posted by Thom Holwerda on Sun 18th Mar 2012 21:23 UTC
IconThis past week and this weekend I've finally found the time to enter into the colorful world of custom Android ROMs. After figuring out just how insanely great and awesome ClockWorkMod Recovery is, I set about to figure out what the best Ice Cream Sandwich ROM is for the Galaxy SII. While the answer to that question became clear quite quickly, this answer also gave rise to a whole bunch of other questions.

When it comes to Ice Cream Sandwich on the Galaxy SII there's two general routes you can take: Samsung's stock ICS ROM or modified versions thereof, or the nightly CyanogenMod 9 builds. It may surprise you, but a team of open source hackers who are at a severe disadvantage compared to Samsung's own engineers produce a far superior user experience. If you have a Galaxy SII and even have only a modicum of technical knowledge or know someone that does (it's insanely easy), there's honestly not a single logical reason not to move to the nightly CM9 builds.

Samsung's Ice Cream Sandwich ROM is a total and utter disaster. It's not a single bit faster or more responsive than the Gingerbread ROM, which, as far as I can tell, is an achievement in and of itself. Worse yet, it has a Frankenstein-esque user interface that combines the beautiful Ice Cream Sandwich design with old Gingerbread bits and large swathes of TouchWiz crap, leading to a very schizophrenic back and forth between different styles. It lacks most of the stock ICS applications, replacing them with Samsung's own crap, and, of course, it's a given that it comes to laden with crapware.

So, I decided to try out the countless modified versions of the stock ROM that have sprung up. While some are trying very hard to make it all look like stock Ice Cream Sandwich as much as possible, they all basically just apply a blue theme to the same Gingerbread applications, and as we all know, a different theme colour does not a new interface make. I mean, I won't score a date with Heather Graham just because I'm wearing a Brad Pitt mask.

Frustrated by this state of affairs, I decided to settle for nothing less but stock Ice Cream Sandwich. All that beautiful blue ICS design that Google's been dangling in front of my eyes was going to be mine. There was only one way to get there: CyanogenMod 9. CM9 is still only available as nightly builds, which scared me a great deal, but after sifting through the XDA forums it became clear to me that for all intents and purposes, the only thing not working was video recording (due to missing kernel sources). I can live with that.

I downloaded the latest nightly and Gapps package onto my SD card, flashed them with CWM, did a full wipe/factory reset, and rebooted. I then found out what Android is really all about.

The difference between the stock Samsung ROM and CM9's AOSP experience couldn't be bigger. Suddenly, I was looking at a highly consistent, beautiful, and distinctive interface. The rough edges, present in both the stock Gingerbread and ICS ROMs, were gone. The occasional stutter or interface lag are nowhere to be found. And boy, is it fast. It's like I've gotten a hardware upgrade. Opening and closing applications, browsing, multitasking - it's all near-instant.

It's full of cool little touches, like the CRT screen-off animation and the blue overscroll effect (which replaces bouncy scrolling). The white text on black background, augmented with the distinctive ICS blue (FF33B5E5), looks gorgeous on the SII's SuperAMOLED+ display, as if it's been specifically designed for it. It's clear Google spent a lot of time on creating a more coherent and, for the lack of a better term, digital experience. ICS moves away from iOS' horrible skeuomorphic UI elements, taking baby steps towards the Metro side of the spectrum. Less chrome and childish fake leather, more content and cleaner presentation.

Now, it's important to remember that CM9 is still in alpha, meaning it could contain all sorts of untold nasties. So far, however, I have yet to encounter any issues, but two days of use is of course anything but a definitive test. I am planning on doing an actual review of CM9 - but not until it hits stable (somewhere after Samsung releases the kernel source code).

The question all this raises is a rather straightforward one: how is it possible that a group of open source engineers can create this wonderful package that Samsung, despite all its resources, technical documentation, and inside knowledge of their own device, can't even come close to? What the heck are they doing back in South Korea?

These past few days, one thing has become very, very clear to me: Samsung, HTC, and all the other Android OEMs are ruining it for Google. Not only that, they're wasting considerable resources on useless and ugly crap that does nothing to benefit consumers. Android may have needed customisation a number of versions ago - but not today. ICS is ready as-is. TouchWiz and Samsung's other customisations add nothing. Zero. Nada. They only make the device slower, uglier, and less appealing.

It's high time Android vendors stop with all the customising, and just ship plain CM on their (future) devices. Differentiate with hardware instead. Work together with the CM team, and make sure the CM team works together with Google. Supply them with devices, hardware specifications, driver source code, and so on, and provide them with servers for distributing updates. Not only will it create a better user experience, it also relieves some of the software development pressure from the Android vendors. On top of that, it could alleviate some of the fragmentation concerns.

It's a win-win-win-win-win.

If you have a supported Android device, you owe it to yourself to check out CM9. You won't regret it. This is what Android should be - and it's good.

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