

What do you need to know/do?
You need to unlock the bootloader. On some devices, you just go to the manufacturer’s website, and can download a code that allows you to do this. On some, you have to use a work around that someone has found. On some devices, you can’t unlock it at all (yet).

 

Custom Recovery

‘Recovery Mode’ is a program that accesses the device and it’s file’s without access to the actual functionality of the apps. I believe that it exists in stock android, but you can’t necessarily access it or use it. When you install a custom recovery (common examples: TWRP, Clockworkmod, Safestrap) you can start (boot) your phone into recovery mode instead of regular operating mode. Below are some screenshots of TWRP in use.

TWRP

Why is it important?
This is the tool that is used to both make backups and actually install a new ROM if you choose to do so.

What do you need to know/do?
Once you have root access, you should be able to just install the custom recovery of your choice from the play store

Flash

This is just the mobile device word for install. It means the same thing.

ROM

This is basically the Mobile device word for Operating System. It’s really a little more complicated than that, but for our purposes you can think of it the same way you would think of Windows 10, or OSX, or iOs or Linux.

Root

This simply means to gain full access to all the files on your phone. Technically, ‘Root Access’ means that you have read and write ability in the root folder of your device designated as “/” drive. In a Windows computer file structure the :c// drive is the root. So this is basically administrator access for the entire device.

Why is it important?
Gaining root access is a necessary prerequisite for most (if not all) installations of Custom Recoverys and Custom ROMS. There are also a lot of other things you can do with Root Access. That said, it’s a fairly dangerous thing to do (as such things go) so I wouldn’t root your phone unless you’re generally pretty careful about what apps you install, and, if you do install a custom ROM, I’d go ahead and disable the root access after that.

What do you need to know/do?
The process of rooting varies with every device. Google ‘root X phone type’ and you’ll probably find several methods. I’ve used TowelRoot successfully, and it’s really easy, so I’d recommend it if that’s an option for your device. Keep in mind, these are all work arounds that someone has figured out to bypass security measures that the manufacturers have installed to keep you from having this access. So 1). Vet the method you’re using. Try to find 2-3 tutorials on it from popular sites. Check it out on XDA forums or the CynaogenMod wiki. 2). Because they are work arounds, there are sometimes (often) multiple ways to root a given device, and there are certainly multiple tutorials on how to do it. Looking at dates is important. If you google “how to root my phone that came out in 2012” and find a bunch of information bemoaning how it’s impossible, look at the date. Those are likely OLD news, and you should ignore them. Doing a time based filter on your search may help. The older a device is, the more time people have had to crack it, and the more likely that there’s a nice easy way to root it!

GAPPS: 

GAPPS stands for Google APPS, and it is a package of Google applications that come preinstalled on android phones. It’s not part of the Operating system, so it is generally installed separately from your custom ROM. They can be found at opengapps.org .There are multiple levels as seen below.

 

GAPPS

Why are they important?
If you want to use apps on your phone, you’ll probably want access to Google Play. You can sideload apps, but I doubt that the security trade off is worth the privacy gain. The Pico installation will give you JUST the Play store. If you want to still use other things, you can step up the ladder. The big difference is extra functionality that is not part of apps. If you just want to use Google calendar, or something, then you can download that app individually via the play store. The higher level installations include things like “Ok Google”/Google now software. Of course, I’m not much of a fan of those due to their spying nature, but if you want them, this is how to get them.

What do you need to know/do?
Go to the site, download the appropriate package for your device. Install it the same way you will install the custom ROM.

 

 

The Basic Process of installing a custom ROM:

Unlock your bootloader

Install a custom Recovery (such as TWRP)

Backup your current system using TWRP

Make sure that you have things like your contacts, photos, app content etc. backed up so you can reinstall them (Titanium Backup is an excellent app for this)

Download the ROM you want and a GAPPS package to your computer

Transfer the file onto your Device

Use TWRP to install the new ROM onto your device

Install GAPPs (Google apps, gives you the play store and however much more you want)

Reboot

Enjoy an up to date Android experience

 

So why did I do it?

The short answer: I did it because I’m too cheap to switch to iphone. While I don’t think that iPhone is perfect, from what I know about it, I’d have been happy with their security and privacy measures. Unfortunately, iPhone’s are more expensive than android phones in the used market, which is where I buy. I use a prepaid carrier, with a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) plan. I just buy 1-2 generation old phone’s from EBAY or SWAPPA.COM and use them. This allows me to have good quality phone’s for $100-200 apiece. I’ve been doing this for about 2 years now (with several hiccups and carrier changes along the way) and overall I’m quite happy with it. That said, this rational is also important if you can’t or won’t switch to iPhone for any other reason. If you don’t care which you have, and you want the quickest, easiest solution to better privacy and more frequent updates: just go get an iPhone. In the future I would like to do some more research on how CyanogenMod (or other ROMs) compare to iOs, but I have not yet found any really good information on that. They do definitely allow you to upgrade the OS on older android devices, which is a pretty big deal from a security standpoint.

 

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