The best custom ROMs for Android smartphones

Update: Buying phones with custom ROMs!
The best custom ROMs for Android smartphones

If you want to use your smartphone for more than two years, you often only get reliable and up-to-date Android again with so-called custom ROMs. There are numerous other reasons for, but also some against modding your Android device via third-party firmware. Get to know the known custom ROMs here.

In this update, we are inspired by the news that Fairphone now sells its smartphones with pre-installed /e/OS. The professional custom ROM developer offers several different smartphones that are already equipped with the Google-free firmware when shipped. The focus of this effort is to replace Google services with privacy-friendly, open-source alternatives while maintaining user comfort.

The new section is at the bottom. There you can also find out why Android smartphones are hardly sold with a mod anymore. But don't give up: we have also updated the list of mod-friendly devices (manufacturers) and added more information.

Shortcuts:

What are custom ROMs? Android for rebels

The so-called custom ROMs are alternative, but Android-based software that you can install on your tablet or smartphone instead of the manufacturer's software. Apart from the arguments explained later, the reason for this step is that you as a user can feel like a real owner of your purchased device again. Finally, custom ROMs and everything that comes with them extends your control over what happens on and with the device.

For Android devices, custom ROMs mean a resurrection; one of the ROMs presented is appropriately called Resurrection Remix. This is because while manufacturers are bringing about planned obsolescence through the end of the update supply (often called End of Life), third-party firmware can make the devices usable beyond their scheduled end of life.

On the one hand, this is cheaper for you, because you only have to buy new smartphones at larger intervals. On the other hand, it's good for the environment, because the old device later ends up on the electronic waste for inefficient recycling and also has to be replaced later by a new device that is produced in an equally environmentally harmful way.

Are custom ROMs a dying hobby?

Good custom ROMs are characterized by an active community and support for many different devices. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer third-party firmware meet these criteria. Meanwhile, many smartphone manufacturers have addressed important criticisms of their original firmware and have taken custom ROMs away from important arguments. These would be:

  1. Previous security updates.
  2. Less pre-installed software.
  3. More control over the user interface.

But after two to four years, security updates will be over. If you persistently want to continue using your smartphone, you have to accept security risks or, at the latest then, replace the software at great expense.

Disadvantages of custom ROMs

But then additional reprisals are waiting for the mod-ready users.

  1. The first hurdle is the bootloader, which cannot be unlocked in some devices. Huawei smartphones are notoriously affected by this lockdown, so that their devices can no longer be used responsibly after four years at the latest.
  2. The next hurdle is closed source packages. Sony, for example, allows opening the bootloader, but disables the camera function. Moddern has occasionally succeeded in saving the functionality. However, this step is often accompanied by a significantly reduced photo quality in the modded device.
  3. When modding, closed-source components such as the camera drivers are often stored in the vendor partition. This must be updated in parallel to the custom ROM. Some ROMs already include corresponding components in their images. However, if the vendor does not supply the corresponding basic packages, ROM production is also at an end.
  4. There are also reprisals at the app level. Protection mechanisms such as SafetyNet block the execution or even the installation of apps and games. Well-known examples are Pokémon GO, Super Mario Run, Snapchat, Netflix, and numerous banking apps. Some of these hurdles can be overcome with Magisk.

The best custom ROMs for Android at a glance

  Lineage LineageOS for microG CarbonROM Dirty Unicorns Paranoid Android Resurrection Remix pixel experience
Updates Download in the settings, installation via TWRP Download in the settings, installation via TWRP Weekly, via OTA in the settings As App Integrated in the settings Integrated in the settings Not tested
Vendor Image Separate Separate Integrated Separate, own server Integrated Separate, same source Not tested
Root access Optional as Zip ADB only as opt-in; optional as Zip No No No ADB only, opt-in Not tested
SafetyNet / Pokémon GO No / Yes n.a. No / n.a. n.a. Yes / Yes Yes / Yes Not tested
Themes via substrate via Substratum; not available without Play Store via substrate via substrate Per Color Engine or via substrateum Via substrate Not tested
Special features
  • Trebuchet Launcher
  • Privacy Management
  • Volume Profiles
  • Better camera app
  • Better music app
  • Screen recorder
  • F-Droid with extension preconfigured for automatic updates
  • Google-free replacement services
  • Remainder as Stock-Linear
  • Pixel launcher
  • Carbon fibres
  • Turn off OLED pixels to save power

No browser

Dirty tweaks:

  • Animations
  • OmniSwitch
  • Improved App-Switcher
  • App-Ops
  • Completely CAF-based
  • PA Browser
  • Shuttle+ Music Player
  • PIE-Controls (new design)
  • Burn in Protection for OLEDs
  • Privacy guard
  • Volume Profiles
  • Google Apps preinstalled
Equalizer AudioFX AudioFX MusicFX MusicFX Snapdragon Audio+ AudioFX not tested

LineageOS: the heir of CyanogenMod

Lineage inherits CyanogenMod. Popular features like equalizer, theme engine, or root access are available in a new form. Lineage is ideal for beginners, as the wiki offers a large pool of collected mod knowledge and Flash instructions.

cyanogenmod 13 home screen
Lineage has its own interface. / © NextPit

Lineage offers a compact launcher, a feature-packed camera app, and few pre-installed apps, ergo a lot of free memory and little ballast in RAM. Volume profiles mute or raise the volume of your smartphone under certain conditions. The privacy feature sends false data to apps whose permissions normally cannot be revoked. And best of all: Lineage makes old smartphones work again.

cyanogenmod 13 features
Lineage has adopted many CyanogenMod features; the equalizer (right) is unfortunately missing. / © NextPit

LineageOS for microG: Android without Google

Common to all custom ROMs is that they are delivered without Google apps. But if you wanted to use Android without Google anyway, you are not well served with this yet. Important souvenirs of the Google suite like location services, Play Store and anti-theft protection should not be missing. The microG variant from Lineage provides alternatives for some of these components. After their installation, you can update your smartphone with common LineageOS images.

CarbonROM

CarbonROM provides a custom ROM based on the latest Android for several OnePlus, Sony, Google, and Samsung smartphones. Carbon pursues a more compact approach and, apart from the fibres, the lineage camera and the Pixel Launcher mod, does without big extras.

carbon rom home update easter egg
CarbonROM receives weekly updates and provides a mod of the Pixel Launcher. / © NextPit

The included Quarks browser is just a WebView dummy waiting to be replaced by an alternative like Brave. A cool feature for OLED smartphones are smart pixels to turn off some of the pixels to save power.

carbon rom settings
The Carbon Fibres allow surface adjustments and OLED optimizations. / © NextPit

CarbonROM is working in January 2020 on the basis of Android 9 Pie and is available for several partly very old devices. Even the Samsung Galaxy S2 is still kept up-to-date. CarbonROM is one of the most secure custom ROMs for Android devices.

Dirty Unicorns

Dirty Unicorns has suffered a major loss of staff and can currently only maintain eight units. Downloads for several more are still available, but in its current state the once-great firmware is only a shadow of its former self. Unless you have a current Google Pixel.

Paranoid Android a.k.a. Quartz10

The once significant paranoid android is renaming itself. Under Quartz10 it provides firmware for OnePlus and Xiaomi devices in the forum of XDA-Developers. Corresponding announcements are coming in via Twitter. It is one of the oldest custom ROMs and was considered an important alternative to the Lineage predecessor CyanogenMod. In between it announced its end, now it is alive, but seems de facto inactive.

The own website and the download section are no longer up to date. Apparently the team is concentrating on the new project Quartz10.

Resurrection Remix

Resurrection Remix has a large user base, supports several devices and offers the most streamlined feature set. Several old Samsung, OnePlus and Google Nexus devices even get Android 9 Pie.

Pixel Experience

The young custom ROM Pixel Experience is aimed at fans of the Android interface as used by Google on the pixel devices. Google apps are already pre-installed. The device support is extensive and goes back to the OnePlus 2 from 2015. Android 10 is already available for some devices like the Nexus 6P or 5X.

Custom ROMs for Android properly rooting

While it was once taken for granted that custom ROMs offer root access, several third-party firmware vendors have outsourced super-user management. Instead, they refer to the Magisk tool, which is maintained separately from the custom ROM and is not installed as part of the system (systemless root). In addition to its own updates, Magisk also takes care of SafetyNet, so that you can use all apps without restrictions despite root access.

  • Read our article about Magisk

Google Apps (and alternatives) for custom ROMs

With the exception of Pixel Experience, the custom ROMs shown above are without Google apps. If you want to use either the Play Store or Google-dependent apps on the phone with third-party firmware, you will need either a separate Google apps package or the MicroG framework:

  • OpenGApps: Google apps and services in varying degrees for multiple CPU types and Android versions.
  • MicroG: replacement framework to make Google dependent apps work.

Backups and updates in custom ROMs with TWRP

If you want to install a custom ROM on your Android smartphone, we recommend using the Custom-Recovery TWRP. This open-source tool replaces the software on your smartphone with which the manufacturer installed your system updates. Since you will take care of the latter yourself in the future, you can safely throw down the manufacturer's software. Here you can find the TWRP image for your device with instructions how to install it. In TWRP you can...

  • Create complete backups as system image
  • Install and update custom ROMs
  • Install and update vendor images
  • Update TWRP
  • Install GApps or alternatives
  • Installing Magisk and rooting the smartphone

The best smartphones for custom ROMs

Few smartphone manufacturers make it easy for you to replace the standard software with an Android-based custom ROM and to return in case of a failure. In the new table we show the most important features:

Smartphones for Custom ROMs

  Bootloader Stock Firmware Guarantee
Google Pixel 3a Open Download Remains
Fairphone 3 Code Not yet Remains
OnePlus 7T Open Download Remains
Poco F1 Open Download Remains

These producers and Xiaomi are generally considered to be highly cooperative in the modding process. Samsung and Motorola smartphones can also be equipped with custom ROMs, but the way back to the factory firmware is more complicated.

If you find such devices on eBay, you can equip them with up-to-date software in the long run. So you can get an up-to-date smartphone for a few bucks.

Buying Modified Smartphones with Custom ROM

Fairphone 3

The Dutch company Fairphone asked its community which partner it should choose for a Google-free Android alternative. The fans chose the eFoundation. Their /e/OS combines Lineage OS, the microG framework for Google interfaces, the app shop Aurora for almost all Play Store apps and an in-house, anonymous and open source synchronization solution for contacts, calendar, and emails.

AndroidPIT fairphone 3 Outside
With the Fairphone 3, you have all options. / © NextPit

Fairphone owners can also switch to /e/OS later. In the /e/OS shop you can buy the Fairphone 3 for the normal price of 479,90 Euro and you get a two-year warranty there as well. If you don't like /e/OS, you can't replace the firmware with the Google-Android yet. But Fairphone will provide suitable images "soon".

Samsung smartphones with /e/OS

The eFoundation also lists many Samsung smartphones in their shop, including Samsung. Unlike the Fairphone 3, these devices are not new but premium refurbished; however, they do have a one-year warranty. A look at the forum reveals that the camera quality is not as high as with Samsung's original firmware - which could, of course, be installed without any problems.

I had tried to use a Galaxy S9 with /e/OS. The attempt failed, because I would have had to do a downgrade for the change. However, the Odin interface does not allow this. I will repeat the attempt with a Google Pixel and present the ROM in more detail in the upper section.

The eFoundation also plans a service to send smartphones to professionals who will do the flash process for you and be liable for errors.

That's it. Why?

In 2014, the founder of the LineageOS predecessor CynogenMOD had landed a seemingly brilliant coup. Together with an Indian business partner, he succeeded in launching smartphones with CyanogenMOD pre-installed and renamed CyanogenOS. The latter had Google apps pre-installed.

However, Google discovered a breach of its license agreements and ordered by a court that those devices may not be sold with Google services pre-installed. In addition, the closed-source services may not be included in CyanogenMOD bundles; therefore, they still need to be downloaded and flashed separately.

From a commercial point of view, this was a slap in the face with death for everything to do with cyanogen. The founders left scorched earth and deleted all data. A forum administrator copied the remains and, together with the community, independently created the Lineage succession.

Without the right to Google services, it is difficult to sell smartphones with pre-installed custom ROM. The current Huawei situation shows how disastrous this is for even the best smartphones on the market. It is a niche market. Although it is incredibly important in terms of its data protection implications, few people recognize it.

Conclusion

Custom ROMs revitalize old smartphones and give manufacturers a run for their money. CarbonROM and Pixel Experience are in different ways the best custom ROMs on the market. Give your old Smartphone a second chance or get full control over your new device. Often smartphones with custom ROMs are faster, richer, and safer by the missing feature.

As great alternatives to Google services mature, another important layer is added: custom ROMs can better protect your privacy. Such offers have also become commercially successful. The profit benefits everyone.

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98 comments

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  • marco sarli
    • Admin
    5 months ago Link to comment

    Intersting information. I wish repair shops would offer this service. Or do they ?


  • storm 5 months ago Link to comment

    Seems also that TWRP has some big issues with phones that shipped with android 10 from the start. ext4 super partition permissions and new file hierarchy mostly. Root may be ever more elusive.


  • storm 5 months ago Link to comment

    The issue now is how many makers disallow unlocking the bootloader or place lengthy waits on the request. Its just a silly attempt at locked-in obsolescence.

    Similarly we need makers to release source code for ROMs and modem/camera drivers too. Or there is no functional long term support.


  • OK


  • hay i got a archos ser what rom works with it


  • Anuj Jan 25, 2019 Link to comment

    Anyone out there interested in a project that involves building a custom Android ROM and doing some fun stuff with audio?


  • I have one device I'd vaguely like to change from Android 4.3 JB - would be largely for the fun - but the only good reason would be to overcome restrictions on App2SD functionality that were introduced after Gingerbread. The Acer tablet has a perky Intel processor but only 8GB of internal storage, so don't want to wipe that out with a massive new Android. But if a mod could restore the grand old days of full, fast, unencrypted microSD use I'd be interested. It's a good working device still in active use so I'm not about bricking it just for the heck.


  • Sir, would you recommended a "Panasonic p55 max" for compatible ROM??? Plzzzz Sir...i hope that, it will be very soon for me...√√√
    Have a Glorious blessed Tuesday be with youu All!! 🌹☕🌹👍✔


  • Lineage OS is very good, but ever heard of pixel experience ROM? It supports many devices and feels more clean than los, stock like


  • nice my MI4 is really outdated since most dev retired the only custom rom updates is lineage 14.1 and no news for oreo, but there is also mokee 8.1 what do you think about mokee?


  • FU NDA Jun 10, 2018 Link to comment

    Paranoid Android sucks. Home button doesn't work. Installed it twice.


  • Sorin Apr 21, 2018 Link to comment

    It's the ideal time to play with custom ROM on an old phone that now has Android 2.2.2. Yes, it is very old and almost nothing goes on ...

    Dean L.Deactivated Account


  • What happens if you try one and it doesn't work/load is the device bricked? Or is there a way to revert back to last know good boot?


    • the only way is if you made a backup beforehand. when flashing a custom rom you should always back up your current working setup


  • Love custom roms, except for one thing. When development stops, it really stops, for a particular phone. The developers will lie, and tell you the updates coming, but they just want you to keep interest. I had to tell posters on another site, that was it for dev on a phone, but they posted I didn't know what I was talking about. 8 months later, nothing, but there are posters that still will say updates are coming.


    • Before you install custom rom download unbrick file from xda forum for your device. In case you brick your device you can easily bring your device back. Sorry for late answer


  • You do realize there are Samsung based custom roms as well not just AOSP?

    And again a rehash of old articles. Considering the cost of a Samsung phone (and quality) I would never use a AOSP based rom on such a great device.

    In fact I now have a S8+, and have no intention of putting on a custom rom Sammy based or not.


  • Would you recommend a BlackView R7 compatible CUSTOM rom please


  • Would you recommend a BlackView R7 compatible CUSTOM rom please


  • Where is Resurrection Remix?

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