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A look at CyanogenMod 5.0.8

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By Jonathan Corbet
June 21, 2010
One of the core features of Linux has always been the ability to switch to a different distribution in the eternal pursuit of something shiny, new, and different. Linux on handsets should be no different. Someday, with any luck at all, we'll be able to change between systems like Android and MeeGo on a single handset. For now, the options are a bit more limited, but there are still toys to play with. Your editor took the CyanogenMod 5.0.8 announcement as the perfect opportunity to avoid real work for while. In short: CyanogenMod is a classic demonstration of what can happen when we have control over our gadgets.

CyanogenMod is a rebuild of the Android environment with a lot of added stuff. Some of what's there is code from Google which has not yet made it into an official Android release; for example, CyanogenMod users got essential features like color trackball notifications, animated GIF support, and 360-degree rotation ahead of stock Android users. They also got features that really are essential, with wireless tethering being at the top of the list. CyanogenMod also includes newer kernels with more features enabled, busybox and a whole set of command-line utilities, proper virtual private network (VPN) support, proper support for applications on the SD card, a cellular access-point name list which takes the guesswork out of using the phone with most providers, and lots more.

CyanogenMod also supports older handsets like the G1/ADP1 which, otherwise, remain stuck with old versions on the Android system.

It's worth noting that the CyanogenMod experience actually starts with the recovery image provided by Amon_RA. This image makes it easy to flash new versions of firmware into the phone. Even more importantly, though, is the full integration of nandroid backup and restore. Your editor can attest that this feature is able to take a handset which no longer even boots after a botched update and return it to its previous state. Needless to say, this capability makes experimenting with new versions a much lower-stress affair - if one remembers to make a backup first.

With regard to the CyanogenMod 5.0.8 update, the first thing to be aware of is this: it is still based on the Android 2.1 release. So while this release has had a lot of 2.2 features since well before 2.2 existed, it is also lacking a few, including the multi-lingual keyboard and the much-faster Java runtime (though it does have the faster V8 JavaScript engine). People running 2.2-based handsets will want to think before making the switch to CyanogenMod; there will be losses as well as gains. One assumes that a 2.2-based release will eventually appear, but nobody has made any promises as to when.

So what is new in 5.0.8? The headline features include:

    [ADW.Launcher]
  • The launcher has been replaced by ADW.Launcher, which adds a number of features. Some of them - being able to see all of the launcher screens with a "pinch" gesture - would be more useful if Android's screens were more dynamic. Many of the others seem oriented toward cramming more useful stuff onto each screen by allowing closer icon spacing, adding customizable buttons at the bottom, etc. It is, all told, an improved experience for users who do a lot with their phones.

  • The music player application has some new features, primarily gesture support. It remains a fairly minimal music player, though; your editor anxiously awaits the day when Rockbox is available as an Android application.

  • The camera is now capable of recording 720p video - not bad for a cellphone.

There's also a number of bug fixes and performance improvements. Some users are reporting that CyanogenMod 5.0.8 feels a lot faster than its predecessors; your editor is inclined to agree but it's not entirely clear why that would be the case. One other nice little change is that the practice of hiding some settings under "spare parts" appears to have ended; all settings are, once again, available from the "settings" application.

There have been a few complaints about problems with this release, mostly associated with video recording. Those may all be due to a failure to wipe (factory reset) the phone before installing the update, though. Over a couple of days of usage and testing, your editor has not been able to find anything that has gone obviously wrong. It appears to be a solid release.

Naturally, CyanogenMod is not the only customized distribution available for Android phones; a number of alternatives are available. These include Kang-o-rama (2.2-based with claimed high speed and good battery life), AsimROM (2.2-based with some theme work), LeoFroYo (2.2-based with the nice feature that the Facebook and Twitter applications have been made removable), MoDaCo (2.2, "designed to feel as far as possible like a stock ROM, with optimisations, tweaks and complimentary additions that enhance the user experience"), and many more. There are also projects creating specialized kernels, attempting to enable the FM radio said to be built into the Nexus One, and so on. In summary: there's no lack of Android distributions for those who wish to play with them. At least, if one has a Nexus One; there appear to be fewer developers targeting other handsets.

A word of caution is in order, though. CyanogenMod appears to be developed with a fair amount of care and should be solid, but there are no guarantees, and some releases are better than others. The other projects seem to come and go; the perceived risk level with them may be higher. As with any computer, good backups are important. One other thing to keep in mind is this: someday, somebody will certainly yield to the temptation to build a release with some sort of back door or other malware built into it; for all we know this may have already happened. A handset running this software would be thoroughly compromised at the most fundamental level, and this situation could persist for some time; there are few people looking at the code being shipped in these distributions. Until such a time as we have an ecosystem of trusted distributors for handsets, one must proceed with caution and care.

These concerns reflect the fact that the development of real distributions for handsets has really just begun. Even so, we can begin to see the potential for where things may go: we have developers updating device firmware with versions which are more featureful, more power-efficient, and more tuned to the needs of specific users. If all goes well, we can look forward to a future with increasingly open handsets and a wider choice of operating systems to run on those handsets. Interesting things will certainly come of it.


(Log in to post comments)

Other Android phones

Posted Jun 21, 2010 21:51 UTC (Mon) by rfunk (subscriber, #4054) [Link]

I'm looking forward to the day when those of us stuck on CDMA carriers (Verizon & Sprint) get to play with these alternate firmwares. I had my hopes up that the Nexus One would go CDMA, but then both Sprint and Verizon cancelled those plans in favor of phones with higher specs.

(So instead I picked up an Evo and rooted it, and I await the Android 2.2 update.)

Other Android phones

Posted Jun 21, 2010 22:12 UTC (Mon) by yokem_55 (subscriber, #10498) [Link]

This Ver[yevil]izon user (well actually a Verizon MVNO, I hate mandatory data plans), just got an Incredible and while there is root access to the device, there isn't yet a way to put a new kernel on the device or a way to substantially replace the OS. As time goes on it appears these devices are becoming increasingly harder to make substantial modifications too, as owners of newer model Motorola Droids have discovered. At&t with its Android handsets is removing the ability to install packages from outside of the Market. Maybe the fine folks at XDA will be be able to keep up with making it possible to truly own one's Android pocket-able computer, but the telcos are clearly intent on making this impossible.

Other Android phones

Posted Jun 21, 2010 23:07 UTC (Mon) by martinfick (subscriber, #4455) [Link]

My suggestion would be to stop buying your phone from a telco.

Other Android phones

Posted Jun 21, 2010 23:38 UTC (Mon) by drag (subscriber, #31333) [Link]

CDMA makes it more difficult. With GSM you can simply slap the SIM card into it. With CDMA you have to take the phone in or at least get it registered in some way (not sure how it works). This is why I generally prefer GSM phones.

I don't know how open Verizon is to retail phones. I'd like to know.

"The Incredible", from what I hear, is more hackable then what you typically find. Having 'root access' is a big step forward compared to the status quo a year or so ago.

Software-wise to be truly 'open' would require hackable bootloader, but I think it's going to take a while to get to that point.

Other Android phones

Posted Jun 22, 2010 0:53 UTC (Tue) by yokem_55 (subscriber, #10498) [Link]

I purchased my Incredible at full price from an ebay seller who chose not to keep the device for themselves. I activated the device on PagePlus, who buys airtime from Verizon in bulk and resells it on a pre-paid basis. Most post paid Verizon phones work well with PagePlus. I have access to wifi 90+% of the time so I don't need a robust data plan and wanting an Android computer to use with PagePlus service led me to buy the Incredible.

Other Android phones

Posted Jun 22, 2010 2:47 UTC (Tue) by lambda (subscriber, #40735) [Link]

Yeah, that's why I went with a Nexus One. Though even then, you don't get a huge amount of choice; in the US, with GSM, you get a choice between AT&T and T-Mobile, and they use different 3G bands, so if you switch from one to the other you lose access to 3G (for some reason, the Nexus One only supports 3 3G bands, not the 5 that would be required to cover all of the common bands).

Verizon is apparently going to be going with LTE for "3.9" G over the next couple of years, which is the successor to the GSM/UMTS 2 and 3G standards. This may mean that eventually you'll just be able to plop in a sim card and switch to Verizon as well, though that will probably be a long ways off.

Other Android phones

Posted Jun 22, 2010 23:13 UTC (Tue) by rfunk (subscriber, #4054) [Link]

Besides AT&T and T-Mobile using different 3G bands, they also tend to be known for inferior coverage and voice connection quality compared to Verizon and Sprint, possibly partly due to technical differences between GSM and CDMA. (Verizon has the most coverage of the four, T-Mobile the least. Sprint's coverage is helped by being able to roam on Verizon, and vice-versa to a lesser extent.)

Other Android phones

Posted Jun 23, 2010 6:01 UTC (Wed) by cmccabe (guest, #60281) [Link]

> for some reason, the Nexus One only supports 3 3G bands, not the 5
> that would be required to cover all of the common bands

Apparently there are some Nexus Ones out there that can do 3G on both AT&T and T-Mobile. You have to check the part number apparently.

Mine only does 3G on T-Mobile, though.

Other Android phones

Posted Jun 24, 2010 15:05 UTC (Thu) by docwhat (guest, #40373) [Link]

I doubt it. The antenna design is different for the different 3g frequencies. Cell Phone antennas are amazing - They work not only line-of-sight, but off bounces on walls, etc.

So the chip may do all the bands, but I doubt the amplifiers are there, and no phone I have heard of has the antenna needed to do all the frequencies.

Other Android phones

Posted Jun 25, 2010 4:42 UTC (Fri) by lambda (subscriber, #40735) [Link]

Interesting. Do you have a reference for that? For how to determine if I have the correct part number? I'd love to have the freedom to switch to T-Mobile; I went with AT&T because the area I lived in didn't have T-Mobile coverage, but now I've moved, and T-Mobile has better plans for what I'm interested in.

Other Android phones

Posted Jun 26, 2010 0:36 UTC (Sat) by cmccabe (guest, #60281) [Link]

If you check the FCC ID on the back of the phone, you can find out what 3G network your phone works with.

NM8PB99110 => AT&T
NM8PB99100 => T-Mobile

When I first searched for this info, the first website I clicked on talked about a third variant with support for both carriers. This website seems to have evaporated (and wasn't very official in the first place), so maybe that isn't true.

Other Android phones

Posted Jun 22, 2010 7:57 UTC (Tue) by buchanmilne (guest, #42315) [Link]

CDMA makes it more difficult. With GSM you can simply slap the SIM card into it. With CDMA you have to take the phone in or at least get it registered in some way (not sure how it works). This is why I generally prefer GSM phones.

CDMA does have a similar feature, RUIM (or CSIM). However, the fact that the US CDMA providers don't seem to have any plans for RUIM means that many CDMA handsets don't have RUIM support, so they are not feasible in regions where RUIM support is mandatory (e.g., regions with better regulatory control over mobile voice operators).

Nokia also has very limited CDMA handsets (naturally, since GSM is cheaper for them), so a Meego-based CDMA/EV-DO device is unlikely. At present, the only smartphones available on non-US CDMA networks are Windows-based.

An Android-based CDMA/EV-DO handset with RUIM/CSIM support would be a winner in many non-US markets.

(I currently work for a CDMA provider in an emerging market)

Other Android phones

Posted Jun 22, 2010 13:24 UTC (Tue) by jiu (guest, #57673) [Link]

I know this is a tech forum but do you realize how many obscure acronyms you used in @your post?

Other Android phones

Posted Jun 22, 2010 15:05 UTC (Tue) by sorpigal (subscriber, #36106) [Link]

Not so obscure. I think most people in a phone-related article will know what CDMA and GSM are. He provided links for RUIM and CSIM, so there's no trouble there. That leaves EV-DO, which is a bit hard if you're not familiar with US cell networks.

Other Android phones

Posted Jun 22, 2010 18:35 UTC (Tue) by HelloWorld (guest, #56129) [Link]

"Not so obscure. I think most people in a phone-related article will know what CDMA and GSM are."
Yeah, except that CDMA2000 isn't used in Europe, thus nobody knows what it means over here.

Other Android phones

Posted Jun 22, 2010 19:33 UTC (Tue) by bronson (subscriber, #4806) [Link]

What are you complaining about? CDMA doesn't appear in the article.

Other Android phones

Posted Jun 22, 2010 19:50 UTC (Tue) by HelloWorld (guest, #56129) [Link]

Please, just learn to read...

Other Android phones

Posted Jun 23, 2010 7:36 UTC (Wed) by bronson (subscriber, #4806) [Link]

Lovely attitude. Maybe you need to learn to write?

Other Android phones

Posted Jun 21, 2010 23:20 UTC (Mon) by jsbarnes (guest, #4096) [Link]

I've got a moto droid on verizon and it works just fine with the cyanogen mods. The 5.0.8 release is the best one I've used so far.

A look at CyanogenMod 5.0.8

Posted Jun 21, 2010 23:24 UTC (Mon) by fb (subscriber, #53265) [Link]

CyanogenMod has been solving the biggest gripe I have with Android: the lack of proper update support. The iphone -with all its problems- delivers to all its users the assurance of 2(?) years of updates.

Google has tried to address this issue through the Nexus, and has gone nowhere. The phone is not widely available. In the mean time, I hope that Froyo's JIT will allow me to postpone upgrading my G1.

installation?

Posted Jun 22, 2010 2:47 UTC (Tue) by louie (subscriber, #3285) [Link]

Jon, the one thing that has always prevented me from rooting my G1 and installing cyanogen is that there seemed to be many different instructions on how to do it, all slightly different, and none very clear/specific- they all seemed to assume you'd read some other document, knew magical terms, etc. I was sure I could figure them out given time, but none of them were exactly... confidence inspiring, and I don't have a spare phone to brick, so that turned me off. Care to share what instructions you used/found best?

installation?

Posted Jun 22, 2010 3:29 UTC (Tue) by yokem_55 (subscriber, #10498) [Link]

This is unfortunately the result of a culture of documenting things through 100 page forum threads where asking questions is frowned upon unless you've read the whole thing. Sigh.

installation?

Posted Jun 22, 2010 3:35 UTC (Tue) by louie (subscriber, #3285) [Link]

Right. I've been looking through the wiki since I posted this, and it is roughly 1000x better than it was last time (only one significant link to a forum thread in the 'documentation') but man... still horrid. Looks like I would need to install at least two (three?) different firmwares before installing the cyanogen firmware, plus a radio driver at some point in there. Yikes. And I can only run backups after the second firmware install, if I read it right? Double-yikes, but maybe I'm missing something about that last bit...

installation?

Posted Jun 22, 2010 6:28 UTC (Tue) by drag (subscriber, #31333) [Link]

Yeah. It's complicated.

I just followed what was on the wiki. I just re-read it a few times, make sure it made sense and went with it. Worked out fine for me.

From my experiences in Ubuntu-land I have a very low trust of what is said in forums, but it seems people that bother to document stuff in wikis tend to be pretty reliable. Especially if they give links to back up what they are saying.

installation?

Posted Jun 24, 2010 2:01 UTC (Thu) by malex (guest, #15692) [Link]

The complexity does make logical sense, though. Since your phone is most likely not the "developer phone" you need to downgrade to a firmware version that has the "root" console bug to be able to root your phone. As far as the radio update goes, it sems to be in a similar vein to linux package installation. You need to install a particular pre-requisite to get what you need running. All fear goes away though once you get to a point where nandroid backup is available as it's a solid failsafe. I was able to go from the lackluster features and performance of stock 1.6 t-mobile firmware to CM 4.2.15 on relatively cheap craigslist G1 within 1-2 hours including the required reading for someone with no idea where to start. Now my G1 has a new lease on life with 5.0.8 I'm typing this on. I am already looking very much forward to a 2.2-based CM.

installation?

Posted Jun 24, 2010 5:07 UTC (Thu) by louie (subscriber, #3285) [Link]

Complexity might preclude short instructions, but it doesn't need to preclude *clear* instructions. That said, as I think I said elsewhere, they have gotten a lot better than they used to be. I will probably try it when the 2.2-based CM comes out.

installation?

Posted Jun 25, 2010 12:00 UTC (Fri) by duck (guest, #4444) [Link]

Yep, it's complicated. I tried to do it as a side job while working on other things, and did not notice than one of the required downgrades also downgraded the radio driver to a "forbidden" version. Now I've got a brick :-(
Of course, it is my fault, it was written on one of the three webpages that I had to read in parallel:
- Page 1 says: root your phone, for instructions look on Page 2.
- Then install some recovery Image, see Page 3 for instructions.
- When you are done, install... oh wait, I made a mistake, phone bricked, no need to read any further
The main problem was that the instructions on page 2 and 3 were updated but the references on page 1 were not; so page 2 and 3 and recommended different versions than page 1.
Well, I just asked for some quotes for a Motorola Milestone....

installation?

Posted Jun 22, 2010 5:41 UTC (Tue) by tao (subscriber, #17563) [Link]

Actually, frowning upon people who ask questions that have been asked before is a *good* thing from this point of view (as well as other aspects) -- there won't be multiple answers, all slightly different. Even if the first person who asks the question receives several different answers, some of them incorrect, there's usually someone with the correct answer who bothers to correct it. For repeat questions though, it's very uncommon that anyone bothers to correct the people who think they know more than they really do.

Of course, for FAQs (and uncommon questions) a Q&A wiki where people fill in their questions *after reviewing previous questions* and people fill in the answer would make more sense.

installation?p

Posted Jun 23, 2010 1:10 UTC (Wed) by Los__D (guest, #15263) [Link]

No, it is the result of a culture of people asking questions without checking if they have already been answered, making threads with 10 pages of content 100 pages long.

installation?

Posted Jun 22, 2010 11:26 UTC (Tue) by ncm (subscriber, #165) [Link]

The announcement doesn't seem to suggest it works on the G1. Does it really?

installation?

Posted Jun 22, 2010 11:41 UTC (Tue) by fb (subscriber, #53265) [Link]

It does work on the G1 (I have it installed). Make sure to follow the instructions

installation?

Posted Jun 22, 2010 15:48 UTC (Tue) by bronson (subscriber, #4806) [Link]

But beware, the G1 is already memory-starved, and this will make it worse. If you like listening to a podcast while doing turn-by-turn navigation, stay on 1.6!

I haven't had any problems with calling or the important things, and I like the bells and whistles, so I'm happy I upgraded. Just note that it isn't without some drawbacks.

installation?

Posted Jun 23, 2010 9:02 UTC (Wed) by fb (subscriber, #53265) [Link]

You are right on the spot about memory starvation.

Note that if you go to "Settings -> Applications -> Running Services", you will see that services you are running. My G1 starts this hideous "Google News" provider thing (which I don't use). Every time I reboot the phone, I just go there and kill the service.

installation?

Posted Jun 22, 2010 13:02 UTC (Tue) by corbet (editor, #1) [Link]

I agree the information is hard to find...those XDA forums are really major pain.

I never had to root my G1 when I had one - it was an ADP1 and didn't have that kind of problem. Once that's done, it's time to put in a better recovery image, then flash the main operating firmware. I wrote some stuff about what I did back then. Of course, things have moved on a bit - don't go looking for a JesusFreke image to install now...

installation?

Posted Jun 22, 2010 13:18 UTC (Tue) by corbet (editor, #1) [Link]

I meant to add: for Nexus One owners, these instructions are fairly reasonable.

A look at CyanogenMod 5.0.8

Posted Jun 22, 2010 6:12 UTC (Tue) by smurf (subscriber, #17840) [Link]

Too bad it doesn't support the HTC Legend.

Does anybody know of an alternate distro which does? I haven't found one yet.

A look at CyanogenMod 5.0.8

Posted Jun 22, 2010 10:17 UTC (Tue) by Cyberax (✭ supporter ✭, #52523) [Link]

"There's also a number of bug fixes and performance improvements. Some users are reporting that CyanogenMod 5.0.8 feels a lot faster than its predecessors; your editor is inclined to agree but it's not entirely clear why that would be the case."

They switched to BFS :)

Seriously, that really might be the case.

A look at CyanogenMod 5.0.8

Posted Jun 22, 2010 15:41 UTC (Tue) by bronson (subscriber, #4806) [Link]

Near as I can tell, they switched to BFS in 4.1.6 (early Sept 2009) and switched back to CFS in 4.2 (24 Oct 2009). I don't think they switched back to BFS since then. So, no, I don't think that explains the speed increase.

It seems like the effects are a lot smoother on my G1 but latency is noticeably higher. After the upgrade I actually spend MORE time waiting for the home screen to appear (dang this handset is feeling old).

My guess is a big dose of better graphics acceleration plus a small dose of tweaking scheduling priorities and memory usage.

A look at CyanogenMod 5.0.8

Posted Jun 23, 2010 9:10 UTC (Wed) by fb (subscriber, #53265) [Link]

> It seems like the effects are a lot smoother on my G1 but latency is noticeably higher. After the upgrade I actually spend MORE time waiting for the home screen to appear (dang this handset is feeling old).

I feel your pain!

Did already try going to "Settings -> Spare Parts", and

1. enabled Compcache compressing.
**2** setting "Launcher in memory"

Your phone will be even more memory starved (sorry!), but you won't spend 2-3 seconds waiting *every* time you return to the home screen.

2.2 source

Posted Jun 23, 2010 19:56 UTC (Wed) by corbet (editor, #1) [Link]

One thing I neglected to point out in the article: the 2.2-based versions are, as of the writing of this article, all based on "leaked" binary releases; they are not built from the source which, until today, was not available. Google has apparently tossed the 2.2 source over the wall now; hopefully that will facilitate the release of a 2.2-based Cyanogen in the near future.


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