My first Android phone was a Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 Mini, which came with Android v1.6 (Donut), and the promised update to Éclair was repeatedly delayed. I played around with the phone and ended up downloading almost every app on the market, till one day I found that I was running out of space. Donut had limitations and did not allow apps to be installed on an SD card to save the precious internal storage, which was frustrating, especially since other brands and models were already released with Éclair.

Finally, I decided to root the phone and get an unofficial Éclair update for it. This made me head to the XDA forums, where I knew developers constantly play around with new Android OS releases. I found one update called Ginger ROM and hit the download button.

A ROM can be ported from one handset to another or cooked from scratch by starting with a suitable kernel, substituting modules, adding drivers and enabling tweaks to make something new. Each new ROM you install offers something that is not possible with the stock software.

Stock ROMs, for example, don’t let you overclock your hardware. Additional features and tweaks (such as customising the status bar or lock screen and improving the audio EQ options) are not available unless you root the phone and install a different custom-designed kernel. I kept finding new ROMs to try out to make my phone perform faster, look better and do more new things. Each one strengthened my opinion that stock Android is pointless on a smartphone.

XDA Developers Forums have ROMs for almost every Android handset out there.

XDA Developers Forums have ROMs for almost every Android handset out there

The feeling did wear off, though. What I noticed over time was that developers would update these custom ROMs with additional features, bug patches and other new tweaks every few days. No ROM is less than 350MB, and downloading a new one every day was impractical. Often, I would install a new version that promised that the bugs had been fixed only to discover new bugs in place of the old ones. I became quite addicted to the idea of getting almost a brand new phone every few weeks, and I must have downloaded several gigabytes worth of ROMs each month.

That’s when I began to figure out how the community works. The XDA forum is basically meant for developers and those users who are willing to accept the risks of testing experimental software and report their feedback. The developers who post these ROMS could be anyone from rookie school students to experienced software professionals. It takes a lot of time and effort to develop a new ROM, and the process begins with collecting data from other developers and various resources in the Android community. Some of the releases are premature, but the developers don’t have the resources to test them thoroughly. They release these efforts as alpha or beta versions and wait for the community to respond after encountering bugs. There is a universal disclaimer that users who flash their phones do so at their own risk, and developers are not liable if you brick your phone in the process. Developers do highlight their changelogs and lists of known bugs in each ROM, but users who try these under-cooked ROMs cannot always know how well they will work. Most of the ROMs have at least a few users complaining about weak or dead network reception, hanging or reduced battery life. Developers put in a lot of hard work in their personal time without much hope of earning donations, but they are flooded with criticism and abuse on the forum from unfamiliar users who expect free, magical upgrades.

In the two years since I replaced my X10 Mini, I have used an HTC Desire Bravo, then (briefly) a Sony Xperia Arc and now an HTC EVO 3D, and I have tried custom ROMs on each of them. Looking back, I have not really gained much from all the painstaking downloads and flashing. Each ROM promised a bug-free operating system, but this was never really true. Tracking down a new ROM from a different developer almost every day was taking too much of my time and Internet bandwidth, and the process of installing it requires backing up the phone, flashing it, restoring all settings and content, testing it, and reverting if necessary. Though my phones gained extra features such as call recording, status bar tweaks, USB On the Go support and a few others, several buggy ROMs made my devices erratic and I was forced to deal with freezes and reboots pretty often.

Warnings put up by most ROM developers.

Warnings put up by most ROM developers.

After personally experiencing the downside of custom ROMs, I would advise all Android users to avoid them unless you are willing to accept the risks of testing their work along with the benefits. If you are a developer, you could consider jumping in to help developers who are adding value to the Android operating system. If you want a stable operating system, stick to what your phone’s manufacturer gave you, since you can be sure it went through more rigorous quality control checks.  

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