So, you've been brainwashed by the stock-Android-hating zombies, and gone ahead and rooted your handset. But to truly reap the rewards, you'll need to stick a custom Android ROM on that sucker. With dozens of crappy ROMs promising better battery life, companionship and quite literally magic flying unicorns, it's difficult to choose, so we've taken five of the best Android ROMs for a spin for you.
Before you start, it's worth casting an eye over our guide to rooting for dummies, so you get a better idea of what everything means. Also, bear in mind, that not all of these ROMs are compatible with all handsets.
Finally, a bit of jargon-buster: you'll hear about 'AOSP' a lot when you're looking at Android ROMs. AOSP stands for 'Android Open Source Project', and it basically means stock, vanilla, as nature-and-Google-intended-it Android.
Like the name infers, this wonderfully lightweight Android ROM is all about minimalism. The interface is fairly close to stock Android, but with a myriad of the usual tweaks, like customisable notification-drawer icons, profiles, the works. The standout feature, though, is 'The Real Dark Slim', a one-touch mode that inverts the colours for the entire OS. Google Now in black is really quite cool.
Performance-wise, it's pretty good. On the two devices we tested it on (Nexus 4 and Galaxy Note II), performance was as nippy as you'd expect. Battery life is really quite good; Slim Bean runs on its own kernel, which seems to help with the power management here. As a long-term ROM to run, it's also got the benefit of a comprehensive update centre, helping you stay up to date with the latest version of Slim Bean.
Overall, it's not the most intuitive Android ROM in the world, but it's certainly versatile. If you're willing to invest a good few hours of your life in the settings menu, and are the sort who likes to have his device 'just so', Slim Bean will serve you well. [Download the Slim Bean Android ROM here]
While some Android ROMs pride themselves on a sexy new interface, others -- like Liquid Smooth -- just want to be the fastest bits of software around. Liquid Smooth is build on the standard AOSP Android ROM, then messed with to make it faster. The emphasis here is on performance, not so much oodles of features.
In terms of performance, you get a built-in menu that allows you to mess with undervolting and overclocking to your heart's content. (If you don't know what either of those things mean, read this guide before you start playing with that stuff.) Even without messing with the CPU settings, performance is markedly better than stock Android. Battery life seems to be about the same, however, though by messing with the CPU settings, a few more hours can be eked out of your handset.
The software features borrow heavily from CyanogenMod and AOKP, but they're at least well laid-out. The sub-menus can get a little confusing, but at least all the stuff's there, somewhere.
The only downside to Liquid Smooth, is that from our experience with our tester devices, it's a little less, well, smooth than the other ROMs on offer. Lock-ups and reboots were distressingly common, up to a few a day at worst. That may well differ device-to-device, but it's not exactly encouraging. [Download the Liquid Smooth Android ROM here]
AOKP, standing for Android Open Kang Project, is one of the most mature ROMs. A good list of devices are supported, but more importantly, it's a great ROM for the modding virgin.
Out of the box, it behaves exactly like stock Android. All the changes are hidden within the 'ROM Control' option in Settings; the rest of the Settings menu, commonly a bit of a complicated minefield in custom Android ROMs, is exactly like stock. Within that menu, you get the normal gamut of options. You can change themes, notification toggles, status bar, pretty much anything to be totally honest. The performance is pretty much on par with stock Android. [Download the AOKP Android ROM here]
Side note: the AOKP website is so psychedelic it's amazing. It has a button with a pimp hat at the bottom, and if you click it, unicorns fly across your screen. Don't ask.
Paranoid Android has a unique feature not really seen by any other Android ROM: a hybrid mode. Any element of the UI can be scaled as either smartphone, phablet or tablet mode. It's not just the UI that can be scaled, though: any app can run in tablet or smartphone mode, irrespective of the effective DPI of the system.
Why is this useful? Because often, given the wonderfully high DPI of many modern smartphones, enabling tablet mode will let you see more stuff on the same screen.
There's more. The Paranoid Android ROM also lets you change the colour schemes of apps, do anything with pretty much any UI element (like making the soft buttons at the bottom of the screen smaller, for example), and there's even talk of a multi-window feature in the works.
Performance is fast, but a little buggy. Even running its most stable recent release, processes crash with annoying frequency, and the system froze on me on a couple of occasions.
CyanogenMod's been my go-to Android ROM for a good year now, and in its latest incarnation, version 10,1, it's still the latest and greatest.
In terms of look and feel, out of the box it's pretty close to stock Android. There are a few extra apps installed from the get-go, like a file manager and equaliser, which is handy. Like other ROMs, you get a good mixture of custom features with Cyanogen. Most of the little niggles with stock Android (like the lack of a battery percentage, or the fairly silly notification drawer toggles) can be put right with CyanogenMod.
CyanogenMod's strength isn't just in tweaking. It's also the most stable ROM of the lot. With the recent update of the 10.1 build to a release candidate, CyanogenMod is now as stable and efficient as stock Android, from what we can see. Even better, performance and battery life is top-notch, with CM handily matching Slim Bean for battery life.
Above are five different ROMs, all excellent. But different ROMs suit different people, so there can really be no ultimate winner, just better ROMs for different situations.
Want battery life? Go for Slim Bean or CyanogenMod. Want total control over the look of your device? Paranoid Android. For total performance, there's probably nothing better than Liquid Smooth out there at the moment. Want stability? CyanognenMod. And finally, if you're new to all this rooting stuff, and just want to dip your toe in the pool, with a lifeguard and water wings? Go AOKP.
If I was better at computers, I'd probably even turn that into a flowchart.
To get creative guides, app tips and the full lowdown on Samsung’s S4, Note 8.0 and Note II, check out Samsung’s Your Mobile Life over here.