Not so long ago, most Android enthusiasts would root their phone and flash a custom ROM. It was the norm, even on brand new devices.
But things have changed. Rooting is less important than it used to be, so what about custom ROMs? If you’re rocking a Pixel 2 or a OnePlus 5T, will you really benefit from flashing a new ROM? Let’s take a look.
Why Do People Use ROMs, Anyway?
It’s fair to say that the golden age of custom ROMs has passed. Android phones are better than they’ve ever been, even at the budget end of the market.
But they still do serve a purpose. Here are the main reasons why you should consider installing a custom ROM.
Security and Operating System Updates
We’ve looked before at which manufacturers are most likely to keep your phone updated. In short, if you have a flagship phone (or select mid-ranger) from a major manufacturer, you can expect two Android updates, plus security patches for two to three years. On any other device, don’t count on it.
Not having Android updates is frustrating. You miss out on new features and performance enhancements. Not getting security updates is a bigger concern. It’s not like our smartphones have a lack of security issues.
If your phone has been abandoned by the manufacturer, installing a custom ROM is your only option for keeping it up to date. ROMs like Paranoid Android and Lineage have wide device support, get frequent updates, and will patch the worst of your system’s bugs.
Privacy and Security
This applies more to budget phones that may have security problems. And even the world’s second largest smartphone manufacturer, Huawei, has recently found its US ambitions blocked by US security agencies over concerns about spying.
And even once you get past this, every Android user is handing over vast amounts of personal data to Google and others every single day.
A custom ROM can help address your security and privacy concerns. ROMs are — or should be — open source. The code is available for anyone to scrutinize. Even if you don’t have the skills to analyze it yourself, you can be sure someone will and flag up any concerns.
Lineage OS has numerous privacy controls built in, including a Privacy Guard that restricts how apps can use your data. Plus, you can use it without Google apps if you prefer.
For even more robust protections, take a look at Copperhead OS. This security-centric ROM is available mostly for Google’s own phones.
They Extend the Life of Cheaper or Older Phones
The other possible benefit to a custom ROM is that it can save you money. If you have an older phone that you’re generally happy with, or were shopping on a tight budget, a ROM can extend its life.
These are the types of phones that rarely get updated, and are often not as well optimized as their higher end brethren. There’s nothing you can do about slow hardware. But a leaner, less-bloated ROM should give you a performance boost. You can often find new firmware that has been designed for longer battery life too.
In some cases, you might even be able to unlock new functions or find features from newer flagships ported back to older ones. The best place to look for these ROMs is at xda-developers.com. There are individual forums there for almost every Android phone.
Project Treble and the Return of Custom ROMs
Before introducing you to the case against custom ROMs, it’s worth making a brief mention of a new feature of Android Oreo called Project Treble.
The aim of Project Treble is to make it easier, quicker, and cheaper for manufacturers to update their devices to a new version of Android. It does this by modularizing parts of the Android framework. It’s all very technical, and you can read more about it on the Android developer website.
Here’s why it’s relevant:
Devices that support Treble must be able to run a generic, stock Android firmware. This means you could have a single custom ROM based on stock Android that worked on many devices. You’d no longer need developers to produce builds for each individual handset.
Moreover, every device that launches with Android Oreo or later must support Treble (but not those that have been upgraded from an older version). In the not too distant future, we may start to find a lot more custom ROMs becoming available for a lot more devices.
Why You Shouldn’t Use Custom ROMs
The existence of custom ROMs owes itself to the somewhat ramshackle nature of Android for its first few years.
It lacked anything like the polish or performance of iOS, and the custom firmwares each manufacturer built were bloated, slow, and full of questionable design decisions.
But things have changed. iOS is no longer the standard bearer for smartphones, and although every phone’s software is still different, they’re now much more tastefully designed. So are custom ROMs even relevant now?
The Camera Might Get Worse
The camera is one of the biggest draws for any phone, and as their complexity increases, it’s also one of the hardest things to implement in a custom ROM.
Many phone cameras now have dual lens setups, fancy HDR effects, and high frame rate 4K video. They all need special tools to drive them, and these are all part of the phone’s firmware. There’s no app that you can simply lift and install on another device. Nor can you replace all of the functionality with third-party camera apps.
Replace the original firmware by installing a custom ROM, and there’s a good chance you’ll be downgrading your camera in the process.
Oh, and if you choose the wrong custom ROM you could potentially lose other features too, like quick charging support or Android Pay.
Stability and Reliability
In the early days of Android, phones were often slow. They’d grind to a halt if you went more than a couple of days without rebooting, and they tended to crash a fair bit.
This no longer holds true. While some manufacturers still have better reputations than others when it comes to speed and bloat, you can generally now be confident that most phones will be smooth, stable, and have decent battery life.
ROMs come with no guarantees. The official builds of the most popular ones, like Lineage or Resurrection Remix, get updated often. You can hope for a regular supply of refinements and bug fixes for these. But for unofficial builds, or for less well known ROMs on less popular devices, your experiences may be a lot less positive.
Stock Android Is No Longer the Best
One of the biggest draws of custom ROMs used to be that you could install stock Android on any device. You could replace the bloated software from Samsung, Huawei, or HTC with a ROM based on the open source version of Android. Throw in the suite of Google apps, and you’d have something akin to a pure Android device. This is the principle around which Google’s Nexus phones were built.
But Stock Android is no longer the best version of Android.
Even Google admits this. The best parts of the company’s Pixel phones aren’t Android. The camera app, Google Assistant, and the fast, streamlined launcher are all proprietary software. They’re developed and owned by Google. In fact, on the product pages for the Pixel phones, Android barely even gets a mention.
It’s true that stock Android is still fast, but it’s now very much a bare-bones system.
ROMs Are Just Not Needed
The main reason why custom ROMs even existed in the first place was to fill in some of the gaps in the Android operating system. There were so many features missing in Android for so long that the only way to get them was by flashing a new firmware.
Among other things, ROMs would give you:
- Control over app permissions
- Better power management
- Improved RAM management
- More control over notifications
- Multiple user accounts
- The ability to reply to messages from the notification shade
- Support for installing apps on an SD card
All of these are now part of Android and are available on virtually every modern device. Even the old complaint about bloatware has been mostly fixed — you can just disable any built-in apps that you don’t need.
Plus, if you’re tempted by a ROM just to try something new, why not try a launcher app instead? They’re easier and safer to install, and you can test as many as you like.
So, Do You Still Need Custom ROMs?
The case against custom ROMs is growing. Android has no obvious missing features, stock firmwares are better than ever, and a ROM might not even be able to get the most out of your phone’s hardware.
The answer seems straightforward. If your phone is older or very cheap, has bad stock firmware, or has been abandoned by the manufacturer, then it may be worth trying a custom ROM. That’s probably your only hope of seeing the new features of Android Pie.
But for everyone else — whether you’re using a flagship, quality mid-ranger, even a few budget phones, or are just happy with what you’ve got — there’s almost no benefit to using a custom ROM.
Do you use custom ROMs? Or have you recently given up on them? Share your experiences with us in the comments.