The moment you realize you can flash your Android phone with a new ROM is a pivotal one. Suddenly, you’re free: Endless customization options, no more vendor bloatware, and, best of all, you don’t have to wait for official updates. But that freedom can soon turn into confusion: There are just so many ROMs out there! Which should you pick?
If you’ve never flashed a ROM before and are trying to figure out what’s the best ROM for your device, this is the post you’ve been looking for. I’ll be covering four of the most important ROMs available today, and then some.
The Mother Lode: XDA
Before we start discussing any particular ROM, there is one thing you need to know: When you need the most current information about ROMs for your device, go to the XDA Developers forums. Don’t do it right now: If you don’t know anything about ROMs, XDA may prove too daunting at first. But after your read this post and have some context, XDA is your #1 authoritative source for up-to-the-minute ROM information. That’s where the ROM developers hang out and showcase their creations.
Now let’s talk ROMs.
Claim to fame: “CyanogenMod offers the most barebone Android experience coupled with some very powerful tweaks.”
Whereas other Android ROMs are stuffed full of crazy customizations, CyanogenMod works to keep everything lean and mean. It offers an experience that’s relatively close to what is known as “stock” or AOSP (Android Open Source Project) — the pristine version of Android you’d be running if you had a Nexus device.
CyanogenMod is a very mature ROM. If you’re sick of your phone’s bloated and ugly interface and are wishing you had a Nexus, this is what you need. A rock-solid option for people who just need their phone to work.
- Offers a clean, uncluttered user interface.
- Supports themes.
- Has an audio equalizer.
- Lets you customize the Quick Settings.
Official website: http://www.cyanogenmod.org
Claim to fame: “With AOKP, you can generally do a lot more with your device than what you could do with the original firmware that came installed on it.”
Where CyanogenMod is restrained and pragmatic, AOKP celebrates the freedom to tweak and customize. Its exuberant website touts its “magical unicorn bytes,” but really, what you’re getting is a boatload of features bolted onto what used to be stock Android. If you like Cyanogen but hanker for something with a bit more oomph, AOKP might be the ROM you were looking for.
- Vibration patterns: You can make per-contact custom vibration patterns, so you know who’s calling you when the phone is still in your pocket.
- Custom toggles: These take things a step further than the Cyanogen Quick Settings.
- Custom navigation ring: You know that ring that pops up when you press the Android home button, which lets you swipe up for Google Now? AOKP lets you completely customize that, adding up to five different swipe targets. Seriously useful (for me, at least).
With AOKP, that’s really just the tip of the iceberg.
Official website: http://aokp.co/
Claim to fame: Truly unprecedented levels of customization, with features that aren’t based on stock Android at all.
Where CyanogenMod hews closely to Android’s original vision, and AOKP bolts on interesting customization, Paranoid Android introduces features that are on a completely different level. Their Google+ community has a Features tag which is a long list that shows what each feature does, but see below for a taste.
- Hybrid Engine: This lets you define the DPI on a per-app basis. In simple terms, you could have Gmail really really tiny (so lots of text fits in), but Titanium Backup nice and big, so that you don’t make any mistakes and delete your entire phone because you missed a tiny button. So, each app has its own size, and some have their own layout, so you can use Gmail’s tablet interface on your phone. An incredibly powerful feature.
- Pie Controls: This is something you can do with Cyanogen, too: Remove the bottom bar and the top status bar, so that every app takes up the full screen. To access the controls, just swipe from the side of the device and a “pie” menu opens up:
- HALO: Think Facebook’s “chat heads” on steroids. This is a powerful way to show notifications from apps. Here’s a video that shows it in action:
Official website: None. There’s a Google Plus page, though.
Claim to fame: Offering the best of all worlds.
Can’t decide which of the three aforementioned ROMs is best for you? No problem: PAC ROM combines them all into one! PAC stands for ParanoidAndroid, AOKP, CyanogenMod. It’s a ROM that adds very little original functionality, instead just mashing up everything that’s great about the three ROMs above, for a truly no-compromise experience. That’s my personal ROM of choice, and I’ve reviewed PAC ROM for Xperia Z before.
- Sensible settings: As you can imagine, mashing up three ROMs can create a nightmare in the Settings screen. PAC resolves this and harmonizes all settings from the three ROMs into something that (sort of) makes sense.
- You don’t have to choose: That’s the key selling point, really. Enjoy the best features of AOKP and Paranoid Android, along with the stock sensibilities offered by CyanogenMod.
Official website: http://pac-rom.com/
These four ROMs hold one thing in common: They’re device-agnostic. In other words, if you have a recent-model mainstream device, it is likely that all four ROMs will be available for it. That’s why I focused on them. That said, there’s also a completely different breed of custom ROMs: ROMs based off whatever flavor of Android your phone was running when you first took it out of the box.
For example, HONAMiXZ is a ROM for the Sony Xperia Z, based on Sony’s custom firmware. You get a very similar look to what you had to begin with, but with more customization options. This is important for people who like the stuff phone makers put on their phones: Maybe you adore HTC Sense. I cannot cover these ROMs extensively since they change on a per-device basis, but you should know they exist.
Installing: Not Here
One thing notably missing from this roundup of ROMs is how to install your ROM of choice once you figure out what you want. The good news is that now that you know what these ROMs do, you can safely go to XDA and start digging around. When you find the thread for the ROM you want, it will also have installation instructions.
For a MakeUseOf take on installing a custom ROM, check out How To Find & Install a Custom ROM For Your Android Device. This is an abbreviated guide, but it does give a general sense of how to go about things.
What’s Your ROM of Choice?
Are you currently using any of the ROMs I’ve covered? If so, which one? And if not, will you be installing one of these? Let me know below.