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.