With Google having dropped the Nexus S from AOSP, and the Nexus 4 beginning to arrive in people’s eager hands, we thought now was the perfect time to discuss one of Android’s most appealing features – the ability to flash custom ROMs that can add many features that can take your awesome Android experience and make it SUPER-awesome! We’ve put together a quick round-up of some of the more popular AOSP distributions, highlighting some of their best features.
In the interests of full disclosure, I’m currently running the following ROMs:
- Google Nexus S: CyanogenMod 10
- Google Nexus 7: ParanoidAndroid 2.99 beta 3
CyanogenMod is the original (and some might say the best) custom ROM. Almost all ROMs that give an AOSP-style experience are based on, or use features from CM. The CM team have adopted an incredibly professional attitude towards their build and as a result, CyanogenMod is a stable, pleasant and visually-consistent ROM that could easily ship on a phone and people wouldn’t even know it was made by (extremely talented) amateurs.
It is by far the largest custom ROM, with over 3 million installs recorded as of August this year. Over 70 devices are officially supported by CyanogenMod, and there are unofficial builds for many more. If you have a relatively recent device (think Galaxy S onwards), there is a good chance that you’ll be able to run CyanogenMod. There is also a legacy version of CyanogenMod, based on Android 2.3 that is still supported for those of you with older or less capable phones.
CyanogenMod may not have as many features as some of the other ROMs mentioned on this page, but those it does have are fully-functional, well thought out and innovative. What is lacks in features, it more than makes up for in device support, ease of use, UI consistency and stability. I dare you to go back to your stock build after using CyanogenMod.
Highlights include: built-in theme manager, enhanced camera, integrated OTA updater, customisable quick settings notification toggles, T9 dialer, custom lockscreen shortcuts, profiles, speed enhancements, an NFC payment system (in CM9 only) and a myriad of other neat settings designed to improve the user experience.
Available for: Almost everything. For a complete list of supported devices, click here.
AOKP (or Android Open Kang Project) started out as another CyanogenMod derivative, but has grown into its own, developing many features independently of CyanogenMod. One of its main distinguishing features is the ability to completely customise the nav bar (on phones that use on-screen navigation buttons, or tablets). You can add buttons, like menu, search or an omnipresent shortcut to the application tray; change the buttons’ colours; or remove the navigation bar entirely.
AOKP is like the CyanogenMod 7 of Android 4.x custom ROMs. For those of you who never used CM7, this means that the ROM had so many settings that there was no real way of organising all the awesome tweaks in any meaningful fashion, and consequently the settings menu was a catastrophe. Alright, AOKP isn’t quite as bad as CM7, but if you’re serious about customising your phone or tablet, AOKP should definitely be considered as your daily driver.
Highlights include: customisable nav bar, change clock location on status bar, battery bar across the top of the screen, unicorn power, quick settings toggles, notification shade wallpaper, T9 dialer, theme engine, camera and GPS tweaks, notification tray weather.
Available for: Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 7, Nexus S, Nexus One; Samsung: Galaxy S, Galaxy S II, Galaxy S III, Galaxy Tab 8.9; HTC: One X, One S, Sensation, Desire; Acer Iconia A500, Asus EeePad Transformer, Asus EeePad Transformer Prime, HP TouchPad, Kindle Fire.
Apart from brief sojourns with HTC Sense-based ROMs on my old HTC Magic and HD2, I’ve almost exclusively used CyanogenMod as my daily driver. But since CM haven’t released an Android 4.2 build for the Nexus 7 yet, I turned to ParanoidAndroid after hearing about its ‘hybrid mode’ feature, which as far as I can tell is unique to this ROM.
ParanoidAndroid is largely based on CyanogenMod, and so has many of the same features, such as the T-Mobile theme engine, notification bar settings toggles and lock screen customisations, but they add their own pizazz in the form of ‘hybrid mode’, which makes it an excellent choice for larger-screened devices like the Nexus 7. Hybrid mode allows you to tell different applications whether to run in tablet-mode or phone-mode, or something in between. It also lets you choose custom DPI settings per-app, so for instance if you like having all the things on your homescreen at once, you can set a high DPI for your launcher, but have the rest of your system normal.
Highlights include: Per-app DPI and nav bar settings, hybrid mode, themes, quick settings toggles, lockscreen customisations.
Available for: Google: Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 7, Nexus S; Samsung: Galaxy S III i9300, Galaxy Note II, Galaxy Note, Galaxy S II i9100, Galaxy S i9000, Galaxy Tab (entire range); HTC: One X, One S, Desire S, Desire, Wildfire; LG: Optimus 2X, Optimus Black, Optimus One; Sony Xperia S. There are many other devices supported that are not built entirely from source for that device. To see the complete list, click here.
I’m personally not as familiar with CNA as I am with the other ROMs in this roundup – I had horrible stability issues on the Nexus S so I went back to CM10. But it comes highly recommended by several of our writers and I can attest to its insane speed. Random reboots and failing to wake from sleep aside, CNA was hands down the fastest ROM I’ve ever used. It combines all the best features of CM and AOKP, sometimes implementing both and letting you pick which version you like better (in the case of the notification settings). Unfortunately, because CNA isn’t as established as CM and AOKP, it isn’t available for as many devices — basically just the Nexus range and a couple of the more popular phones like the Galaxy S III.
Highlights include: It’s fast. Really fast, CM Theme engine, T9 dialer, camera tweaks, customisable status bar (clock, colours, notification counters, battery, signal icons), navigation bar quick settings toggles (either from CM or AOKP), customisable nav bar (colours, buttons, size), customisable lock screen shortcuts, CM profiles, performance tweaks.
Available for: Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 7, Nexus S, XOOM, Galaxy S III.
Which custom ROM do you prefer? Do you run one that we haven’t mentioned above? Let us know in the comments.