Just say no to the mainstream

Using an Android device has become the latest '€œfad'€ for tech-savvy folks. There's a multitude of devices on the Android market, and new offerings arrive every month. Almost every one of them offers some kind of improvement over the ordinary distribution, making it easy to get lost in all sorts of OS skins, proprietary modifications or custom-built distributions. So it's important to choose wisely!

Android in general has the benefit of being an open source system, with just the antenna and other device-dependent code kept under wraps. And while the design of earlier Android systems was undoubtedly poor, with every new iteration, it gets better (see the new Material Design guide and reel).

And although Google Play'€™s market has been much less populated than the App Store since its inception, there have recently been many stories of Mac dissidents moving to the more liberal ecosystem of Android.

So the benefits of Android devices boil down to:

  • wide selection of devices
  • lively app store
  • transparent source code
  • decent design

Now, what has Sony or HTC or any other vendor to offer? In their custom distributions they usually add:

  • some proprietary (i.e. closed source) functionality
  • a number of non-removable, '€œbloatware'€ apps
  • carrier and root locks

Except for some not-yet-widely adopted functionality, usually hardware, it's clear that these add-ons are of little benefit.

cyanogenmodThis is where hackers come in. Custom-built ROMs, like AOKP, Cyanogen, Paranoid Android and hundreds of others, offer us the benefit of exotic functionality, without all the limitations. It's a trade-off of course. The bleeding edge is always less stable than the Android Open Source Project '€“ Google'€™s official distribution. But in my personal case, the pros far outweigh the cons.

I can tolerate an occasional power leak, and I am more than capable of following a 10-step guide to unlocking the phone. The freedom I get in return is akin to how it feels to use Linux '€“ my phone serves me, obediently and in its full capability. I'm able to move from one distribution to another, and disable this or that app, service or driver. I can also build something of my own, if I so desire.

My latest love is Cyanogenmod, an open source Android operating system that is one of the oldest and most popular distributions. Its popularity gives a basic guarantee that it will be stable, and the hacker team philosophy behind it aligns nicely with what I want: stock looks and minimal disruptive changes, with added convenience and usability. The Cyanogenmod team works hard to support a humongous list of devices, and you can check the list of changes right on their wiki.