Android custom ROMs: What are they, and how to install them

With the constant rush to trumpet the latest phones it’s easy to think of old phones as obsolete. Most carriers encourage this with a spotty record on upgrading their existing phones to the latest and greatest software. Worse yet, some perfectly good phones are burdened with extra software and limitations, imposed by the carrier from the first day they ship.

Fortunately there is often a great solution to both of these problems: Installing custom ROMs (Read-Only Memories) on your phone. ROMs are the low level programming (also often called firmware) that contain the operating system and basic applications to make your phone work. For the iPhone and iPad those ROMs come from Apple and can typically only be updated when Apple issues updates. But for Android devices there are literally hundreds of developers working on custom ROMs for most common models of phones and tablets, which they are happy to share with the community. The big question for most users is whether it is worth the hassle of installing a custom ROM, and if so, what is the best way to do it safely.

The first thing to know is that messing with your phone’s firmware can be risky. You can potentially “brick” your phone so that it won’t be usable without some major low-level hacking. So, at least until you are comfortable with installing ROMs, it’s best to use an older phone or tablet to work with — proceed at your own risk.

The benefits of a custom ROM

Android bloatwareThe most basic benefit of custom ROMs is getting rid of “bloatware” — the trial or otherwise unwanted software carriers often include in the ROM to get you to buy more stuff, that you may not need, and that takes up precious room on your device. When ROM “cooks” (ROM terminology often uses a kitchen metaphor, with cooking being a common name for the process of building a custom ROM) create a ROM, the first thing they leave out is the space-consuming trial software. They may also leave out many of the included utilities, letting their users add them back only if they need them. Often they also strip out vendor- or carrier-specific versions of the launcher, replacing them with Google’s original versions or a version they prefer.

Beyond simple fixes, custom ROMs can also open a whole world of new possibilities for your device. In many cases newer versions of Android are available for your device as custom ROMs, beyond what your carrier has released or is planning to release. The Viewsonic gTablet is a great example of that, with several different custom Honeycomb (Android 3.0) ROMs available for it, even though there is almost no chance Viewsonic will ever bother to try to port Honeycomb to it.

Custom ROMs can also include other cool features, like overclocking, themes, private browsing support, and so on. The gTablet’s Nvidia Tegra chipset, clocked at 1GHz “by the book,” can be overclocked to 1.6GHz with the right combination of ROMs and a custom kernel, with corresponding performance improvements. In some cases custom ROMs can even completely re-invent existing devices. There is already an alpha version of an Android ROM out for the HP Touchpad, a webOS device, for example.

How to get started

The first rule of installing custom ROMs is the same as the first rule of doctoring — do no harm. So the best place to start is with a good backup of your stock ROM (firmware), your applications and your data. For ROMs, many manufacturers openly post the factory ROMs for the use of hackers in case they need to restore them. This increasingly enthusiastic support of custom ROM developers by vendors, including HTC and Samsung, has made the process much more safe.

ROM Manager

If you need to backup your current ROMs yourself, utilities such as ROM Manager are free (or cheap) and up to the task. Titanium Backup or similar software can back up all your applications and data, for a quick restore if needed after flashing your new ROM. These backups are important not just in case of a problem but because sometimes the Android marketplace doesn’t recognize custom ROMs, and the only way to restore an application is from a backup — at least until the custom ROM developer sorts out the issue.

Creating a Recovery option

The terminology for installing your own ROMs is confusing, but one important piece is that your Android device can boot into either a Recovery Mode or into the regular ROMs and kernel. Installing a recovery manager lets you install and recover ROMs, wipe caches, and do other housekeeping chores. By far the most popular recovery manager (not to be confused with backup and recovery software) is ClockworkMod. Installing it is usually a prerequisite to working with custom ROMs — and requires just a couple of pokes once you’ve installed ROM Manager.

Read on for how to find a custom ROM, and how to actually install it



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