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Telstra and Samsung get their just desserts in a DIY Android 4

John Davidson

Tired of waiting for a shiny new Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade for your Android phone? Read on. This is the story for you!

Not waiting for Ice Cream Sandwich, but curious to know what all the fuss is about? Read on. This is the story for you!

Never heard of Ice Cream Sandwich, and couldn’t give a rat’s one way or the other about the fuss? Read on. This is the story for you!

This is the story of how the staff here in the Digital Life Labs got tired of waiting for Samsung and Telstra to issue an Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade to our Galaxy S II, and recklessly decided to take matters into our own hands, DIY-style.

It’s a story that starts well, hits a few seemingly insuperable speed bumps in the second act and ends on a hopeful, if not downright positive, note. It’s a romantic comedy, if you like, only without the “meet cute” and the handsome hero.

Ice Cream Sandwich, aka ICS, aka Android 4, is the latest version of Android from Google. It offers a number of substantial improvements over Android 2.3 (the version it will generally replace on mobile phones, Android 3 being only for tablets) such as dramatically improved web browsing, better multitasking, an improved camera, a nicer app launcher and a better keyboard.

It’s an upgrade definitely worth having, which is what makes it so frustrating that, for the most part, the upgrades have yet to appear some five months after Google first launched ICS late last year.

But never mind. Clever people who aren’t as lazy as phone manufacturers and mobile network operators have been slaving away, making an upgrade of their own. And lately that upgrade has become stable enough and simple enough to install that mere mortals like us can just use their version of ICS instead.

I’m talking here about an unofficial, free version of Android 4 known as CyanogenMod 9, which is not nearly as scary as the name may sound. Yes, installing an unofficial version could void your phone’s warranty should something break, although, of course, you can often just go back to the official version and plead ignorance. And yes, it is a little trickier to install than an official upgrade (should you ever be lucky enough to receive one), but it’s not actually difficult to install. We did it in about 30 minutes the first time, 10 minutes the second time and 5 minutes the third time. (More on that later.) Installing CyanogenMod 9 is more about courage than skill.

Very detailed, step-by-step instructions on replacing your phone’s software with CyanogenMod 9 are easy to find on the internet, as is CyanogenMod itself but, in a nutshell, what we had to do was this: we downloaded a little Windows program known as Odin, and we downloaded an old version of the CyanogenMod 9 file, known as the Resurrection Edition (roughly 110 megabytes), that’s designed to go on phones still running their original Android software. Then we plugged our phone into the Windows PC and used Odin to install the Resurrection Edition onto the phone. It was as easy as that.

Once the Resurrection Edition is installed and running – it worked perfectly for us the first time – you can then use it to install more up-to-date versions of CyanogenMod 9. It comes with a little app, known as ROM Manager, for just that purpose. (These files overwrite the “Read Only Memory” on the phone, and so are known as ROMs.) We then downloaded onto a PC a version of CyanogenMod 9 that had been built the previous night, uploaded that file to the phone, and used ROM Manager to upgrade the phone to the latest version.

It worked flawlessly, and gave us a version of Android that wasn’t five months old, but less than five hours old.

You heard that right. You’re lucky to get one upgrade a year from the phone industry. CyanogenMod has nightly updates. Take that, Samsung and Telstra!

Of course, we happened to pick a dud night to do it. Every time we would walk away from our freshly minted ICS phone to do something else, it suffered from a “Kernel Panic!” and crashed badly. It’s an old flaw in CyanogenMod, known as the Sleep Of Death, that used to happen when a phone went into deep sleep mode. But it’s mostly been eliminated from recent versions of CyanogenMod 9, and only raised its ugly head the night we did the upgrade. So we just downloaded a version from the previous day (oh, the joy of nightly updates!) and installed that. Perfect!

And now we have a Samsung Galaxy S II running what has been, in four days of testing, a rock-solid version of Ice Cream Sandwich. The camera on our phone now has zoom and panorama functions, which work well. The browser now has tabs, and runs twice as fast as the old browser. (BrowserMark scores for CyanogenMod 9’s browser and the old Android 2.3.3 browser, are 113,373 and 49,058, respectively. Take that, Telstra and Samsung!)

Now, when we hold down the home button, we get a nice graphical representation of the screens on all the open and recently used apps, rather than just their icons. Now the phone’s settings are easier to access and apps are easier to find. Yes, we miss having Swype, the easy-to-use keyboard software that Samsung adds free of charge to Android, but the official new ICS keyboard is still very good.

But what has impressed us most about CyanogenMod 9 is the mobile broadband performance. Normally, when you do a dodgy phone software upgrade, you wind up with modem software that hasn’t been tuned for your phone network, and your phone never downloads as fast as it used to. HSPA+ phones become mere HSPA phones, or worse, mere 3G phones. But not so with CyanogenMod 9 on the Telstra network. Our speed tests, side-by-side with an unmodified Samsung Galaxy S II, revealed that even though the icon on the CyanogenMod 9 phone reads “H” instead of “H+”, the phone’s mobile broadband connection is every bit as fast as on the unmodified, Telstra-optimised phone.

Take that! That’s a happy ending if ever there was one.

Now we just have to resist the urge to install another nightly update and stuff things up again.

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