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SECURITY

Hack Your Phone (Part 2)

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“Multi-device ROMs represent the best starting point for the new user”

The other issue that you should be aware of is that a rooted phone will no longer receive over-the-air updates from the manufacturer. Since custom ROMs based on the updated version will be available almost instantly, however, this won't inconvenience you.

Description: A new ROM can change the look
A new ROM can change the look

So you're ready to flash your ROM. The question now is where you find them, and which one should you choosing. ROMs are generally split into two groups. There are those based on AOSP (the Android Open Source Project) and present a 'pure' version of the Android experience; and there are those that are device specific, based on the device's own ROM, but tuned or streamlined for a particular purpose.

Using an HTC phone as an example, the first kind of ROM here would remove the HTC Sense U1 and all of its software and widgets, while the second would keep Sense but maybe remove some of the extra apps, or perhaps bring over some of the features of a new version of Sense to an older HTC device. This is crucial to your choice of ROM: do you want to keep and enhance the existing software on your phone, or do you want to remove it altogether?

As a general rule, replacing the manufacturer's software with a Vanilla version of Android delivers a noticeable speed boost, but you should remember that it can cost you a few features as well. The camera app in the HTC One series, for instance, is regarded as the best camera software in any phone, but you will no longer have it if you remove HTC Sense. It's likely that you'll find yourself trying several ROMs before you settle on one that you are most happy with.

Description:  Using an HTC phone as an example, the first kind of ROM here would remove the HTC Sense U1 all of its software and widgets

Using an HTC phone as an example, the first kind of ROM here would remove the HTC Sense U1 all of its software and widgets

There are many sources online for ROMs. The forums at xda-developers.com are the primary source, with sections dedicated to virtually every handset. Most ROMs are designed for specific handsets, but there are a few that are widely available for multiple devices, including CyanogenMod, AOKP and MIUI, and if you choose those you'll find websites specific to their development (and community forums providing support).

These multi-device ROMs represent the best starting point for the new user, and also the best place to go for a day-to-day ROM that you can install and then largely forget about. They have the largest user base and usually deliver the best balance between performance and stability. CyanogenMod, Oxygen and AOKP (Android Open Kang Project) are stock Android builds that are largely stripped back in terms of apps and features, but have large numbers of options for those that want to configure and tweak their phones. Modaco Custom ROMs (MCR) are based on a device's official ROM - so you'd keep Sense on an HTC device, or TouchWiz on a Samsung one - but are tweaked and optimized for best performance. Through the forum at www.modaco.com you can also customize which apps are included.

Another major ROM suitable for general day-to-day use is MIU1. This represents a significant departure from the normal look and feel of Android, with completely redesigned icons (and support for skinning) and even the removal of the traditional home screens and apps panel paradigm, replacing it with a series of home screens onto which all your stuff goes, much like on an iPhone. It's a very popular ROM, but one that tends to polarize opinion among those that try it.

Description:  Android Open Kang Project

Android Open Kang Project

If you're looking for a ROM for a particular purpose you'll need to investigate those that are built for your specific model of phone. The main things you'll be looking to add are improved speed, longer battery life, or additional apps.

Thanks to the rise in popularity of benchmarking software, speedy ROMs are very common, as developers look to deliver faster performance than their peers. Some will be overclocked, meaning that the processor will be set to run at a faster speed than was originally intended. This has an instant adverse impact on battery life, and will also likely cause the phone to heat up more than it would, which can be the cause of other potential problems.

For extending battery life you're likely to get better results from a new kernel than from a ROM. The kernel is a program that controls the interaction between hardware and software, and so can control things like how much power a phone will use to maintain a connection to a 3G network. A more power-efficient kernel can produce a noticeable improvement in battery life.

Some ROMs will express compatibility with certain kernels, and you can also check the feedback for the ROM you're using to see which kernels others have got. Flashing a kernel uses the same process as flashing a ROM, and there is even a ROM manager-style app, called Kernel Manager that simplifies the procedure even more. The risk is slightly greater when flashing a new kernel than when flashing a ROM, so it's generally not something you should do until you're confident about the entire process.

The other key benefit that you can get from hacking your phone is the addition of new features, and new apps. Often this is quite simple, such as adding newer versions of some of the built-in apps like Google Maps or Gmail without needing to update manually.

More interesting are the cases where the real power of the smartphone is enhanced. A good recent example is a mod for the HTC One X that doubles the bitrate of the video its camera shoots, enabling you to shoot footage at 2ombps, a significant improvement. Because the mod (which can be found at: http://bit.ly/KWuk3k) updates a system app, it needs to be flashed in the same way as you would flash a new ROM, so the usual precautions still apply.

Other mods you might want to try include removing the menu bar from the One X (found at: http://bit.ly/MY4vpI); adding new features to the Sony Xperia S camera app (http://bit.ly/JNaYEg) or even something as basic as adding a comma to the main screen of the Galaxy S II keyboard (http://bit.ly/KTntvq). As always check out the xda forum for your phone. There's a Themes and Apps sub-forum for most devices, and a search using the term [MOD] (complete with square brackets) will reveal untold treasures.

Unlike any other platform, where your phone stays the same from the day you take it out of the box to the day you throw it in your bottom drawer and upgrade, buying an Android smartphone is really only the start. Over the course of your device's two-year life span you can mold it into numerous shapes add features, upgrade the OS, and make it run faster, or slower, or for longer. With the right choice of ROMs and mods the possibilities are almost endless.

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