If you want to use your smartphone for more than 2 years, you will only get reliable and up-to-date software again with ROMs.They also give you the opportunity to explore brand new designs and UIs, and offer new and impressive functionalities. If you've yet to explore the world of ROMs, here is our guide and list of the best.
Custom ROMs: A dying hobby?
Good custom ROMs are characterized by an active community and support for many different devices. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many third-party firmwares. Many smartphone manufacturers have taken on important criticisms of their original firmware and proved users wrong. Here are exampled of the updates:
- Previous security updates
- Less pre-installed software
- Improvement of the user interface
After about two, in a few cases three years, security updates are over. If you want to continue using your smartphone, you have to accept security risks or at least replace the software.
However, additional issues are waiting for the modders: protection mechanisms from SafetyNet. Because of these, apps refuse the service and games do not start. Well-known examples are Pokémon GO, Super Mario Run, Snapchat or Netflix. So, we have extended the feature table with the appropriate tests.
The same applies to the vendor image, whose closed-source components often have to be installed separately, which takes time. However, some ROMs already include them in their images and make installation and updates easier. Others deliver the matching images to the same location where you find the system firmware.
The best custom ROMs
Good custom ROMs are characterized by an active community and the support of many different devices. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer third-party firmwares match these criteria. Those who want to keep their Nexus 5 or his Galaxy S5 still up to date have only a few alternatives. If your smartphone needs a better user interface, less bloatware and earlier software updates, then you should consider a custom ROM.
Custom ROM features: quick comparison
|Lineage||LineageOS for microG||Dirty Unicorns||Paranoid Android||Resurrection Remix||SlimRoms|
|updates||Download in the settings, installation via TWRP||Download in the settings, installation via TWRP||As an app||Integrated in the settings||Integrated in the settings||Manual via TWRP|
|Vendor-Image||Separately||Separately||Separately, even server||Integrated||Separately, same source||Separately|
|Root Access||Optionally as a zip||Only ADB as opt-in; optional as zip||No||No||Only ADB, opt-in||No|
|SafetyNet / Pokémon GO||No / Yes||n / A||n / A||Yes / Yes||Yes / Yes||Yes / Yes|
|Themes||via substratum||via substratum; not available without Play Store||via substratum||Per color engine or via substratum||via substratum||via substratum|
|equalizer||AudioFX||AudioFX||MusicFX||Snapdragon Audio +||AudioFX||MusicFX|
Lineage is the legacy of CyanogenMod. Fans of the mod have to say goodbye to CyanogenMod and their favorite features. CyanogenMod was ideal for beginners, since the Wiki offered a great collective wealth of knowledge. Lineage was able to hang onto some of this in the form of its own Wiki. A backup copy of the old wiki was created as well for posterity.
Lineage has a compact launcher, a feature-packed camera app and few pre-installed apps which leaves you with a lot of free memory. It also has volume profiles, which make the phone muted or loud under certain defined conditions. The privacy feature also sends incorrect data to apps that whose privileges aren't normally escalated. And the best thing: Lineage makes old smartphones fast again.
Common to all custom ROMs is that they ship without Google apps. Anyone who wanted to use Android without Google anyway, is not yet well served. Important Google Suite souvenirs such as location services, play store, and theft protection should not be missing. Alternatives for some of these components are present in the microG version from Lineage. After installation, you can update your smartphone with ordinary LineageOS images.
Dirty Unicorns is designed for Nexus, Oppo, OnePlus, Xiaomi as well as some HTC and Samsung devices. It has similar features to Lineage and provides root access via apsp and regular updates for security and stability.
DU supports a wide range of devices. Also, the update frequency is exemplary.
Thanks to OmniSwitch, you can easily multitask. Dirty Tweaks contain important settings options which are missing in conventional Android.
Paranoid Android is one of the oldest custom ROMs and is a popular alternative to CyanogenMod & Co. After a brief awakening in summer 2016, the third-party firmware once again fell silent. Following May 2017 though, there has finally been a big update again and an equally big promise: more frequent updates.
This new version brings Android 7.1.2 Nougat to smartphones. The CodeAuroraForum (CAF) drivers are expected to make more Snapdragon-based devices compatible with the ROM. In addition, we can expect more frequent updates from changing the substructure.
On the positive side, there was no need to install an additional vendor image for the Nexus 5X in conjunction with OpenGapps' Google apps. This effort makes operating system updates easier to handle compared to Lineage OS, where you have to get and flash the vendor images additionally.
Resurrection Remix has a large user base, supports several devices and offers the fewest range of functions. In our January 2018 test with the Nexus 6P, no variant of Google Apps allowed installations from the Play Store (bug 963), so we can make no statement regarding SafetyNet.
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.
Conclusion: to mod or not to mod?
Custom ROMs can be the salvation of older smartphones and tablets. They can also clean up new smartphones and remove bloatware. Often, they speed up smartphones and add more features. But, the threshold is high for those who want to mod, as it can be a confusing process for beginners. This threshold is less of an issue thanks to LineageOS, which is much simpler and is well supported by many from within the vibrant CyanogenMod community.
What do you think is the best custom ROM on Android? Let us know in the comments below.