This guide is a basic overview of Android as a whole, there are no specific rules outlined or guides delved into. This guide aims to clear the waters over Androids multiple versions, what rooting is, what a ROM is, what the benefits might be and why you should do it. Use the information gathered here at your own risk.
The Very Beginning!
Android is an Operating System (OS), like Windows or OSX to your computer or iOS  to the iPad and iPhone. It controls how the phone reacts to your inputs, what’s displayed on the screen and when. Many would argue, the OS is the most important factor of any mobile device. Whether or not you agree, it certainly has a massive impact on user experience, hopefully at the end of this, you’ll be able to make up your own mind.
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1 – Yes, the OS in iOS stands for Operating System
Commonly referred to as ‘apps’. Pretty much just a program, just as Outlook is a program for Windows. Best thing about apps is the ability to browse, download and install all from one location; the Play Store.
The Android Family Tree
Android has a come a long was since its birth in 2008, however we’re not here to fire into its history specifically, but what its history might mean for you! Android has been released in incremental versions. Each phone may differ in what version it has installed, usually the vendor decides what version it will choose, and develops Android into a specific ROM  for the device. To find out what version of Android your device is, navigate to the settings menu and select ‘about phone’, under ‘Android version’ there will be three numbers, the first two, will tell you what release you’re running. Some of Android versions are explained below.
1.5 – Cupcake:
One thing you’ll learn, Android has quirky names! This version of android is likely the most basic version you’ll meet, very few handsets still selling have this version. If you have a handset with version 1.5, you’re limited in a big way! There are many features missing that means 1.5 just can’t support many of the applications offered up in the market!
1.6 – Donut:
Donut offered a few improvements over Cupcake; Voice search, turn-by-turn navigation and an improved market to name a few! It’s still missing a few features that don’t allow the more advanced apps to run. So don’t be surprised if you’re missing a few from the market.
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2.0/2.1 – Eclair:
Google picked up their game with the move to 2.1, it is arguably the largest and most important update Google made. Most applications will work on 2.1! It also included support for Microsoft exchange (if you don’t know what this is, you don’t need it) increased speed, smoothness, and improved the user interface immensely.
2.2 – Froyo:
Currently the largest version in use, you’re with a masses here and perhaps will find comfort in it. a few performance tweaks, faster browsing and the ability to run Adobe Flash 10.1 is among the few things you can do over your 2.1 version.
2.3/2.4 – Gingerbread:
Updated UI, higher resolution screens, VoIP calls, improved keyboard, introduced NFC to the world, faster performance, and a better battery life are among the benefits over your older version. This released also improved voice-to-text engine input, copy and paste, audio effects, and enabled simultaneous multiple camera support.
4.0 – Ice Cream Sandwich:
Ok a huge update here, this is shaping up to be the biggest update since 2.1, if not ever! Combining Gingerbread and Honeycomb, this is loooking a very mature and slick version of Android. Massive UI overhaul; hardware acceleration, no physical/permanent buttons, new Roboto font, Honeycomb task manager, new screen layouts, easily customizable folders, widget app drawer and a customizable launcher.
Other improvements include new contacts or ‘people’ app, further improved copy and paste, further improved keyboard, visual voice mail with improved functionality, improved gestures, new lock screen, integrated screen-shot capture, facial recognition unlocking, Android Beam utilising NFC, and awesome 3g data management software!
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2 – We’ll get into ROMs and what they mean for you later on:
Ah the dirty minded. First and foremost, what is rooting? Birds and bee’s don’t enter the equation here… Rooting is the method in which the user gains ‘root access’. Root access is a linux term and is used to define the abilities of the super user account, akin to the ‘administrator’ account in Windows. This account can modify and change anything on the OS it resides. So when your phone is ‘rooted’ it is not broken, you are merely in complete control of your phones OS, cool huh?
But what does this mean? Most people don’t even realize they aren’t in complete control. Well there are a few benefits to having a rooted phone, but there are two big ones. Custom ROMs, and apps.
Firstly, apps. Because you are now in complete control, you can grant apps super user access that require them to work. Such as taking a screen shot of your phone, taking a comprehensive backup of your important data, using the flash as torch light or enjoying an ad-free Android!
I felt this deserves it’s own category because a) it’s so important and b) it’s so big!
Firstly what is a Custom ROM? Well a ROM, is actually a colloquial shortened version of ‘ROM Image’ which in turn is short for ‘Read Only Memory Image’, and dates back to the cartridge gaming days.
Remember slotting that thing into your sega mega drive? or your N64? Anyway, back on track, it’s basically an entire OS in a file called an image. So a ‘ROM’ is a file with an OS in it. Now a ‘Custom ROM’ is a ROM that has been customized, simple enough, yes? Nearly every device comes with a ‘custom’ ROM on it, bar two phones so far, the Nexus One and the Nexus S. They are the ‘pure’ androids so to speak.
So for every phone, there is a ROM preinstalled, this is the ROM the manufacturer has usually developed for that specific handset, or a range of handsets. These preinstalled ROMs usually include a lot of junk called ‘bloatware’, essentially just apps and links that can’t be deleted that you may or may not want. You don’t get a choice! The beauty of custom ROMs is you can delete and add anything you like to them! Here’s a shot of what my application list used to look like, on the left, compared to what it looks like now, on the right!
The original ROM not only includes the apps pictured, but it also included apps such as Bigpond Travel, Bigpond TV, Bigpond Weather, White Pages, and Yellow Pages! As you may realize, I’m not even a Telstra customer! Let alone in Australia to begin with! So all of this ‘bloatware’ is utterly useless to me and there is nothing I can do to get rid of it… Well, actually, I’m here to tell you there very much is!
Once you’ve rooted your device, removing all of this junk becomes easy! You can do it by installing an app that will uninstall stuff for you, OR by replacing the entire ROM completely with something more suited to your needs and personality. Because I own a popular device, the Desire, there is a heap of 3rd party support. A quick look over at XDA Developers will tell you what’s possible with your own device.
The process of installing custom ROMs is just replacing that software with the software of your choosing, this process is called ‘flashing’. Flashing your first Custom ROM is always the scariest, it’s also the easiest to muck up! Once you’ve done it once, it becomes incredibly easy however, I flash a new ROM almost every day, sometimes multiple times in one day! I must warn though, flashing new ROMs can brick your device (i.e, turn it into a paper weight) But after over a hundred flashes, my HTC Desire is still chugging along like the day it was new.
Finding Your Own ROM!:
Unfortunately this can be a tricky situation, as most ROMs don’t have their own websites, and are usually posted on forums. This can Make them very tricky to find, however, most ROMs are either posted on Modaco or XDA Developers. Another way to find popular ROMs is to install Rom Manager, it comes with a precompiled list of ROMs that are compatible with your device – it requires Wifi or 3G to work though! Rom Manager is also helpful for ROM updates (since you no longer use the manufacturers ROM, you don’t need to rely on them)
Currently, CyanogenMod is the most popular 3rd party ROM in existence, and comes with complete instructions on how to install on a range of devices, if your phone is supported by the CyanogenMod group, then you could start there if you like the sound of CyanogenMod.
Another very popular ROM is MIUI Android, its a custom ROM developed and released with Xiaomi M1 – the phone is not currently available anywhere but in China. The ROM very much is though! To see a list of supported devices you may like to check here if yours is supported; miuiandroid.com/roms/miui-development-roms/. MIUI is Chinese developed, so if you find your phone is in Chinese after installation, no matter, you just need to install a language pack!
Recovery Mode and a Nandroid:
Once you’ve found a ROM you like the look of, you’re probably going to need ClockworkMod Recovery in order to install your ROM, the easiest way to do this is install ROM Manager if you haven’t already, it will flash the latest CWM (ClockworkMod) and also keep your ROM up to date if it’s in their database! When installing a completely new ROM, make sure you do a wipe, this is why backups are important. If you’re just doing an update, a wipe is not necessary and all you’re settings and apps should be kept.
A Nandroid Backup is a backup file of your current ROM and its settings, Rom Manager can do this automatically for you, OR you can do it manually using Clockwork Mod Recovery, it’s fairly intuitive so you shouldn’t have too much issue figuring these steps out.
The Danger of Radios:
If you’re going to brick your device, it’s this step, so make sure you don’t interrupt the device during this process! Some ROMs don’t require a new radio, so you can skip this step. However, some ROMs recommend you flash a new radio and it’s important to follow the ROMs instructions if so.
No one can tell you what ROM you will like, so once you’re comfortable with the idea and you have a spare few hours to fiddle around – within which you don’t need a functioning cell phone – have a go, root the phone and install some custom ROMs! and Enjoy.