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The Challenges of Installing a Tablet ROM: Why Is It So Hard?

Aaron Peters 15-06-2017

If you’re a regular MakeUseOf reader, you’re probably no stranger to replacing the original operating system on your computer with another. We’ve covered Linux on Macs Buying MacBooks For Penguins: Linux on Apple Hardware You'd probably think that the free open source operating system Linux wouldn't mix too well with Apple's proprietary, controlling approach when it comes to hardware — but you'd be wrong. Read More , macOS on PCs How To Install Mountain Lion On A PC [Hackintosh] Are you not looking forward to Windows 8? Perhaps you're jaded by Microsoft’s decision to kill of Windows Home Server? Are you maybe tired of Windows Media Center being treated like a second class citizen?... Read More , and Windows on barebones systems 10 Things About Mini PCs You Should Consider Before Buying If you're in the market for a new desktop PC, it makes sense to consider the new line of mini PCs over a giant tower. Read More  in prior posts.


But what about tablets? They’re just like smaller and thinner notebook computers, right?

Actually, a number of differences make installing a new operating system on a tablet more complicated. In this article we’ll look at some of these challenges.

How Tablets Differ From Notebooks and Other PCs

Before we dive into the specifics let’s consider how tablets are different from computers.

PC users can add different components to their machines at their whim. In contrast, devices like tablets are more like consumer electronics. In order to provide a fault-free experience, manufacturers control what hardware can go into the device. It follows that when manufacturers don’t need to worry about accommodating all the different hardware a user may try, they don’t need the software side that interfaces with that hardware.

And this is the main difference. PCs (most, anyway) are expandable and customizable systems. Tablets try to provide users with a specific function (even if that function is a fairly standard computing experience). And the software that comes with tablets has a lot more in common with device firmware (despite the inclusion of an operating system, e.g. Android).


Note: While I’ve used the term “tablet,” the following also applies to most phones and other types of devices running Android, for example the NVIDIA Shield console NVIDIA Shield TV Review The proposition is simple: Pack some of today’s best performing mobile hardware into a sandwich shaped box – for streaming video and media, and playing mobile games. That’s why you need to pay $200-300. Read More . While the concepts also apply to iOS devices, they can all be remedied by jailbreaking the device.

How to Prepare Before Replacing Your Tablet’s OS

While some tools such as ClockworkMod’s ROM Manager provide a point-and-click method to swap ROMs around based on your device model, you may need to do so by hand. Let’s look at some of the things you’ll need to prepare for prior to starting.

Tablets Don’t Provide Root-Level Access by Default

We’ve covered how to do this in our in-depth guide on rooting Android phones The Complete Guide to Rooting Your Android Phone or Tablet So, you want to root your Android device? Here's everything you need to know. Read More . In a nutshell, most devices don’t allow you access to system files, only your own data and apps. “Rooting” a device is the simple process of granting full read/write access to those files and directories.

Jailbreaking your iOS device Should You Still Jailbreak Your iPhone? It used to be that if you wanted advanced functionality on your iPhone, you'd jailbreak it. But is it really worth it at this stage in the game? Read More or using an application such as SuperSU for Android SuperSU: Manage Superuser Access Rights on Android Read More will grant access to these system files. Gaining root access can make backing your device up much easier, with more sophisticated tools.


Pro Tip: Unlock root-level access. Seriously. If you want to change your OS, you’re already altering your device in a big way. Gaining access to these files is pretty tame by comparison.

Tablet Backup and Restore Isn’t Straightforward

As with any OS replacement, you should first back-up your existing system and make sure you can restore it if something goes wrong. On a PC, this can be as simple as cloning your hard drive How to Use Clonezilla to Clone Your Windows Hard Drive Here's all you need to know about how to use Clonezilla to clone your hard drive in the easiest way. Read More or backing up select pieces of your system using software tools 6 Apps and Tricks to Optimize Your Linux System Backups Concerned about backing up data in Linux? Worried about using dd, or just want to make things as simple as possible? These tips will help you make straightforward backups that don't eat up storage. Read More .

But on an Android tablet, the system lives on a few different partitions How to Set Up a Second Hard Drive in Windows: Partitioning You can split your drive into different sections with drive partitions. We'll show you how to resize, delete, and create partitions using a default Windows tool called Disk Management. Read More within the device’s memory, including:

  • The boot partition, which contains the kernel and other data needed to start up the system.
  • The system partition, which contains the bulk of the operating system such as applications and libraries.
  • The recovery partition, which contains the tools needed to reset the device back to a “factory” state.

install tablet os android partitions


The above image shows Android app DiskInfo illustrating details of partitions like boot and /system. Some device models may have others that are important for backup purposes. You should confirm what these are and back them up before trying out a new tablet OS. Since all these partitions can be overwhelming, consider using some special tools. You can do it all at once with a NANdroid backup What Is A Nandroid Backup and How Exactly Does It Work? You need that backup at the ready. Read More , or use one of the more powerful backup tools How to Back Up Your Android Device Properly Here's how to completely back up your Android device by protecting your photos, SMS, contacts, and everything else. Read More  (both of these require root access).

Pro Tip: Make sure you’ve taken a backup of your device that can be easily restored.

Tablets Have Locked Bootloaders

In order to install an OS, you will typically boot your computer into some sort of installer. This may be a recovery disc you received with your hardware or a thumb drive you created yourself How To Install Windows 8 From A USB Stick If you’re looking to install Windows 8 and your computer doesn't have a DVD drive, you’re not alone. Whether you have a Windows 8 DVD or a Windows 8 ISO file you've downloaded from Microsoft,... Read More . Regardless, both the venerable BIOS The BIOS Explained: Boot Order, Video Memory, Saving, Resets & Optimum Defaults Need to change your PC's boot order or set a password? Here's how to access and use the BIOS, and some commonly modified settings. Read More  and the modernized (but annoying) UEFI What Is UEFI And How Does It Keep You More Secure? If you've booted your PC recently you might have noticed the acronym "UEFI" instead of BIOS. But what is UEFI? Read More  allow the user to boot other operating systems on some level.

But manufacturers typically lock the bootloader on a tablet, and you will need to unlock it. Some manufacturers provide applications to do the unlocking for you, while other devices have easily accessible commands How To Choose A Smartphone For Trouble-Free Unlocking & Flashing Read More to do so. Nonetheless, you’ll need to unlock that bootloader in order to install a new ROM.


unlock bootloader on android
Image Credit: CyanogenMOD

Pro Tip: Ensure you have the right bootloader unlock tool for your tablet model. And before you start, understand what the consequences of using it are (e.g. voiding your warranty).

System Software Installation for Tablets Requires Care

With desktop and server operating systems, the installer is a sophisticated program. It can catalog a machine’s hardware, take some user input on what they’d like to do, and configure drivers or software as a result. Device makers know exactly what the hardware is going to be, and they’re defining the experience. They just need to push that OS to the device’s memory.

This involves the use of low-level tools like ADB or fastboot How to Use ADB and Fastboot on Android (and Why You Should) Learning to master ADB and Fastboot can make your Android experience a whole lot better. Read More . One function of fastboot is writing system images, byte by byte, to the device flash memory. You’ll probably find yourself copying and pasting detailed commands like the following:

fastboot flash recovery twrp.img

Be very careful when entering these commands: if you were to replace “recovery” with “bootloader,” it might try to overwrite the boot partition with an image that’s too large. Then when you reboot, there’d be no valid bootloader and it’d time to break out the backups.

Depending on your ROM, you might issue commands like the above for:

Otherwise, the recovery image provides tools to update the device’s ROM. At this point you should have little trouble copying ROM files to your device, flashing them with the recovery tool, and testing them out.

Pro Tip: Find a tutorial for your exact device model and copy/paste the commands carefully. For more precision (and confidence), look for two tutorials with similar content, and use the easiest to understand.

Do You Still Want to Brave a Tablet Upgrade?

While the rewards of installing a fancy new tablet OS are tempting, bear in mind that it’s a delicate process. There is very little hand-holding when it comes to these operations, and just about anything you do above will cancel your warranty.

However, if you want to delve in, XDA Forums are great place for Android owners to start. They’ve got specific steps on rooting, unlocking, and more, for just about any Android device model. iOS users can head to the Jailbreak and iOS Hacks forum over at MacRumors, another information goldmine.

Are you ready to dive into the world of custom ROMs and unlocked devices? Have you been burned by an upgrade process gone wrong? Let us know if you think it’s all worth it in the comments below!

Related topics: Android Rooting, Android Tablet, File System, Jailbreaking.

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