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All about custom ROMs for Android

Update: Introduction to ROMs added

You might enjoy the way your smartphone interface looks and feels, but custom ROMs give you the opportunity to explore brand new designs and UIs. They can also offer new and very impressive functionality. If you are yet to explored the hidden pleasures of the Android community, check out our guide to custom ROMs for Android and a list of the best.

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An introduction to custom ROMs

A ROM, for those who don't know, is an operating system build that runs on your device with basic applications such as an address book, calendar, camera, etc.

A major advantage of Android smartphones is that they can be operated by third-party systems and not only with the original ROM. Custom ROMs replace the pre-installed version of Android on devices. The substitution is made by a variation of the AOSP, adapted by volunteers with 'too much free time'.

These volunteers often work more frequently than the manufacturer itself – at least when it comes to updates.

But what is AOSP?

AOSP means Android Open Source Program. It is a version of the open source code of Android, developed by Google in its consortium of brands to offer a pure version of the system, which is available to anyone. It can be modified by developers without the need to follow standards of Google applications.

Thanks to this project, the birth of custom ROMs like CyanogenMod, Paranoid Android, MIUI and others have come about.

Advantages of custom ROMs

System upgrade for older smartphones

Many Android owners already know this problem: the smartphone is already a year old but the manufacturer hasn't released updates to the device. The new versions of Android are not only interesting because they bring new features but also because they fill security gaps.

Third party firmware uses the official codification of Android as well as a compatible driver for smartphones. This keeps everyone up-to-date on the newest version of Android. And it's not difficult for a custom ROM to be more updated than the original firmware

The smartphone is faster

One of the biggest advantages of using custom ROMs is your smartphone will be faster. Themes and applications preinstalled by the manufacturer are reduced to almost nothing. This saves a lot of memory space and increases the device's performance.

Customization options galore

Custom ROMs not only bring the latest version of Android but also give you many customization options. The possibilities are almost limitless.

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The OnePlus One gets along well with custom ROMs. / © ANDROIDPIT

You have root access (administrative)

With root access, you have control over all of the functions of your device. With the original Android, some functions are hidden. Now the modified firmware gives you unlimited access to all the features of your smartphone. Furthermore, backups are performed more easily.

Ideal for purists

Since custom ROMs are based on the 'Android Open Source Project' they are enriched with more functions and the appropriate driver by the team behind the community firmware. So if you bought a less stocky Android device like a Sony or Samsung you can still get a stocky experience.

Disadvantages

Custom ROMs are wonderful but before you decide to change your device's original firmware you should familiarize yourself with the disadvantages of the process.

They void the warranty

If your phone is still under warranty, you could have the possibility of voiding it if you decide to install a custom ROM. There are just a few manufacturers that will tolerate changes to the device system. Xiaomi is one of them.

They're a lot of work

Custom ROMs are perfect for those who love a good challenge. But if this doesn't sound like you then you won't like custom ROMs. Between updates, the system root and unstable versions of a device, your patience could reach its limits.

The lack of Google applications

Third-party firmware comes with very few Google apps. The Play Store applications have to be installed again. The Google apps that you will need to install again can be found on the site OpenGapps.org.

Is there a special ROM for my device?

There are numerous points of contact when seeking out third-party firmware. Community forums like the AndroidPIT or XDA-Developers are very well organized, reliable and generally quite friendly. You'll be able to find a wide range of sub-forums for special devices and advice for updating.

The best custom ROMs

ROM Manager

If your device is rooted then ROM Manager is a solid addition to your device. If you haven't rooted your phone and want to then you should check out this guide. Remember, rooting your Android device will void the warranty, so be careful.

ROM Manager does what the name says: it manages your ROMs. It manages them from a simple interface. You can organize and run backups, use your SD card to install your ROMs and flash your recovery. All of these features are free but if you want automatic backups and incremental update zips, you have to pay for a premium account.

Once you have a ROM on your SD card you can go into ROM Manager and securely download it from there. It will track it and give you updates when necessary. If you want to download them from the app itself you need a premium account, which is a bit annoying.

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ROM Manager gives you to ability to track all your custom ROMs. / © ANDROIDPIT

CyanogenMod 12 - stable, stylish, with frequent updates

CyanogenMod is one of the most well-supported ROMs for Android, with a huge community, and frequent updates. It’s no wonder that this popular Android ROM even managed to find a home on last year's OnePlus One.  

Features of CyanogenMod include its unique app launcher entitled Trebuchet, personal themes, video screenshots via its Screencast functionality, and a mode specifically for left-handed landscape viewing. CyanogenMod currently supports more than 50 devices and the team are hard at work on a Marshmallow build.

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Widespread and very stable: CyanogenMod is the Ford of custom ROMs. / © AndroidPIT

PAC-ROM

PAC-ROM touts itself as the all-in-one ROM solution. The team shamelessly cherry picks features from the other ROMs listed on this page, including OmniSwitch and CyanogenMod's Pie controls, and puts them all together in their own package.

It might seem lacking in personality, or overkill, but if you're looking for the most customizable, option-rich ROM, then this is it. And wait until you see the boot animation — the team deserves some points for that alone.

With nightly builds and well over 50 devices supported, it's a great package. Learn all about it at PAC-ROM.com.

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PAC-ROM packs in a lot, but doesn't offer much of its own character. / © ANDROIDPIT

Paranoid Android - Stock Android with subtle changes

The first appearance of the Paranoid Android Custom ROM dates back to early 2013 and Android Jelly Bean. The Paranoid Android ROM doesn't provide a radical design overhaul, but focuses on a number of simple but effective changes to notifications and navigation. 

Immersive mode allows you to view information on screen while hiding system bars, and 'dynamic system bars' blend your status and navigation bar color with the particular app background. It's purely aesthetic, but provides a nice transition.

Early in 2015, OnePlus hired a number of key members of the Paranoid Android team. The project subsequently went into deep hibernation, with one developer announcing its passing and another refuting it. Whether the project has the energy to be resurrected remains to be seen.

Paranoid Android is available for a whole range of devices including the Nexus line and the OnePlus One. To learn more, visit ParanoidAndroid.co.

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Paranoid Android offers a great design. / © ANDROIDPIT

OmniROM - for the OmniSwitch toolbar

Designed by former CyanogenMod devs (Xplodwild, Chainfire, Dees_Troy, Pulser and Entropy) in late 2013, OmniROM is a no-frills ROM, which basically offers the Stock Android experience with some nice extras. 

OmniROM supports the ability to launch apps by tapping on the time and date in the notifications menu, it can add a notification counter in the status bar to show the number notifications you've received, and has the ability to manage the display brightness just by sliding your finger along the notifications bar.

OmniROM's standout feature, however, is the OmniSwitch shortcut. The OmniSwitch is a quick-menu that you can load with shortcuts and jump from any part of your phone to any app, or vice versa, and it is completely customizable. 

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OmniROM brings advanced and unique features. / © ANDROIDPIT

SlimROMs - bloatless but feature-rich

SlimROMs made a name for itself by offering a completely stripped down version of Android and letting you determine exactly how much of the Google Play services you want bundled in. Otherwise, SlimROMs is characterized by the ability to modify the DPI of fonts and icons and make everything as tiny as you need it to be. The Slim family currently supports almost 50 devices.

An alpha Android Lollipop build is out, but things are moving slowly at the SlimROM camp and updates are currently infrequent at best. Find out more at slimroms.net.

AOKP - for complete control and tons of customization options

Android Open Kang Project, or AOKP, is aimed at serious Android modders, and those with good level of technical know-how. Released in September 2013, AOKP is now compatible with dozens of Android devices, and houses a number of interesting features, like the ability to customize shortcuts in the Quick settings menu, and manage the color and blink rate of the LED notifications in several applications.

Additionally, this ROM also includes a feature called Navigation ring, which acts an an intuitive shortcut for up to five apps. As if that wasn't enough, there is also application permissions management and the ability to adjust processor performance, making this one of the most interesting Custom ROMs on android.

Stable releases are few and far between. After a break from October last year, a post on the AOKP website in March revealed that work would soon be starting on 'proper' Lollipop builds, but things have remained quiet since then. We'll be keeping an eye on this one. To learn more, visit AOKP.co.

The custom ROM database

This list is by no means exhaustive and you might want to do a little more research into other custom ROMs that are currently available. Thankfully, the fine ladies and gents over at the XDA Developers Forum have put together a custom ROM database that compares all the features of the major custom ROMs at a glance. It's a great resource. The page was down at the time of writing, but keep an eye on it, as it may well be back up soon.

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The custom ROM comparison database is an overview of current custom ROMs and their features. / © ANDROIDPIT

What do you think is the best custom ROM on Android? Let us know in the comments below. 

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