What is a Custom ROM?
All smart phones run on an operating system. The two most popular ones are iOS and Android. There have been long debates about which one is best. They all have their pros and cons. One of the pros for Android is the ability to create and install a custom ROM. ROM stands for read only memory. In this case it refers to the operating system which supposedly doesn’t change. It’s more of a legacy term at this point but everyone in the custom Android operating system community still refers to them as ROMs. Modern operating systems are always changing making the term read only mute.
When you purchase an Android phone, it comes with a customized version of Android. They pull most of their code from the Android open source project (AOSP) and then modify it to suit the hardware and software requirements of their shiny new phone. This is why every Android phone is familiar yet different on a software level. Using a custom ROM allows you to add features and functionality which was not included by the phone’s manufacture.
LineageOS is one of the most popular custom Android ROMs. It’s a fork of CyanogenMod, a now defunct custom ROM. LineageOS is created by volunteers. Impressively, there are over 60 supported devices and counting. Each device has a maintainer who, well, maintains the device. They ensure all changes and updates work correctly.
One of the best reasons to use LineageOS is if your device is no longer supported by the manufacture. An unsupported device means you will no longer receive Android updates. In time, this leads to a grossly unsecure phone. Every month Google releases security patches to address issues. If you are 6 months to a year out of date, this will put you at an increased security risk. LineageOS allows your old phone to still receive security updates as well as the major Android version. The security patch typically gets merged into LineageOS a few weeks after Google releases their security bulletin. This ensures your device is protected against the latest security issues.
Also, if your phone is no longer supported, you will no longer get Android version updates. For example your manufacture may have shipped your phone with Android 6 but only updated it to Android 7. If your device is maintained by LineageOS you could be able to install a much newer version like Android 10.
LineageOS gives you peace of mind knowing there are no malicious applications pre installed by your device manufacture. All the ones installed out of the box are actually wanted and if you don’t like them, you can always install your favorite alternative. LineageOS also has great features like the ability to draw gestures while your phone is off to perform phone functions. My favorite is if you swipe two fingers down, it’ll pause audio playback. LineageOS also has a neat theming system. You can choose either light or dark mode and then choose an accent color. You can even schedule when dark mode is applied for late night phone usage.
One of the big issues with LineageOS is the barrier to entry. In order to install it you must wipe your phone and start fresh. While they do have guides on how to install it on supported devices, they are not for novice users. Also, out of the box, LineageOS does not come with Google applications or Google Play installed. In order to install those, you need to use something like Open GApps and flash it onto the phone during the installation process. Hopefully I haven’t scared you off yet. If you decide you want to give LineageOS a try, ensure you have backed up everything on your phone.
There are a handful of other custom ROMs to choose from as well. LineageOS is simply the most popular as it supports the most devices. GrapheneOS is another good custom ROM which focuses on privacy. It only supports Google Pixel devices, though. Another drawback is Google Play will never be supported. These services are not privacy friendly so the developers have no intensions of implementing it. The installation process is also more complex. Another custom ROM is Replicant. Its focus is on replacing all proprietary components with free-software alternatives. Most of their supported devices are quite dated at this point, though.
If you’re at all interested in customizing your phone, and your phone is supported, I recommend giving LineageOS a try. As mentioned, ensure you have a backup in place. Also, consider installing it on a spare phone in case something goes wrong. That way you can still use your primary phone. There are lots of helpful guides to get started. The official device wiki pages are a great start on the LineageOS website. There are also a number of walkthroughs on YouTube.