What’s That ROM? A Device Modding FAQ

It’s been around 10 months since I got an LG Optimus One, my first Android phone. It’s isn’t terrible, but it’s not a beast of a phone either. There used to be at least a couple occasions every day when I would wish it did just a tad more – especially in the last couple of months when my installed app base had started to reach monstrous proportions, threatening to use up all my internal memory every couple of hours.

Over a comparatively quiet weekend in August, I decided to finally take the plunge and install a custom port of the insanely popular CyanogenMod for my phone. The research started at trying to find the best ROM for my phone and going through page after page of discussions, tutorials and walkthroughs of how to do it. I ended up spending around six hours trying to absorb as much information as there was about the process before hitting the dreaded ‘Wipe’ button that you need to press before installing a new ROM. The actual process took no more than 20 minutes, and I’m so happy with the end result, I spend an unhealthy amount of time every day hitting myself for not doing it before.

In this article, I will try and compress all my research from various sites into a single FAQ, hoping to reduce the time you’ll spend trying to figure things out, so you can spend more time playing around with the new coat of paint on your device’s walls. Let’s jump in right away.

Q: What is a custom ROM and why should I install one?

A custom ROM is a version of the Android operating system, with certain modifications. The open source nature of Android makes it easy for any developer to take the source code and tweak it the way they want. Customizations to the OS can range from trivial to very deep, depending on the developers’ intent and the amount of time they spend on it.

As for the reasons to install one, here’s my top list:

  • I hate the bloatware that comes pre-installed with virtually every Android phone these days, eating up valuable internal memory and cluttering my app drawer for no good reason. Most custom ROMs will come without any unnecessary apps, leaving a clean, stock Android experience.
  • Given their focus on speed and minimalism, custom ROMs usually feel snappier and run faster than stock ROMs. This is especially true of the excellent CyanogenMod.
  • You can start playing around with the internals of your device – like overclocking the processor speed – if you are into that kind of stuff.
  • Most importantly, for a lot of devices, custom ROMs are the only way to upgrade to the latest version of Android. If you are stuck with Froyo with a perennial ‘coming soon’ update like me, this is a way to tell the manufacturers and carriers to take a hike, and to take matters into your own hands.

If you still need validation, try this, this and this.

Q: Do I need to root my phone to install a custom ROM?

A: Yes. You need access to the device’s internals to be able to update or replace the entire operating system. Most carriers and manufacturers lock access to the administration level of the OS – the root – to keep applications from messing with it. Rooting is the process of gaining, well, root access.

Q: Do I need to be a geek to do this?

A: Nope. Contrary to what you may have been led to believe, rooting your phone does not involve any hardware tools, cryptic terminal commands or even a connection to a PC (at least in some cases). For some devices, it is as simple as installing an app (like Z4root) and tapping a button. For others, it is a matter of installing some software on your computer, connecting the phone to the PC, and clicking a button. It all depends on your phone. Check here for an always up-to-date guide to rooting any Android phone.

Q: Will I need to re-install all my apps?

A: Yes. Think of this as re-installing the operating system on your computer. All apps will be deleted and the new ROM will come with a standard set. You will need to install the others either by sideloading them (copying the installers on your device and launching them from the phone) or through the Android Market app.

Some ROMs, like CyanogenMod, don’t even package the basic Google apps like Gmail and the Android Market to avoid getting into trouble with Google. They do provide a single installer package for the apps though, which needs to be installed separately.

If you would like to avoid the hassle of reinstalling everything from scratch, you can use something like Titanium Backup after rooting your device. It does what you might think it does – back up your apps and data. If you want to back your data up before rooting, check out this guide.

Q: Will everything on my phone be deleted?

A: Internal memory – Yes. SD Card – Probably not. All folders on your SD Card will remain there after the new ROM is installed; they just won’t have any apps referring to them yet. Once you install the apps again, some of them will automatically recognize the files in their folders and will let you restore your data when you first start your app. For others, you may need to do it manually. Again, Titanium Backup is your friend if you want to avoid the hassle.

Q: Can this brick my phone?

A: Although it is no doubt a possibility, I would say it is very rare. As long as you stick with the reputed ROMs and read their install directions carefully, it is highly unlikely that you will render your phone unusable.

Q: Okay, I’m sold. How do I install a new ROM?

A: Easiest way – install ROM Manager from the Android Market. Yep, you read it right. The Android Market does in fact contain apps that let you mess around with the deepest innards of your device. How’s that for open?

ROM Manager makes the process of finding the right ROMs for your device and installing them a breeze. Simply install the app, let it automatically install the latest version of the ClockworkMod recovery for your device, then scroll through the list of ROMs for your phone, and download and install the one you want. Done!

It is quite possible that ROM Manager won’t list a whole lot of custom ROMs for your device. Thankfully installing pretty much any other ROM is still pretty straightforward. Your first step in this adventure should be finding the forum for your phone on XDA-Developers and browsing through the list of ROMs in the Development sub-forum. Find the one you like and then follow the steps here to flash it to your device.

Q: Still sounds risky. Is there a Plan B if things go wrong?

A: Sure there is. ROM Manager will let you – nay, prompt you – to make a backup of your current Android setup so that you can go back and restore it in case things get messed up while installing the new ROM. It’s as simple as making a backup and then restoring it from the recovery menu when you boot into it.

Q: Is it worth all the trouble?

A: Have you even been reading everything so far!? One, it’s hardly any trouble at all. Two, it’s like getting a spanking new, better engine for your car. For free. Why wouldn’t you do it?

Q: Won’t this void my warranty?

A: Yes and no. Depending on your device, you might be able to do a factory reset and go back to the way your device was when you got it! This means that, even though you’ll have technically voided your warranty, no-one will be able to tell. If you do have a device that will carry traces of a custom ROM having been installed (unlocking the boot loader is a process that cannot be reversed on certain devices), there is a chance that your carrier or manufacturer won’t mind it and will fix the device for you anyways.

In any case, the advantages of rooting and installing a custom ROM on your Android device far outweigh the risks.

Got some more questions or better answers to these questions? Let’s hear about them in the comments below.

  • Martin

    I’m just on the cusp of installing a new ROM on my HTC Desire, hesitating because of time and making sure I understand the process. I’m most nervous about rooting the phone as there seems to be lots of different ways to do this. Which method did you end up using?

    (With my Desire, I’ve always had to battle with not enough memory for apps. More space for apps is the feature I’m most looking forward to in a new ROM!)

    Thanks for the article.

    • http://ashish.bogawat.com Ashish Bogawat

      I went with Z4Root because my phone was supported. For the Desire it seems like the unrevoked method is most recommended. Check out this detailed tutorial in case you haven’t already – http://theunlockr.com/2010/09/20/how-to-root-the-htc-desire-unrevoked-method/.

    • 5starsM

      XDA forums are your best friends. It is simple as follow step by step what is written on the forum.
      if you know how to read and is willing to give a bit of attention to make sure to follow the easy-made-steps carefully, it should be like a hot knife slicing through butter

      • Martin

        Thanks Ashish. I’ll follow that method. Fingers crossed! I can see that I might change ROMs regularly once I’m over the first hurdle.

        5starsM – I do find the XDA forums intimidating at time, mainly because it is forum based and finding the right article isn’t always easy. That might be a bit unfair and I should spend a bit more time looking through the site. It’s certainly where the experts hang out.

  • DruidPriest

    I’ve had my HTC EVO rooted for nearly a year now I don’t think I could go back to stock HTC ROM ever again I love the freedom and changing ROMS is a breeze. I have even started dabbling in ROM developing.

  • 5starsM

    from my end, as soon as i opened the box of my desire HD, i rooted immediately my phone, switched the stock rom for CM.
    Was my first android phone, but compared to the process on changing OS on windows mobile phones, it was too much intuitive than what i’d ever imagine.

    But really, ditching stock ROM is the first thing to do with a new phone. CM7 put the android experience to a different level.

  • Adam

    Excellent and helpful article!

    Although I would consider myself to be an intermediate to advanced Windows user, I found rooting my Droid and installing a new ROM to be more technical than this article would indicate.

    A few caveats to this article when rooting and installing a new ROM:

    – I ignored the suggestion in the article about the z4root application. z4root is a dated application and no longer available in the Android marketplace.
    – Make sure to unmount your SD card (if you have one installed in your phone) PRIOR to connecting your phone to your computer.
    – After SuperOneClick (the application recommended in the article) is finished rooting your phone it will ask you if you want to install BusyBox. Choose Yes, as it is for programs like Titanium Backup to give you some additional LINUX / UNIX based commands which you may need for some root level tasks. Or if you have Titanium installed, you can hit the problems button, it will download and install BusyBox.
    – After the phone is rooter, make sure to reboot your phone (i.e. press the power button and choose “Reboot”) in order for the root to work properly.
    – An important notice regarding ROM Manager: The first FEW times I tried to run Flash ClockworkMod in ROM Manager, my Droid 1 would turn off and come back on locked up with the exclamation point with the triangle around it. I thought I had bricked the phone, but after pressing the power button for awhile I could get the phone to shut off and reboot. Apparently, this is not a very unusual thing to happen and the advice is to just keep attempting to run “Flash ClockwordMod” in ROM Manager until it works. When it works, it will happen quick and without problems and your phone will not shut off.
    – Although I used Titanium Backup to back up my applications, after some consideration I did NOT use it to restore my applications on my new ROM install. I read where restoring installed apps from previous ROMs can cause problems so I opted to install each one individually.
    – When installing the CyanogenMod it will ask you if you want to install Google Apps. I would recommend doing this, as CyanogenMod (as apparently most ROMs) don’t come with the Android Market as part of the package.
    – Regarding ROMs, at first I attempted installing CyanogenMod (CM) 6.1.2, thinking Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) wouldn’t do well on my Droid 1. Boy was I wrong. CM 6.1.2 I found to be very buggy and slow whereas CM 7.0.3 I found to be very fast and stable.

    • Sweetness

      Well said

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  • deepesh

    hi ashish….well i have samsung gt i5801 and its upgrated to froyo already by the service center.but now i want to root my phone and they say that the superone click is best for such devices..so i m rooting that way..but what about roms.how to install em.and what are the pros and cons …its just that i just want my device to be fully customized.later on that but for now i just wanna know about how the roms to be installed in my device.plz help.thanks

  • Siam

    Thanks for the article. I’m just wondering which CyanogenMod your using for your Optimus One P500 as I happen to have the same phone.


  • learning2livelyf

    I am waiting for ICS to go stable for the att sgs2. I was wondering if their are settings to use the phone or if it’s taken care of automatically?

  • Wes

    Should I wait for my warranty to be up before I root, because I still have about 4-5 months before my phone is a year old. I really want to root, but I’m still conscience of my warranty ending before it is supposed to be. BTW, I have a HTC Desire from Asia.

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