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The first Android smartphones had many problems. Rather than wait around for manufacturers to fix them, volunteer developers created custom ROMs to replace a phone’s default software.
Now over a decade has passed, and Android phones have gotten much better. So is it still worth installing a custom ROM? I think so. Here are several important reasons why you might want to install a custom Android ROM.
1. Keep Your Private Life Private
Smartphones go wherever our pants or purses go. In the living room, in the car, and in the office, they’re present and picking up a lot of information about us along the way. They know our voices, the people we text, what photos we share, the places we drive, where we shop, and the games we use to kill time.
You can go crazy trying to obtain complete privacy, but flashing a custom ROM does give you a bit more control. Not only can choose to avoid installing certain Google apps, but you often have a greater say in what parts of your phone are accessible. If you use an app store like F-Droid, you can also rest knowing the apps you install aren’t mining you for information.
2. Take Ownership of Your Phone
When you buy a phone, you own it… with a few conditions.
You can’t remove certain apps and services. It won’t let you access system files. And you can’t change bothersome aspects of the interface. It’s technically your device, but there are many tweaks you don’t have permission to make.
Installing a custom ROM puts you in control of your own hardware. You can swap out one operating system for another, tweak more settings, and change the experience until you’re as happy with Android as you can get. Then your phone is truly yours to do with as you please.
3. Personalize Everything
You’re now empowered to take tweaking your phone to the next level. Android is already immensely customizable, letting you swap out the launcher, replace icons, and create gestures. But a custom ROM gives you access to everything else.
Like having the clock at the center of the notification bar? Put it there. Don’t like having the Bluetooth icon clutter up your status bar? Hide it. Hate the changes your manufacturer made to the way stock Android looks? Get rid of them and perform your own tweaks instead.
4. Use Free and Open Source Software
Android is an open source operating system, though it may not feel all that much like one. Most of the apps that we install run proprietary code. The services that bring us core functionality are locked away from tinkerers. How do you weed through all this to find out what software is open source?
Install a custom ROM. Popular projects like LineageOS base their code off what goes into the Android Open Source Project (AOSP for short).
Open source purists can buy an Android phone, flash a ROM, choose F-Droid over the Play Store, and walk away with a decent experience on top-of-the-line hardware. There may still be some closed-off bits here and there, but overall you’ll end up with a mobile experience relatively similar to the freedom you have on a Linux desktop.
5. Extend the Life of Your Phone
When I buy a computer, I know I’m getting a piece of hardware I can use for years. Generally speaking, I don’t have to replace the machine until I’m tired of it.
That’s not the case with phones. Every device you see in a carrier store comes with an expiration date. Most phones will see updates for no more than two years, while some won’t even make it half of that. This leaves buyers stranded on old versions of Android, where they’re vulnerable to security exploits and increasingly less able to run the latest apps.
The problem is, most phones physically outlive their support contract. Manufacturers and carriers shorten phone lifespans as a form of planned obsolescence.
Switching to a custom ROM will let you enjoy the latest version of Android long after your device’s official end of life. Like with your PC, you can then decide how long you use the gadget you paid good money for.
6. Be Less Reliant on Large Companies
Sometimes companies leave out features, ship poorly optimized software, add unnecessary tweaks, and insert apps that try to sell you junk.
Personally, this leaves me feeling more invested in a company’s decisions than I feel with other products. For the most part, a car is a car. Old video games still run in abandoned game consoles. When you go to the store to buy a hammer, do you even care what brand it is?
With phone makers, we’re in more of an ongoing relationship. But if you swap out the official software, you’re no longer invested in the company’s future decisions.
7. Get Android Updates Faster
For many people, Android updates come and go without much notice. For others, new releases can be the most exciting time of year. They can also be the most depressing, when you wait to see when, or if, your phone will ever receive the update.
Using a custom ROM lets you take matters into your own hands. They don’t offer a guarantee, but you may get lucky. I am currently running Android Pie on a phone that otherwise would still be on Oreo.
8. Remove Bloatware
Smartphones tend to come with more software installed than we need. Carriers sell devices with their own apps for texting, voicemail, and watching video. Unlocked phones may still come with ways to add stickers to photos, doodle using a stylus, or create GIFs—which you could have zero interest in. Even Pixel phones come pre-loaded with Google apps that you may not want.
You can’t remove most of the software that ships pre-installed. Android lets you disable apps, but you may not be able to hide everything. Switching to a custom ROM might be the only way to fully remove the bloatware you never want to see again.
9. Speed Everything Up
Some Android devices slow down over time. Others are slow out of the box. Either way, installing a custom ROM is one way to speed up your Android experience.
With older devices that have accumulated digital crud, installing a custom ROM offers the same benefit as performing a factory reset. You remove all of the stray files that have built up over the past year or two. But for some devices, factory resets don’t make a difference. The bloatware or bulky interface can put too much strain on the phone or slow the system down due to poorly optimized code.
A custom ROM can replace your phone’s default software with an experience that’s even cleaner than Google’s own phones.
10. Get Better Battery Life
Smartphone battery life has improved in recent years. While it used to be a struggle to make it through a day, newer devices are likely to get you through the night. If you’re not doing a lot, you may be able to get two or more days.
Custom ROMs can last even longer. You don’t have to deal with Google Play Services and other background services from Samsung, Huawei, Sony, or HTC. You can also underclock your device, telling the CPU to use less power when your phone isn’t in use.
11. Undo Unwanted Changes
New versions of Android offer battery and stability improvements, along with interface tweaks that make everyday phone use more convenient.
But not all changes are universally loved. You may loathe the way Android Pie requires two swipes to get to the app drawer. Maybe you prefer the settings menu or notification shade of older releases. It’s possible to address some of these by installing an alternative Android home launcher, but most changes are immutable.
To return the interface back to how you prefer, you need a custom ROM. And you don’t even necessarily need to run an older version of Android. You can run a ROM based on Android Pie that gives you the option to fine-tune certain aspects of the interface back to your liking.
12. Get Involved in the Android Community
Manufacturers and carriers view you as a consumer. The only feedback they’re particularly interested in is whether you will remain a customer. You may fall in love with Android and wish to help develop, but they likely don’t have a job for you.
Custom ROM communities welcome new developers. You’re volunteering your time, but you also gain experience and see the changes you make come to fruition. You get to see people use your software. Or you get to be the user who helps test software and provides much-needed feedback.
You don’t have to be a developer to get involved. Communities can use people to help manage websites, create digital art, write up blog posts, and translate text. Or you can hang out in forums and help answer users’ questions.
Will You Try a Custom Android ROM?
There are many reasons NOT to install a custom ROM. The process is risky, and if you’re not careful, you can render your device unusable. Even if you succeed, you may lose some functionality that worked when you first bought the device.
But if you find a stable ROM, you could end up with an experience that’s more stable than the default software. If you’re interested in getting started, check out how to flash ROMs without a custom recovery.