Remember this: The phone or tablet you purchased is yours. It does not belong to the carrier that you bought it from despite the fact that the device is emblazoned with its corporate identity, logo or splash screen.
This outright ownership you have in the device means that you can do whatever you like with it once you’ve walked out of the store, assuming you don’t mess with the radio hardware and cause interference to your fellow users.
This state-of-play lends itself to the question: What to do with the corporate logo-dripping thing? How can you really make it your own? Customize it? Theme it? Move the soft buttons around? That all goes only so far.
The real mark of ownership in the device is to replace the ROM (Read Only Memory) with one that suits you more than the carrier or manufacturer.
What Is ROM?
The ROM is the memory within the phone or tablet that’s used to run the base device. It consists of the code that boots the device and runs it as it relates to its hardware.
For example, the ROM will contain code that tells the phone’s GPS or WiFi chip how to behave. ROM is distinct from Apps, which aren’t hard-coded into the phone’s operating system.
Although Apps also tell the chips what to do, they’re less rigid in their approach and can be customized more easily by the end-user through UIs. ROM is also distinct from RAM (Random Access Memory) that can be written to.
ROMs are loosely related to one or more of four areas: Speed enhancement; customizing the look and feel; bug fixes not supplied by the phone company or manufacturer; and pre-official ports of operating systems, just for the hell of it.
When to Look for a New ROM
If there’s something that your device doesn’t seem to be doing properly, there’s a chance fellow owners have identified the issue and created a fix. The nature of the passionate developer community means this fix can be released significantly faster than one approved by a manufacturer, which may not even bother to fix it, and may even be focused on the next hardware incarnation — you a long-forgotten blip in its revenue stream.
The developer-created fix will often be provided as a patch, initially, and then incorporated into an updated ROM.
A good example of this is a common issue whereby some Honeycomb tablets don’t support ad hoc WiFi tethering that’s necessary for some phones. Toshiba’s Thrive’s Honeycomb 3.2 operating system, for example, doesn’t. So Dalepi, a member of the Toshiba Thrive Forum, coded a fix. Dalepi then incorporated that fix into a ROM that he made available at the Forum’s website.
Owners run his code on their tablets rather than the factory-supplied code, because it’s the owner’s tablet and not Toshiba’s, and Dalepi’s code in this case suits the owner better than Toshiba’s code.
How to Look for a ROM
Perform a Web-based search for your device maker and model, and add the word “forum.” Browse the resulting pages for good leads.
In the case of the Toshiba, for example, the Toshiba Thrive Forums website holds all ROMs available, and is the definitive source. You’ll often find one Web-based location that’s definitive.
Another good source is XDA Developers — likely the largest Android developer community. XDA members have been responsible for, or active in, any ROM I’ve used. Look for releases labeled “Stable” or “Beta,” rather than “Nightly” or “Experimental” for best results to start.
Any replacement ROM must be loaded onto a rooted device. The phone you purchase isn’t rooted, but the sources in the previous step will tell you how to perform the root.
You’ll also need a PC and a USB cable. Sometimes you’ll also need a memory card.
Ensure that the device can communicate with the PC you’re going to be using. This involves installing the correct drivers. Then root the device following the instructions provided by the developer specific to your device and revision.
Often the developer will have written all of the commands into a batch file that you can simply run with one click from a connected PC. This can include the root, drivers, recovery software and ROM.
Follow the instructions provided by the ROM developer to load new recovery software after a simple root. Once the recovery software is loaded, any new appropriate ROM can be installed.
Further toying can include restoring the ROM back to its original condition. If you get the opportunity to make a backup — say from within the recover software step, always do so.
Thank the developer, or donate money to his or her listed Paypal account if you get good results or have otherwise enjoyed the process. It’s considered good form.
A Few Warnings
Follow the forum instructions carefully, because it’s possible to brick the device. Often, the first release day of any community-released code will be athwart with danger — the experimenters that day know it and like the thrill. We don’t. The first day of a recent Google TV upgrade bricked numerous devices.
As a beginner, wait a few days after a release for the kinks to get ironed out, and always reads the forums carefully. Always match release-for-release. For example, if the hack (ROM, root tool or other) is for a version labeled 3.1.01.5.0029, don’t use it on 3.1.01.5.0002. Be aware that sending a bricked, hacked device in for warranty repair might be problematic. You may be on your own.
Want to Ask a Tech Question?
Is there a piece of tech you’d like to know how to operate properly? Is there a gadget that’s got you confounded? Please send your tech questions to me, and I’ll try to answer as many as possible in this column.
And use the Talkback feature below to add your comments!
I have hacked and changed roms on every device I own for the last 5 years to suit me. I cannot resist not being tethered to corporations.
Samsung i8910 – Symbian
iPhone 3GS – IOS
Motorola Xoom – Android
Motorola Razr – Android
My Xoom has tried a new customized ICS Rom but it still isn’t stable enough for me to keep, so using old Honeycomb till a later date. Works great as is for now.
Motorola Razr is very, very new and I only replaced the stock ROM with a International ROM recently because my Australian carrier ROM upgrade caused the phone to boot-loop. Repair was an option, but I take pride in fixing problems for myself if I AM confident enough.
Newer ROM’s aren’t always better. Before I even try anything new I make sure I have a copy of the old ROM and research whatever I can to reverse or undo any new tweaks I AM trying.
When it comes anything new, don’t be in a hurry and never be first in line. When playing with any device, have a Plan B.