A Test Drive with CyanogenMod
A while ago, I decided that I wanted to do a little more with my gracefully aging Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphone. I had read much about CyanogenMod, the custom ROM for Android phones, since it claimed to improve the user experience by removing the restrictions and crapware imposed by carriers and manufacturers. Unfortunately, I never had the time to delve hardcore into how to install it. Reading XDA forums about fastboots and recoveries seemed head-spinningly complex. Even rooting my phone ended up with only a few exasperating attempts and no success. So, when I heard about the new CyanogenMod installer that promised to greatly simplify the process, I was more than intrigued.

Despite how simple the process ended up being, it took me months from downloading the installer to actually performing the installation. The whole "reset your phone back to factory settings" thing can give a guy pause when he's extremely reliant on his phone for work. So, I waited until I had some free time to actually go through the process of re-installing all my apps before I went through with it. I also backed up all of my important pictures and a few app settings to my SD card. Thankfully Google automatically backs up my contacts info to the cloud, so I didn't have to worry much about that. Finally, since I have my Google account set up for two-step authentication, I realized that I probably wouldn't be able to sign in again with the Google Authenticator on my phone being rendered useless. Thankfully you can print out a set of backup codes to use for just this kind of occasion, which is what I did. Alright, ready to start from scratch, let's do this.

The CyanogenMod installer comes in two parts, one for your phone and one for a connected PC. The install page is pretty clear on how to install them both and prepare your phone for the installation process. Sideload the app on the phone, download the other thing on your computer, connect your phone to your computer via USB cable, and let it do the rest.

Unfortunately for me, it took a while to get to "the rest". You can get some errors when the installer tries talking your phone if the USB cable is too old, or if your phone isn't lying down on a flat surface. After four failed communication attempts, I solved this issue by changing to a different USB cable. I know, it sounds dumb and odd, but if you're doing this yourself and get an error, it's worth trying out. Anyway, you'll be treated to some graphics featuring a blue variation of the Android logo while the installer does its thing. I noticed that my boot-up screens were also replaced, removing the Samsung and T-Mobile branding and replacing it with CyanogenMod-specific imagery. Heh, I guess this is like owning a new phone now.

After the installer is done, CyanogenMod has its own little first-time setup process. Annoyingly, the first thing you're prompted to do is create a new CyanogenMod account. I hate creating accounts; the last thing I need in my life is another freaking username and password to remember. Thankfully you can skip this step, though it's required apparently to use security features like remote wipe or find my phone. I skipped it; I assume I can just make one later if it turns out to be that useful. After that I did the usual Google sign-in stuff, and then I was introduced to my new home screen.

You know all those screenshots of the Nexus 5 you may have seen if you cared about that whole "pure Google experience" thing? Yeah, my phone looks like that now. I can't tell how many of these features, like widgets on the lock screen, are from my newly upgraded version of Android or are original CyanogenMod customizations, but the look is pretty spiffy. Good thing I gave myself some free time because between reinstalling all my apps and going through the massive array of settings and options, I'm gonna be busy.

My first impressions were overwhelmingly positive. Despite the minor annoyance of being unable to set separate wallpaper for the home screen and lock screen, the lack of Samsung's bloatware is a huge improvement on both my phone's performance and aesthetics. The upgraded phone also performed well during my week-long test run at work, where I use it as a media player that occasionally makes calls and sends text messages. A number of annoying bugs related to headset operation were miraculously fixed, much to my delight.

The flip side is that CM does bring a few bugs of its own to the party. I currently have an issue where the volume of the phone's ringer is not going to the headset, instead only sounding through the speaker for some reason. Thankfully there's a higher chance that this may eventually be resolved, since the developers participate in their own support forums. Good luck getting anything out of Samsung or Motorola or HTC, right? I also had a panic moment where the phone decided to reboot itself in the middle of turn-by-turn navigation, causing me to venture the wrong way down a freeway in confusion. Finally, though not a bug, I found myself missing one feature of Samsung's TouchWiz interface: the ability to yell "STOP!" at the phone to shut off the alarm. I miss this every time I actually have to get out of bed in the morning to silence the buzzing the old-fashioned way.

Taking the good with the bad, overall I'd have to say that I'm enjoying the changes that have come with CyanogenMod. It's a good way to breathe life into an "old" phone, being that phones are practically forgotten about by their manufacturers after barely a year of existence. Unless you have a Nexus branded or Google Edition device, custom ROMs are the only way to get the latest Android upgrades once it's no longer supported. The simple installer makes CM the most hassle-free way to get this experience for yourself, and you may learn a little bit about the rooting process along the way, opening the door to more and more customization in the future. If you've always felt that you could do more with your Android smartphone, I can't think of a better way to get started.
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