project produces the best-known rebuild of the Android
operating system; unlike a lot of other "modders," CyanogenMod rebuilds its
distribution from the Android Open Source Project source and functions
increasingly like an ordinary free software project. The announcement
for the first CyanogenMod 9.0 release candidate hit the net on June 26.
Your editor, never one to miss a chance to brick a nice handset with
pre-release software, decided it was time to see how CM9.0-rc1 would behave
on a Galaxy Nexus device.
The current stable CyanogenMod release is 7.2.0, based on the Android
"Gingerbread" release. 7.2.0 adds a lot to stock Android, making the
switch to CyanogenMod worthwhile even for those with reasonably good stock
Android installations. Given that the project is going from 7.2.0 to the
upcoming 9.0 release, one might well wonder what happened to 8.0; might the
CyanogenMod developers be engaging in some sort of
version number inflation? The truth is rather more boring than that.
CyanogenMod release numbers are tied to the first letter of the associated
Android release name. CM8.x
would have been based on the Honeycomb release, but, since that release
never happened, CM8.x didn't happen either. The upcoming CM9.0 release, of
course, is based on the famous Android "Ice Cream Sandwich" version.
One of the advantages of buying an Android device directly from Google is
that there is very little hassle involved in unlocking the device. No
jailbreaking required. A simple fastboot command is enough to
unlock the bootloader; one should take the warning that the
device will be wiped seriously, though. Another fastboot command installs
the ClockworkMod recovery image which, in turn, can be used to flash the
actual CM9.0 installation. The hardest part, arguably, is figuring out the
magic sequence needed by each device to get it into the recovery mode;
with the Galaxy Nexus, one has to use the volume keys to scroll through
hidden options to get to the "recovery" choice. That done, the CM9.0-rc1
installation went without a hitch.
Except, of course, for the part about having to completely reconfigure the device
from scratch again. Lots of the requisite information is now helpfully
stored on the Google mothership, offering a degree of convenience that can
make one overlook the fact that somebody else is holding a lot of your
important data. But one still must configure K9, re-pair Bluetooth
devices, set various display options, turn off annoying notifications, and
so on. The life of a device
distribution reviewer is often difficult and unglamorous, but somebody has
to do it.
Previous CyanogenMod releases have featured vast numbers of configuration
options, allowing the user to tweak just about any aspect of the
experience. For 9.x, the developers have decided
that maybe they needed to cut back a bit. Such a decision might lead one
to fear a GNOME-like dedication to removing any feature that proves unable
to run away quickly enough. The truth of the matter, though, is that, from
your editor's point of view, they have not taken away much of great
importance. The knobs that really make a difference are still there; a lot
of clutter is gone. So far, so good.
But one interesting result of this decision is that CyanogenMod 9.x
actually looks a lot like the Android release upon which is it based. It
is much closer to the original than 7.x ever was. It is, in fact, close
enough that one might well wonder whether it's worth the trouble to make
the change. What does CM9.x provide that an Android device doesn't offer
from the outset — beyond the new, slightly creepy mascot?
To start with, there's still a higher degree of control over the interface.
There are little things, like the ability to get a numeric
percentage value for the current battery charge, for example. The "Trebuchet"
launcher, while lacking the massive set of configuration options found
in previous CyanogenMod launchers, still allows a lot of basic tweaks,
including the number of rows and columns on the home screen. Trebuchet
restores the ability for the home screen to rotate to match the handset's
orientation. It also allows the removal of the Google search bar at the
top of the home screen, something Google's own distribution won't let the
There is a built-in "profiles" feature that can be used to store and load
sets of configuration options for different places. As with traditional
cellphone profile implementations, basic features like ringer volume can be
controlled, but there is lot more than that. Profiles can control wireless
behavior, synchronization, notifications on a per-application level, and
more. One could easily set up, for example, an "international travel"
profile that turns off synchronization and cuts out most, but not all,
notifications. Unlike the profiles implemented by some add-on
applications, CyanogenMod profiles can't
be tied to times or locations, but that is probably good enough for most
Your editor still misses the highly configurable CM7.x power widget;
9.0-rc1 only contains the stock Android version. There is, however,
a separate power widget that can be enabled when the notification bar is
dragged down, and that one is configurable indeed. That makes it easily to
quickly toggle features like airplane mode or mobile data. (Those wanting
a massively configurable power widget can get it by installing an
application like Widgetsoid).
Stock Android on this device included an option to go straight into the
camera application from the lock screen—useful for grabbing a quick
picture. CyanogenMod extends that functionality to make it possible to go
directly to a number of applications directly from the lock screen—or
that's what the intent seems to be; it did not want to work on your
editor's device. One can also do some limited reconfiguration of the
dedicated buttons at the bottom of the screen; if one really wants the
search button back, one can have it.
Those who truly want to tweak things can go into the "performance" menu,
ignoring the scary warning on the way in. There, things like CPU frequency
policies can be tweaked. It is also possible to turn on kernel samepage
merging (KSM), allowing the kernel to merge pages with duplicate contents
and making more memory available. Unlike sometimes in the past, there is
little in this menu that looks truly scary.
There's one other thing worth mentioning, even though it's not really a
CyanogenMod feature: recent versions of the Android browser have a "quick
controls" option found under "Labs" in the settings menu. Turning that on
enables a nice two-dimensional menu obtained by swiping in from the side;
it makes the browsing experience much faster and more straightforward.
In summary: CyanogenMod 9.0 looks set to be another solid release with some
nice functionality and little in the way of obvious problems. Users who
appreciate the more open nature of the CyanogenMod community or who want
the extra configurability will certainly want to make the switch at some
point. For the rest, given how stock Android has caught up to CyanogenMod
in a number of ways, it may well be worth asking whether switching to
CyanogenMod is worth the effort. Gaining control over a mobile device and
flashing new firmware into it is not always a simple or stress-free
exercise, after all. Users who have a pure Android installation to start
with (as found on devices from Google, for example) might happily stay where they are.
On the other hand, devices afflicted with extra "features" imposed by
carriers, or those that will not otherwise be upgraded to a current Android
release, may be significantly improved by a CyanogenMod installation.
Either way, the upcoming CyanogenMod 9.0 release will be a nice option to have.
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