I’m not done hacking my Android devices

May 27, 2013
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Android Superuser

Android isn’t an one size fits all platform. Android allows for many choices from smartphone hardware, to smartphone software. Shopping for a smartphone can actually be a pretty daunting task. For most consumers, having such a large variety to choose from is enough customization to fit their needs. Others however, like to take their customization one step further by rooting and running custom firmware on their Android devices.

Recently, one of our colleagues in the mobile industry over at Mobile Syrup wrote that he was done hacking his smartphone. Daniel Bader wrote that he no longer needs the customization that ROMs such as CyanogenMod bring to the table. Daniel made some good points that major OEM user experiences have gotten better over the years. They offer a wide variety of software features that differ from one OEM to the next. OEM user interfaces themselves have even gotten much better. Take a look at HTC’s Sense UI. It’s gotten faster and much simpler as of late.

Call me old fashioned, but the thrill of the chase — that perfect Android experience — through a custom ROM is just no longer there.

I’m going to have to disagree with you, Daniel. I’m not done hacking my smartphone. In fact, over 5 million users have installed CyanogenMod and there’s plenty more installing other custom ROMs such as Paranoid Android or AOKP. The custom ROM scene on Android is thriving. More and more users every day are rooting their phones and running custom firmware for various reasons.

A nightly build isn’t stable software

Let’s take a look at Daniel’s example, the HTC One. HTC has finally hit a home run with Sense 5, in my opinion. It’s minimal, it’s fast, and it has just the right amount of features to not feel overly bloated. Sense 5 has a very nice laid out user experience that millions will enjoy. The HTC One is still a fairly new device, launching about a month ago. In fact, the HTC One just received official CyanogenMod 10.1 support via nightly builds on May 10th.

the HTC One benchmarks lower on CM10.1

You can’t compare firmware that was ran, tested, and tweaked for months internally with custom software built from the ground up (without full source mind you) that is only 17 days old. If you’ve been around the custom ROM scene for a while, you know that device stability and support grows as time goes on. A nightly build, especially during the first few weeks or months, is experimental software. It’s bleeding edge technology, showing that better things are to come as time progresses.  Official CM10.1 support doesn’t mean it’s instantly amazing (it should be dammit!) it means that a developer was able to get the hardware functioning and the CM code was able to be merged without breaking everything.

Over the next few weeks or even months (no ETAs!) these nightly builds will get more and more stable. Sometimes you’ll see increased frame rates, lag reduction, sometimes you’ll see better working hardware such as better camera support, maybe even better Bluetooth connectivity, WiFi or data connection. My point is, there’s still tons of work left  and developers are hard at work doing what they do best, squashing bugs.

Why do we do it?

Why do we sacrifice stability and OEM software features for instability and different software features? It boils down to choice and the lesser of two evils. As I said in the beginning, Android isn’t a once size fits all platform.  Not everyone likes Sense, even though it’s gotten much better. Not everyone likes Samsung’s TouchWiz UI experience.

Where do you fall in line?

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  • You love your smartphone’s software and hardware. Everything just works and rainbows and unicorns (not to be confused with AOKP) are pouring out of your phone.
  • You love your smartphone’s hardware, but you don’t like the software. Maybe you think it feels bloated. Maybe you like a more minimal approach. Maybe you like the way that stock Android looks and feels.

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If you fall into the second generalization, you’re left with choosing a lesser of two evils. Do you stay with software you don’t like, but generally works great?  Do you move to software that you do like, but has the slight chance of not running as good as your stock, out of the box experience? Those of us that love customization and love a stock feeling Android smartphone will deal with a few bugs here and there while we wait for our custom ROM to reach it’s full potential.

No one wants to be stuck with a device they don’t like.

If you want a stock experience, buy a Nexus device, right?

It’s not always that simple of an answer, sadly. Some people need more local storage and can’t rely on the cloud. Some people need microSD card support. Some people, such as myself, live in areas without any GSM service and can’t use the Nexus 4. Some people can’t change carriers for various reasons.

Just because you can’t own a Nexus device doesn’t mean you should be left out of the true Android experience. You can try to take matters into your own hands with custom ROMs. You can attempt to make your device feel like a Nexus. While the experience won’t be exactly the same, and you might have to deal with a bug or two along the way, you do what you have to do to make yourself happy with the hardware you have to run.

Lastly, I believe hardware manufacturers are starting to realize this. We Android users might love your hardware experience, but aren’t set on your packaged software. Samsung and Google are working together to sell a Google Edition, stock experience, Samsung Galaxy S4 in the near future. It’s also been reported that HTC is going to join in on the stock Android experience with their HTC One in the coming weeks. Maybe we’ll see similar initiatives from other major players such as LG and Sony in the future. Who knows. Until then, Android allows us to choose the hardware that works for us and if need be, run the software that works for us too.

Are you running a custom ROM on your smartphone or are you happy with what your hardware manufacturer gave you out of the box? Let me know in the comments.

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