Technology.Life.Insight.

My Sphere of Android

I’m fairly new to Droid, ~5 months now, and was formerly a corporate BlackBerry user for years. The BB was always company paid so while short on the user experience it was still a no-brainer and provided the basics, largely thanks to Google apps. Once my BB use came to an end (and my days of production support as well) not going iPhone was also a no-brainer. As an “in the weeds” technologist, Android suits me perfectly! ROMs, recovery, kernels, radios, overlays, launchers…every piece of Android is completed customizable and I love it. Unlike Apple’s limited walled garden, Android is the wild badlands so you do need to be careful. There is no Windows Update equivalent in Android where every device gets firmware updates direct from Google. This is handled by each phone OEM in cooperation with the wireless carrier. Because of this, Android phones are not always kept up to date or even at the same build of the OS! Most users are none-the-wiser. Apple’s method is much better ensuring that all iPhones stay current. Android, following the Windows distribution model, is also free to be stuffed full of system-slowing bloatware by the OEMs and carriers that customize the OS for each device. This is not allowed in the Apple world (kudos). If you don’t mind a little nuts and bolts tinkering, you can run whatever version of Android you like, debloated, rooted, deodexed, and are free to change what you like for an incredible user experience. There is a ton of information out there all over the place so this post will serve to consolidate the pertinent research and hands-on I did for my devices.

I have 2 very different but individually awesome devices in my clutches: The Samsung Charge and the Motorola Droid X (DX), both on the Verizon network.

                

The Charge is newer and one of the first LTE phones on the Verizon network. It currently does not have any officially released OTA version of Gingerbread, although the latest 2.3.6 leak suggests it’s coming soon. The DX has been running Gingerbread for a few months now. While the DX is 3G only, it is still great performer and a stalwart among Droid enthusiasts.

Droid Charge

The Charge comes with Froyo (Android 2.2), the TouchWiz overlay, and plenty of bloat courtesy of Verizon. Battery life was acceptable, not great, in stock form lasting no more than 15-20 hours. The worst part about the bloat is that they’ve engineered it into the OS so that it’s always running. You can kill it with a task manager but it will just come back. So that by itself is a heavy justification to root and/ or run a custom ROM or app with freeze ability. Even with no root access a number of things can be changed and customized. The launcher is usually the first thing out the door as it controls the look and feel of the OS. Themes, icons, fonts, transitions…all of these things can be changed. My favorite launcher at the moment is the Go Launcher EX. Go adds some really neat things like 3 additional pages of bottom screen shortcuts, a ton of themes, widgets, and the ability to customize every aspect of whatever theme you choose. Go also offers some other good stock app replacements such as Go SMS Pro and Go Contacts/ Dialer. This has got the be the coolest aspect of Android. You don’t like the keyboard or dialer? No problem, just replace them. Before changing the launcher, you will also need to install a home switcher app such as home manager. Here is my home screen using Go Launcher EX with a glass theme and Sense-style clock.

While changing the launcher can definitely improve the experience provided by the OEM it does not deal with the bloat slowing down the phone. For the more adventurous the stock ROM can be completely replaced. There are a few options out there including leaked builds from the OEM/carrier and third parties such as GummyCharged. The leaked builds come rooted and bloated or not. Some folks prefer to run the bloated ROMs and use apps like Titanium Backup Pro to freeze the offending bloat. I am opting to run rooted and debloated ROMs as I’m not concerned about OTA updates at this point. Other popular choices are still not yet available on this platform, namely CyanogenMod and MIUI.

Each OEM has its own unique toolsets for working with the hardware. Samsung has an official flashing utility but there is also a third party utility called Odin that is used for flashing. Unlike the Motorola, flashing the Charge with a new ROM is as easy as:

  1. Load the Samsung drivers on your Windows7 PC and launch Odin
  2. Put the phone is download mode by:
    • Turning off phone
    • Remove SIM card
    • Hold volume down, press power firmly for 1 second and release
    • Once in DL mode you will see this screen:
  3. Plug phone into USB on PC (preferably the rear of PC)
  4. Push the new ROM to the phone via Odin using the “PDA” setting (very important!).

That’s it! No need to run rooting apps, boot to recovery or run console commands. When you reboot the phone after the flash it comes back up rooted, debloated, and running all the latest including radios and kernels. No data on the SD card is affected at all. Odin can also be used if you messed up and need to return your phone to a stock ROM. I strongly recommend that you remove the SIM card before flashing! There have been some reports of problems when flashing with the SIM in. Detailed step-by-step on using Odin here.

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Here is my phone running the (hopefully) final official Charge Gingerbread build, but rooted and debloated.

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So far the new build is excellent. I haven’t observed any bugs or glitches at all. Zero bloat and my battery life has increased to 24+ hours now. We don’t know about Ice Cream Sandwich yet (Android 4) for this device but that will be my next upgrade, unless MIUI or another official GB leak surfaces of course…

Droid X

The DX has been around for a little while now but is still a solid performer and more than capable of running the latest software. It has its own batch of stock bloat and depending on how much stuff is running can lag a bit. The biggest single thing missing from the DX in stock form is the pull down toggles that the Charge has. I’ll fix that here in a moment however.

Just like the Samsung devices, Motorolas have their own tools and drivers. The Motorola flashing utility is RSD Lite which is used to revert to a stock ROM, a process called “SBF”-ing. Because my DX received an OTA upgrade to Gingerbread I had to SBF it back to stock before I could root and apply a custom ROM. There are definitely a few more steps to achieve the same end result on this device. The following steps were required to apply a custom ROM and recovery on my DX:

  1. Prepare to sbf back to stock froyo
    • Put sbf file in root of C:\ on PC
    • Connect phone to usb, reboot into download mode
    • Hold camera button, vol -, hold power for 1 sec to enter DL mode
  2. Use RSD Lite to load sbf file
    • Once in DL mode select sbf file, click start
    • You may have to manually reboot and put phone back in DL mode to finish
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  3. Boot to stock recovery (see section below for how)
    • Select Wipe/ factory reset
    • Reboot
  4. Get root
    • Install Z4Root, reboot, then run it, select permanent root
  5. Load Droid2 bootloader
    • Load ClockworkMod Droid2 bootstrap from market (cannot get into CWM recovery without this!)
  6. Load Rom Manager from market
    • Flash CWM Recovery from Rom Manager
  7. Reboot to recovery (which should now be CWM)
    • Factory wipe/ backup if you want
    • Load zip of custom ROM you want to load
    • Reboot

Subsequent ROM loads should be much simpler and can be done easily from recovery with the files stored on the SD card. I was going to load an official DX ROM similar to what I did on the Charge until I found the magic that is MIUI, recently made available for the DX. MIUI is a custom ROM that is not only beautiful but highly customizable and adds nearly every feature one could want coming from a stock Motorola build. Lock screens that allow you to go right into phone or SMS apps, pull downs with toggles, even data monitoring/ alerting and application level firewalling where you can prevent certain apps from using 3G or wifi. MIUI even has the much coveted “CRT effect” when you press power to lock the phone. Very cool! If they ever make this available for the Charge I will definitely give it a go.

Recovery Mode

/recovery in the Android file system contains some basic maintenance tools that can be booted into outside of the OS. Like all other Android components this stock recovery can be replaced with an upgraded aftermarket version. Most people who root and tweak their phones prefer to run the ClockWorkMod (CWM) Recovery. For the Charge, just like the core OS ROM, CWM can be flashed on the device using Odin. The process is a bit more involved on the DX as I outlined before because the bootloader has to be replaced first. With CWM ROMs can be loaded, backed up and restored directly from recovery.

To boot to recovery on the Charge:

  • Turn phone off
  • Hold volume up, Home, and Power buttons
  • Samsung logo will come up and disappear
  • When Samsung logo comes up for a second time, let go of all buttons

Controls:

  • volume up/down = up/down
  • Power = enter

To boot to recovery on DX:

  • Turn phone off
  • Hold Home button and press Power until the Motorola logo appears
  • Release Power and continue to hold Home until an exclamation appears
  • Release Home and press the Search button once.

Controls:

  • volume up/down = up/down
  • Camera button = enter

Apps

Running rooted there are a few apps that you just must have. Some builds come with a few of these but some do not (MIUI).

Superuser EliteSuperuser – grants SU rights to applications on your phone that need it, must have this!

ROM Manager (Premium)ROM Manager – This currently does not work for the Charge and many prefer not to use it, but it’s an easy way to flash CWM recovery and manage ROMs from within the OS.

BusyBoxBusybox – Linux toolset installer, some other apps like Titanium Backup need this.

Droid 2 Recovery BootstrapDroid 2 Recovery Bootstrap – (for DX) allows you to boot into CWM.

Titanium Backup – Free and Pro (donate) version. Allows you to backup/restore apps and relating data, freeze/thaw apps, as well as a number of other things. This is a VERY powerful utility.

SwiftKey X KeyboardSwiftkey X – This is my favorite keyboard right now and you don’t have to be rooted to run it. Great customizability and incredible for speed typing with deep learning capabilities for predictive text.

Cases

After spending hundreds on these phones, I opted to protect my investment from the potential drop or day-to-day unprotected wear. After doing quite a bit of research I narrowed down my selection to Otterbox and Incipio. Both are very well regarded in terms of quality and protection. I ultimately went with the Incipio SILICRYLIC on both phones which is a 2-part soft layer in hard shell case that protects the phones very well. The fit, finish, and quality of materials is exceptional. The minimal bulk added to the phone is completely worth it. The phone still fits in the pocket nicely.

So far I’m really enjoying my stay in Droid country and after being with ATT for nearly a decade, Verizon is a breath of fresh air. I have built and customized my own PCs for many years so it makes sense to have similar control on my smart phones. Rooting doesn’t have to be a scary thing if you are very careful and do your research before pulling the trigger. Everything documented in this post is to be used at your own risk. I am not responsible if something goes wrong and you brick your phone (most of which are recoverable anyway). All of the files that I discussed but did not provide direct links to can be found, you just need to dig a little.

Resources:

http://www.mydroidworld.com

http://www.xda-developers.com/

http://www.addictivetips.com

http://www.droidforums.net

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