Android Customisation Guide – One Mick and his phone – Part 1

The first thing I do these days when I get a new phone is to jailbreak/root it. Back when I’d an iPhone (and with my iPad) I feel that it’s more or less essential as Apple tie down their OS far too firmly. Out of the box Android is a lot more “open” but by the time I bought my first Android phone it had become reflex so I’d the thing rooted (the Android equivalent to jailbreaking) five minutes after getting it out of the box. I’d a custom ROM on it shortly afterwards. Over the last week or so I basically rebuilt my phone from the ground up, tried a variety of kernels, then a variety of custom ROM’s, then finally a variety of applications for the various things I do with my phone. Then I went out and bought a different phone. Which I rooted last night so I could begin all over again. After chatting to a few people with android phones it seems they haven’t bothered rooting or installing a custom ROM. I’m not particularly evangelical about the whole thing, but I thought I’d lay out what I’ve done with my android phones and why I’ve done it.

Ok, well this ended up being far too long so I’ve farmed out the intro stuff to another post. Go over there to read about What are the benefits of rooting your phone?, What are the benefits of a custom ROM? and How to root your phone/How to install a custom ROM.

So now that you’re back (and possibly have your phone rooted) I’ll run through what stuff I tried (and with which phone) and what I ultimately decided to go with (and why).

Custom Recovery / Kernel’s

In very basic term’s the kernel is the interpreter between your phone’s operating system/ROM and the phone’s hardware. The recovery is what you use when your phone goes tits up. During the process of rooting your phone you will likely install a custom recovery option and root the phone that way. Custom Kernel’s are usually used to provide specific hardware tweaks. They’re sort of becoming obsolete as the bigger custom ROM’s have their own kernel’s backed in. In a way this is a good thing because not all custom kernels work with all custom ROM’s so researching the compatibility is yet another step in a not particularly super smooth process.

There aren’t a huge amount of custom recovery’s out there, most rooting guides use Clockwork Recovery. It was one of the first and in my opinion is still the best. You can find the most up to date version for your device here

Custom ROM’s

Before you install a custom ROM you may want to back up your EFS folder (it stores stuff like your IMEI and there’s a slim chance flashing a ROM could corrupt it). You can do so in a number of ways but perhaps the handiest is to install Andromizer, open it, go to Tools, select Backup EFS and copy the external file to your SD Card or PC.

CyanogenMOD 10.1(Galaxy S2 | Galaxy S4) / CyanogenMOD 10.2 (Galaxy S2 | Galaxy S4)

A nice infographic outlining the key features of the ROM

This is the ROM I’m using on both my phones and the one that I’ve been using for months on my S2. 10.1 is based on Android 4.2 and 10.2 is based on Android 4.3. I was using the stable 10.1 releases but switched to the 10.2 nightly builds without noticing any problems. I love CyanogenMOD because it strips out all the crap that comes with the stock ROM’s while adding in a massive amount of customisation. A big focus of the ROM is functionality first. So on the surface it looks like a basic version of vanilla Android. It does add some tweaks even at this level, replacing the basic launcher with its own custom launcher called Trebuchet. But the real power of the ROM is under the hood. It lets you customise anything and (more or less) everything about your phone. Especially when you enable devloper options. Best of all it runs quicker and provides superior battery life to the stock ROM.

Paranoid Android (Galaxy S2 | Galaxy S4)

A nice infographic outlining the key features of the ROM

It’s probably safe to say that CyanogenMOD is the most popular Android custom ROM. But if it is then Paranoid Android is right there snapping at its heels. Paranoid Android has a number of unique features and is much more of a departure from stock Android than CyanogenMOD. Unfortunately when I tried it on my S2 none of these unique features clicked for me.

So in terms of unique features Paranoid Android is famed for its Hybrid Engine, its HALO notification system and its PIE menu. The Hybrid Engine allows an insane level of customisation, you can set the dpi and colour scheme of everything on your phone on an app by app basis. This means you could have one app running at native resolution while you have another running at phablet (I hate myself for using that term) or tablet resolution. You can also modify the apps colour scheme to match you themes overall look. This works pretty well for squeezing that last bit of screen real-estate out of each app. But I found that for a lot of apps the native resolution worked best on the S2 as the screen, while nice, could make things a little hard to read at phablet+ resolutions.

The next selling point of Paranoid Android is the HALO notification system which replaces the standard Android notification system with a floating notification “bubble” which you can customise (of course) and which allows you to respond to incoming notifications while still in another app (in effect offering a new kind of notification). I hated it. For no easily defined reason.

Last we have the PIE navigation, which while not unique to PA has become synonymous with it. It provides a software based customisable menu in the shape of a Chinese fan. I was not a fan (no pun intended). I liked the look but on phones with physical buttons it seems extraneous at best. For phones with software buttons I imagine its great though. If you want the PIE menu without Paranoid Android you could try the LMT Launcher (which despite the name is not actually a launcher).

So yes Paranoid Android failed to impress on the S2.

PACman (Galaxy S2 | Galaxy S4)

PAC-man ROM is a combination of three of the most popular custom ROM’s available (Paranoid Android + AOKP + Cyanogenmod). As such it contains all the best features of these ROM’s as well as some customisations of its own.

To be honest I found that it actually had too much stuff included in it. It’s a little intimidating when you boot it up first and you’re not sure where to go. But you could get over that. The reason I switched to another ROM fairly quickly was that I found it to be extremely sluggish and unresponsive on the S2 (it also murdered the battery). I plan to test out the S4 version later. My own personal feelings aside if you want “the best” that the custom ROM world has to offer than its likely PACman has it included. You could do worse than start with this and if you decided you don’t like all of it just switch to the ROM it pulled the stuff you like from.

Foxhound (Galaxy S4)

Come on, it’s called FoxHound! Oh you need an actual description of it? FoxHound is a hybrid ROM which pulls stuff from open source ROM’s like Cyanogen or AOKP as well as from Samsung’s stock TouchWiz. The first thing you might notice is that unlike the relatively svelte 200-300MB size of other custom ROM’s this badboy clocks in at a stonking 1.5 GB. When you first flash the ROM you’ll go through a fairly length pre-flash setup process where you can select which system functions you want to use stock TouchWiz for or which you want to replace with open source alternatives. The menu’s and such are pretty nice and this does offer a nice compromise between stock and custom.

I like this choice because it lets you keep some of the features (Sbeam, Air Gestures, Eye scrolling, etc.) that were selling points of the S4. On the other hand I don’t really like any of those features so its not like I missed them. The pre-flash setup also lets you choose between a number of hardware tweaks and customisation options.

Well the new bootup animation was nice and setup went fine (even if it started in Italian). Once up and running it seems responsive enough, even if it feels a bit too much like TouchWiz for my liking. However no matter what I tried I couldn’t get the wireless to turn on. So my adventures with FoxHound end there. To paraphrase a great man, Snake, SNAKE, SSSSSNNNAAAKKKKEEEEE!

Google Original (Galaxy S4)

A while after the S4 came out Samsung teamed up with Google to release the Samsung S4 Google Play Edition. Which more or less just a S4 running a pure stock version of Android 4.3. Which is more or less what this ROM is. I tried this more out of curiosity than anything else and quickly switched away from it. It felt like CyanogenMOD or Paranoid Android (as both are fairly minimalist versions of Android) but with less features. I quickly switched away from it, it worked fine but was just boring. Though you could see it as something of a middle ground between stock TouchWiz and a fully custom ROM. You’ll also save a considerably amount of space, the TouchWiz ROM on the S4 takes up about 1.5 GB of space, on the other hand this basic Android ROM takes up only around 400MB (CyanogenMOD and Paranoid Android are smaller again).

And the winner is:

CyanogenMOD 10.2 – I’m using this on both my S2 and S4. I find it to be the best combination of performance and customisation and it suits my current needs quite well. The only other real contender is Paranoid Android which I intend to give an extended trial to on my S4. There’s still some popular custom ROM’s out there that I have to try (AOKP, Carbon, MIUI) and I’ll give FoxHound another spin when they update it next. Much like the sweet way Sting and I make love, it’s a process not a destination (I suppose there’s also the option of “Rolling my own” either by tweaking source code or using something the like the Xposed Framework but that feels like a step too far).

While I’m not a fan of TouchWiz I do miss some of its custom features, the big three being tilt to scroll, SBeam and Sview (especially as I bought a rather expensive Sview case which is now less than optimal).

Launcher

While Android customisation starts with Rooting and then moves on to custom kernels and recoveries and from there to custom ROM’s where it really starts in terms of your day to day use of the phone is with the launcher. Typically the launcher is considered to be the homescreens, dock and app drawer.

When people talk about stock Android they’re usually talking about the launcher – homescreens and app drawer unchanged from Google’s basic code. Most manufacturers add their own custom launcher (HTC’s Sense, Samsung’s TouchWiz, etc.) But there are a multitude of third party launchers available that will change the look, and more importantly, the functionality of your homescreens, dock and app drawer. You can change number of screens, number of docks, number of icons in the docks, transition animations, etc. Some custom ROM’s have their own built in launchers and even on un-rooted phones you can install these third party options. There are a lot of launches out there and to a certain extent like custom ROM’s which one you prefer will come down to preference. I tried out a large number of them and ultimately settled on Apex launcher, I even paid a few quid for the pro version. Apex’s biggest rival is Nova launcher and to be honest feature-wise they are very similar (both have a robust free version, though the free version of Apex offers more).

In the end I went with Apex launcher because I found it to be more responsive on both my S2 and my S4, Nova launcher would lag oddly at times and the screen transitions could be jerky. I also prefer Apex’s superior amount of gesture control customisation for dock items (though in fairness Nova offers more gestures for “desktop” icons). Both are free so I’d download them and give them a go (assuming you aren’t happy with whatever launcher comes with your custom ROM of choice). Even if you don’t bother with rooting or custom ROM’s a new launcher can make your phone feel new again. One of the best features (supported by both) and the one I tend to turn on first, is the customisable dock. You can increase the number of dock “tabs” available, increase the number of icons per dock, turn on infinite dock scrolling, etc. It really helps to have all your most commonly used apps just a swipe away.

Applications

Obviously which apps you use or require is going to be heavily dependent on what you use your phone for (for example I don’t really play games on my phone so I’ve got fuck all games on it). That being said there is some stuff that everyone does with their phone and some stuff you may not have even thought of doing with your phone. Before I dive in I suppose I should briefly touch on where to get apps. Most stuff on the Play store I find to be reasonably priced and so I dont mind paying a few quid for it. It seems they’ve got rid of (or drastically shrunk) the 24 hour refund option which is a shame, as there were plenty of apps I bought, realised were shit, and got refunded for. So if you want to try before you buy, or just pirate shit then you can either use torrent sites to download the APK file (the format Android apps come in), copy it to your phone and install it. Or you can use a third party app like Aptoide to do the dirty deed.

Administrative

When you need to get to grips with the nitty gritty bits of your phone this is the stuff you need. Its also generally the stuff I install first. A quick note, a lot of people recommend using a Task Killer, but to be honest you probably shouldn’t.

Titanium Backup – Quite simply the best app backup application available. The free version is more than sufficient (though I did recently upgrade to the full version because it’s features are very handy for full re-installs and backing stuff up to the cloud). Seriously if you root your phone and dont have this you deserve a slap.

ROM Manager – If you’re going to be playing around with custom ROM’s at all this can make the process much more painless. Normally to install a custom ROM you need to boot into recovery mode but ROM Manager lets you do it from the phone’s launcher. It also helps keep your custom recovery up to date, lets you make a nandroid backup of your current ROM, etc.

Greenify – Greenify help’s the battery life of your phone by automatically hibernating apps in the background so they don’t spawn additional processes or keep running when you’re not using them. I’ve only started using it and it seems to be fairly good. It’s not quite as fire and forget as traditional task killers but its not exactly rocket science either.

Juice Defender – While you should avoid Task Killers sometimes you really need to eke some more life out of that battery. In those situations I have found that Juice Defender nearly always squeezes out enough power for that last call to a taxi at the end of the night. You can do most of what Juice Defender does manually by shutting off “high energy” features like WiFi, Bluetooth, etc. But its so much handier to let the app do it

ES File Explorer – I’ve tried out numerous file managers and explorers on Android devices and this one is by far the best. Easy to use, extremely powerful, lots of nice features. Overally just a great file explorer (I fear I may be too excited by file explorers).

Clean Master – I don’t use its task killer stuff but after you’ve installed and uninstalled a number of apps you can end up with a lot of un-necessary clutter taking up space. This gets rid of all that clutter at the push of a button.

Disk Usage – Hardly essential but a nice quick way to find out whats taking up all your space.

Productivity

Swiftkey – This isn’t particularly cheap (though I think there’s a free version now) but it is the best replacement keyboard I’ve used on the Android. It’s got the best predictive text features I’ve ever seen and quite frankly I can’t bring myself to use any other keyboard with my android devices.

Any.Do – I’ve tried a number of To Do list style apps and this is the one I’ve settled on. It was a close contest between this and Wunderlist but I preferred Any.Do’s UI, ease of use and the nice little “Planning your day” sequence it uses in the mornings.

Agenda Calendar – The basic android calendar app is fairly solid but if you use a calendar planner a lot its probably worth picking up Agenda which is more or less the Rolls Royce of calendars. I love its minimalist design and its multiple calendar views are great. Not that I ever have fucking anything on my calendar. But if I did, if I did, oh boy.

Google Keep – I love note taking apps. I eventually settled on ColorNote but then Keep came along and effortlessly usurped it. For ease of use (which is my key requirement in a note taking app) Keep is hard to beat. Its a doddle to take a quick note and to include a picture or voice clip or whatever with it. You can then access it from anywhere you can access your google account from. It’s not perfect, the lack of an undelete feature and the character limit need to be dealt with. But it’s still great.

AnkiDroid – Massively customisable flashcard app with a huge library of user made flash card index’s.

Copy / Dropbox / Google Drive / Cloudcube – The first three all allow to upload to and download from their respective cloud repositories. They all also share the same bizarre flaw – you can’t download folders. You can get around it with third party apps. But it’s a blindingly obvious and often blisteringly annoying, oversight. CloudCube lets you add all your online storage accounts to it and monitor how much space is free on each one, access each one and set up syncs across them.

Evernote – Works much like its online version, it integrates well with other apps and phone features and its quite quick to open and add a note or entry or whatever. I tend to use the widget more than the app itself.

Habit Streak Plan – An interesting spin on to do lists (which it’s explicitly not), it uses positive reinforcement to help you build good habits (which admittedly I’ve so far been unsuccessful in doing).

Voice Search (Google Search) – When Siri came along its iOS exclusivity didn’t really bother me at all. While voice control is novel and fun for a bit I’ve never found it to be actually useful in the long term. However I’ve recently been messing around with Google Now/Google Search’s Voice Search feature and it’s starting to grow on me. I’ve customised my menu button so a long press brings you straight to voice search. The thing is you can a lot more than just search (I predominantly use it for setting alarms), here’s an up to date list of all the commands available.

Internet and Communications

Dolphin Browser – I actually found the stock Android browser to be fairly snappy but moved to Chrome ages ago. A move I was never happy with to be honest. I’m not a fan of the desktop version of Chrome and the mobile version is a buggy laggy mess. I switched to Dolphin a few weeks ago and haven’t looked back. It’s easier to use and more importantly loads pages much much faster.

Falcon Pro – This is the best twitter app I’ve ever used, its miles better than the other contenders and light years better than the official app (and the website version). It requires jumping through a few hoops to get it working and isn’t quite as well integrated with other apps as the official app but it’s well worth using.

Pintrest / Amazon / eBay / IMDB / Goodreads / Skype / Steam / tumblr / WordPress / Youtube / Wikipedia / Facebook / reddit is fun

Functional but uninspired is how I would describe all of these. They replicate the core functionality of their web or desktop based versions fine but do nothing to innovate or take advantage of the device they’re on. Oh and use the beta build of the Wikipedia app its much faster. The Facebook app is embarrassingly bad but I haven’t found a solid alternative.

Press – RSS feed aggregator which accepts feeds from the major online aggregators. Nice interface and quite responsive. Not a lot more to it than that really.

uTorrent Remote – Works well and it’s handy to set up stuff when you’re out. Its major downfall is the lack of multiple select or batch actions.

Pocket Casts – Podcasts largely passed me by but I’ve been getting into them recently and this is the best podcast app I’ve come across for Android. It costs a few quid but I’ve yet to think of something relating to podcasts that I want to do that this app cant.

Handcent SMS – I used GoSMS for a while but like the other GO apps I tried I found it to be buggy and often unresponsive. I switched to Handcent a year or so ago and haven’t had any problems since. Then again I don’t want a lot out of an SMS client. It does the job and is nice and customisable. I do find the way it pops up notifications to be annoying though. So I’m back on the market for a SMS client. Supposedly the current CyanogenMOD stock messaging app is great so I might try it. I’ve also heard good things about textra.

Edit: Well I tried out Textra and it’s great, really nice interface and does everything I want. It also feels snappier than Handcent SMS. The only downside is that I can’t get it to send MMS (which I think might just be an issue with my phone as I now can’t get anything to send MMS). I also gave the CyanogenMOD default messaging app a try and while its leagues better than the default Samsung one it feels a bit too barebones.

Message Delayer – This is great, I wish I had this back in the day at Vodafone so I wouldn’t have got into trouble for calling/texting in “sick” at four or five in the morning. Anyhow, this lets you write a message and then choose a time for it to be sent at. Super basic but often super handy.

Location-Aware

Banjo / Foursquare

Hunt your friends in real time! These are ok, functional but nothing special. If I wasn’t so lazy I’d probably uninstall them as I more or less never use them. Quite possibly because my locations range from “My room” to “A field” and back.

Music, Photos, and Video

For just playing music a number of the custom ROM’s mentioned above have fairly solid workmanlike options built in. But to be honest you’re likely going to want to install a third party option. I happily used the Android version of Winamp for years but over the last month or two there’s been a persistent bug where it’ll play half a song or so and then skip back to the beginning. It’s super annoying and the app doesn’t get updated that regularly. That’s left me searching around for a new default music player and I haven’t quite settled on one yet. Google Play Music isn’t bad, its got a nice interface and its quite snappy. Its easy to quickly but together a playlist and you can access any music you have ON THE CLOUD. Still not quite in love with it. If you use the services (and don’t live in the Irish countryside) there’s apps for Pandora and Spotify. Poweramp is highly recommended and I recently installed but haven’t had a chance to use it. No matter which music player you go with if, like me, you need to obsessively catalogue your doings then you should install a scrobbler. There’s the official Last.FM app but I’ve been using Simple Last.FM Scrobbler up to now with no problems.

Shazam – I clearly listen to the wrong type of music because its rare that this identifies stuff these days. But when it works its oddly cool.

I don’t really take enough Photo’s with my phone to care very much about the camera app. That being said CyanogenMOD’s camera app seems to pretty good, well good enough to make me think “Hmm that’s’ good”. Though for all I know it could be the same as the stock Android 4.3 camera app. If you need to get the best selfie possible Camera ZOOM FX is the one I’ve seen recommended in the places I would trust. Though it does cost the princely sum of €2.00. There’s also an official Instagram app which social media osmosis leads me to believe has something to do with photos but which I’m largely ignorant off. While I take few photos I do even less “On the phone” processing of them, that being said I did download and was impressed with Snapseed.

Utilities

Tasker – It’s the ultimate automation and tweaking tool for Android. Now that that’s out of the way I must admit that I don’t use it half as much as I could or should. But you can do some awesome shit with it.

AirDroid – AirDroid lets you manage your Android phone from your web browser. Whether your phone is on the same network as your computer or not, you get complete control over it, and can respond to text messages, update applications, manage your phone’s storage, download and share photos, and even find your device if it’s lost. Only had this app pointed out to me recently but its pretty cool.

Swipepad – This is a launcher overlay that lets you launch more or less anything from anywhere using swipes. Conceptually I love it but while I have it installed I haven’t really got to grips with it yet.

AdAway – Words more or less like AdBlock but for your phone. Get’s rid of all those annoying adverts in games or trial versions of apps. Not available on the Play store (shocker). So you’ll need to download the APK from the developer.

DashClock Widget – I’m ambivalent towards heavily loaded lockscreens. What’s the point of securing your phone and then displaying everything on the lock screen? Anyhow this seems to be “the new hotness” these days. Its an extensible replacement for your lockscreen. It has loads of third party add-ons to display a whole range of stuff on your lockscreen and increase the functionality. It’s handy though one hiccup is that a lot of stuff when activated doesn’t automatically unlock the phone (seems to be an issue with the API, there are promises of updates). Some Custom ROM’s come with their own custom lockscreens that function similarly (e.g. CyanogenMOD’s cLock). This is one of those love it or hate it things. Give it a go, add a few bits and bobs to it and try it for a few days would be my advice.

ConvertPad – I actually use this a surprising amount, especially when cooking. Converts any measurement to any other measurement.

Aldiko / Kindle / EBookDroid – Aldiko is the best app for reading normal ebook’s. The Kindle app is really nice looking and decent enough in terms of functionality, I use it because it syncs with previous Kindle purchases. EBookDroid doesnt have the nicest interface ever but renders PDF’s (even really graphics heavy one) quicker than the alternatives I’ve tried (and I’ve tried a fair few).

Flashlight – There are a lot of flashlight apps out there. I use this one because it launches the quickest and gets light on the dark corners of the earth I need to illuminate as soon as possible.

Barcode Scanner – Not something I use a lot but when I need to it does the job and does it well. Usually use it for cataloguing books I’ve bought but will never read and QR codes.

XBMC Remote / Yatse – Two software remotes for XBMC. Which I had totally forgotten I’d installed until I went through my phone to write this. It seems like a shame to test them considering the fiddling I went through to get a normal remote working with XBMC on my HTPC. But I shall test them tomorrow and update this.

The Rest

Elder Sign: Omens – Board games translate really well to tablets and smartphones and unless the implementation is awful they’re generally pretty fun. I’m pleased to say that the implementation here is far from awful and I’ve whiled away a good amount of time getting my investigators killed. Though I do think there’s untapped potential in asynchronous multiplayer for mobile board game adaptions.

AIB Mobile – AIB Online features on your handset, works really well. Not super exciting though (not like that file explorer I got all het up about above)

Instapaper – The app is too expensive. But I really like the service and use it a fair amount. In terms of similar services both Pockets and Readability‘s apps are free. So if I wasn’t so lazy I’d replace my current Instapaper browser integration with theirs and swap over.

Puzzle & Dragons – I don’t play a lot of mobile games but I’ve been playing this one since last December. While my interest has waned I still put in a bit of time with it each week. It’s much better than when it started and you can easily play it without bothering with IAP (assuming you’re willing to re-roll a bit at the beginning).

PPSSPP – Excellent PSP emulator. The version on the store is a good few versions behind the one on the developers site so if you’re planning to use it I suggest getting the one from there.

Tape-a-talk – This is a very solid voice recorder. Which I don’t use because I seldom wish to record my voice (some things are just too sexy to save)

Food PlannerMealboard is the best meal and grocery planner out there. Unfortunately it’s iOS exclusive. This is a workable replacement.

Glasklart Theme – I loved this theme on my iOS devices. On my Android I just use a smattering of the icons (I generally customise my dock icons).

ADW Elegant Theme – Same as above, I just use the icons not the whole theme.

New/Untested

Springpad / Reading Trainer / Drastic DS Emulator / Themer / FindIt

I’ve only installed these in the last day or two and haven’t had a chance to use them or haven’t used them long enough to form a solid opinion on them.

Well that’s more or less it for now, this didn’t turn out quite how I wanted, it became more of a list than an in-depth discussion. I also left out some of the more obscure apps I use, which in retrospect may have been good to add. I think I’ll throw together a follow up post which digs into various apps and ROM’s mentioned here and outline how you can tweak them (and how I did it and thus how you should do it because you secretly want to be me, it’s ok, I understand). If you’ve any suggestions for awesome ROM’s/launchers/apps I missed please let me know in the comments.

6 thoughts on “Android Customisation Guide – One Mick and his phone – Part 1

    1. I didnt tell you what you have, I asked you what you have. What I TOLD you was this isnt for your. SO RUN ALONG (Also you left our the ; in tl;dr – which is one of my most hated internet acronyms by the by)

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