Friday, January 17, 2014

All the things that went wrong when I flashed my Android phone to Cyanogenmod (and how it turned out all right in the end).

Yesterday I finally got round to changing the operating system of my smartphone (Samsung Galaxy Note GT7000, since you ask) from the Samsung-customized version of Android that it came with – to a more open, less bloated, and more user-controlled version. I opted for Cyanogenmod as a relatively user-friendly option; there are other versions that are more ‘outlaw’ but the instructions for installing seemed to include a lot of command line stuff. I’m not a real geek, only a wannabee, so Cyanogenmod seemed like a sensible half-way house. Cyanogenmod used to be a community-maintained project, though it has now become a start-up with a hardware partner.

The first thing I had to do was ‘root’ my phone. I had lived long enough in Australia to be slightly worried by the sound of that, but it means taking over user control. In Linux-speaker, Root is the equivalent of ‘Administrator’, so rooting your device means taking over privileges to control it that you don’t automatically have. Iphone users talking about ‘jailbreaking’.

Rooting turned out to be quite easy. The only scary bit was booting my phone into recovery mode – by powering it on while holding the Home and Volume Up buttons, and holding down the Power button until the recovery screen appeared. A funny unfamiliar picture of the Android android appeared, with a little blue matrix of stuff coming out of its tummy.

A scroll bar also appeared, which got about a quarter of the way and then stopped. There are lots of warnings about ‘bricking’ your phone in all of the instruction sets online, so I waited and waited. Nothing happened, so in the end I took the battery out and replaced it. That turned out to be what it had been waiting for, because a new screen appeared, the scroll bar shot across the screen and a system message in a funny courier-like font told me that the install had finished. It was so quick that I didn’t believe it had actually happened, so I did it a few more times. Eventually though I decided to believe. I rebooted. Of course, you can't tell if your phone has been rooted; you need an app for that. I found one, installed it, and got a lovely message of congratulations, telling me that I did indeed now have Access.

I basked in my technological prowess for a few days. It turned out that having Root Access didn’t give me much more control over the phone at all. It allowed me to install some apps that require it, like Root App Delete which is supposed to allow the user to get rid of pre-installed crap, but actually everything that I uninstalled just re-appeared. Samsung Music Hub, Samsung Push Service…all of it.

So yesterday I thought I would go the distance and install Cyanogenmod. I copied the .zip file to my SD card – it’s really important to find the right version for your hardware, but not as straightforward to this as you might imagine. It’s easy to find the versions for relatively new devices but harder for old ones, especially where the nomenclature is less than clear. What exactly is my version of the Note called? The GT7000? The Note International? The Note 1?

I launched the app that is supposed to install it – Clockwork Recovery. I made a backup of my existing operating system to the SD card. Then I tried to install the Cyanogenmod OS. It couldn’t find it. Although the app thought it was looking at my SD card, it was actually looking at the phone’s internal memory. Not to worry, I coped the .zip file to the internal memory and tried again. Still didn’t work. So I tried booting into Recovery Mode and running it from there. Here there are several options, including Wipe and Factory Reset. That didn’t feel like what I wanted to do – after all, wouldn’t that put it back into the Samsung version that I wanted to get rid of? So I went straight to ‘Install from .zip’, navigated to the right zip file, and watched it install – again, really quickly.

But not doing the Wipe was a mistake. It was lovely to see the spinning, flashing lights of the Cyanogenmod boot-up screen for the first time, and made me feel like my work was almost done. But after 25 minutes I was a bit bored with it, and wondered whether it could really take this long. Searching on the forums revealed that this wasn’t supposed to be happening, and was the result of not doing that wipe. But how to get back?  If I powered off now, would it brick the device? After another 15 minutes (during which the phone got quite hot) I decided that there was no alternative and rebooted.

But it turns out that there is a specific physical skill involved in doing the reboot. This time my screen displayed a different little android, a ‘Downloading in Progress’ message, the famous yellow triangle of death, and a strong warning not to power off.

But nothing else happened, for a very long time. I was now convinced that I had bricked the phone. But I rebooted again, being very careful not release the Volume Up key until the Recovery Mode screen reappeared. Eventually it did (it felt like a really long time though) and then I did the Wipe and Factory Reset, then reinstalled Cyanogen from zip again. Just in case, really. And then rebooted again.

This time it actually booted into Cyanogenmod, and asked me to create a Cyanogenmod account (why?) which I did. So now my phone runs Cyanogenmod  - but there aren’t many apps, and no apps store. If I was a real outlaw I wouldn’t want the Google Play Store – I’d want to use F-Droid or some other way to get completely ‘open’ apps. But I’m not, and one of the things I like about having an Android phone is the way that it syncs nicely with cloud apps that I can provision easily from a PC with a proper keyboard. So I had to install Google Apps. Another download, another zip file, another boot into recovery mode, another install from zip, another reboot.

Only now the phone is really, really cross. The Google Apps are all there, but I can’t work out how to sign in to them. In fact I can’t sign in to anything, because the soft keyboard has stopped working. In fact, I get a message telling me that the keyboard has stopped working every few seconds.

Another web search, with the exact words of the message; I learn that I have installed the wrong version of the Google Apps package. The one I have doesn’t agree with the version of Cyanogenmod that I have installed. I try to download the right one (finding out what that is takes a while) but actually a lot of the apparent download links lead to malware or try to install other crap on my PC. Eventually I find a good one, download it, copy it to the SD card, do the whole boot into recovery shuffle yet again, reboot – and hurrah! The keyboard works again, and I am immediately taken to a Google sign-in screen. I feel slightly daft – all this effort and I just back signing into Google anyway, but it has worked.

My phone now runs Cyanogenmod. It is clean and snappy – apps don’t hang anymore. I have a bit more control over what it does. And I do feel a bit more like a geek. But honestly, why would any normal person do this if they didn’t have to?

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