My DROID Bionic: A New Lease on Life

The technology upgrade circus is an expensive assault on the mind that exploits one’s hunger for more, one’s mentality that even though–as wise sage Louis CK says–things are actually pretty awesome in reality, nothing seems good enough for us. We have phones that help us navigate the streets when we’re lost, act as a levelling tool when we’re putting up that new shelf in our den, control our DVR from the bathroom at work, and even stream Netflix. But every year, every six months even, it’s old news; it’s too slow; it’s not as awesome as the next thing.

I’m one of these fools. I see something shinier and faster, and if I can’t get it I resign myself to pining hopelessly. So when the Samsung Galaxy SIII came out, normally I would have salivated and wished that my contract was up soon so I could switch.

See, I own a Motorola Droid Bionic, a phone that has been promised an update of its now-ancient Android 2.3 operating system (Gingerbread) to Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), but time and time again, Verizon failed to deliver. It was promised at the outset of Q3 2012; it is now the beginning of Q4 2012. Some folks stopped believing it would ever come. The writing, it seems, should be on the wall: with my upgrade eligibility over a year away, I’d throw up my hands and just drop the cash on the shiny, new, and un-subsidized phone.

I like to think, though, that I saved my phone–gave it another full year at least–by doing what many tech-savvy Android phone owners (something I am not) resort to doing: flashing a custom ROM.

A quick dumb-down primer for those as dim-witted as me: A custom ROM is what folks commonly call firmware or operating systems which have been modified by development communities from their “official” versions, generally for mobile devices like phones and tablets. (I’ve never heard the term applied to something like a personalized Linux variant for a computer, but I suppose the analogy holds.) The Android operating system, in particular, is left open source by owner Google, who is perfectly happy to let developers and phone OEMs craft their own variants of the OS (within certain standards, depending on the situation… it gets a little complex here and I won’t go into it).

Initially, I just wanted to upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich just so that I could be running at what’s supposed to be the current standard of the platform. (Technically, it’s actually supposed to be Version 4.1, Jellybean, but that has not yet seen wide official proliferation–even on new devices.) What I ended up with was a phone that was actually much speedier and had better battery life than before, with zero changes to its physical hardware. (There are quite a few ROMs out there that do this, but the one in particular that runs on my phone comes courtesy of a development group called Team Liquid: Liquid ICS 1.5, Revision 1.)

The road to the ROM wasn’t straightforward–not for regular joes like me, and not for Team Liquid and others who were developing their own ROMs for the Bionic. You can read the history of the ICS update woes here. Some intrepid followers found official builds from Motorola and soon Ice Cream Sandwich updates–each one progressively more stable–were unofficially leaked across the web. Had it not been for this, the development community may not have ever been able to build stable ROMs for the device because all of Motorola’s devices come with locked bootloaders. Thanks to the leaked Motorola builds, the developers at least had some base to work off of that would allow them to boot the phones into Ice Cream Sandwich. The hardest part was done.

A sidenote: To date, we have at least eight iterations of the Ice Cream Sandwich leak for the Bionic. Certain folks on the XDA Developers forum say the scuttlebutt is that Verizon continues to reject each successive release because Motorola has been unable to get Flash working in Ice Cream Sandwich.

It’s not hard to see that it would have been a painful waiting game. At some point, if you wanted just to stay current (Gingerbread just wasn’t cutting it), you’d have to jump if you wanted to avoid buying a whole new phone.

After going through the steps to reset my phone to factory standards and then update to one of the leaked ICS builds, I tried it out. It went well–the phone was smoother both in operation and the user experience. It wasn’t silky smooth like newer phones, but it sufficed, and at least my phone was more current.

But the tutorial I read made a recommendation on the ROM from Team Liquid, who was focused on making their ROMs’ performance “liquid smooth”. It also mentioned that I could use the new Google Now features without needing Jelly Bean (which is in development by the community but doesn’t yet have a build with stable cellular data connectivity).

After following the steps and installing the Liquid ROM, I find that my phone runs very fast compared to what it did on one of the later stable Motorola Ice Cream Sandwich leaks, and Gingerbread feels like a choppy user experience by comparison. Transitions and their animations are faster, and often smoother. App loading and task switching are much brisker. Using pinch-to-zoom on photos and web sites is very smooth, almost (though not quite) as smooth as what I’ve seen Jelly Bean can do.

Is there still a reason to crave Jelly Bean? Sure. There are slight interface and usability improvements that Jelly Bean implements over Ice Cream Sandwich as well as some background tinkering. But for the time being, due to the increased speed I’m experiencing and the addition of Google Now, I almost feel as if I have an entirely new phone–Jelly Bean or not.

To tell you the truth, I feel almost angry that for so long, Bionic owners like me have been holding a decently powerful piece of hardware without an operating system to take advantage of it. No, the Bionic won’t trounce the Galaxy SIII or even its contemporaries in the Droid Razr or Droid Razr Maxx, even with a fast custom ROM, but it’s certainly speedy enough that you most likely won’t care.

(Sidenote: I bought the Bionic after it had been out for a short while, just as Motorola announced the Droid Razr. Despite the faster processing power in the newer phone, it has no removable battery. That’s a key factor for me. I recently bought the extended battery on sale, and even with 4G connectivity my phone can last two days before needing a recharge. Plus it’s easier to kill and reboot the phone with a battery pull if it freezes for whatever reason.)

Potentially voiding your device’s warranty and facing the possibility of rendering it inoperable are surely reasons to be scared of turning to the development commmunity (hint: if you follow directions, you have nothing to worry about). But sometimes when you’re dealing with a device that seems to be going unsupported and, worse, whose potential remains unlocked, it’s worth the risk of going down the underground path–especially when its OEM just had a press conference announcing a new line of phones whose budget $99 model packs better hardware that what you currently have. (In fairness, Motorola said that all 2011 devices would receive Jelly Bean updates… but with the caveat that they won’t update “some” devices and would instead issue a $100 rebate for you to spend on a new device.)

If you’re a Bionic owner, or otherwise own a pretty fast phone that has ceased to receive updates from its OEM and your carrier, you should consider taking the plunge. As long as you know where to look and can follow instructions to the letter, you might squeeze another year or two out of a phone that once made you feel as if you were left behind.

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  1. [...] still using a Bionic with Gingerbread, consider updating to one of the Ice Cream Sandwich leaks. It’ll breathe new life into your phone, and you don’t even need to root [...]

  2. [...] week, I wrote about how my summer ROM flashing adventures breathed new life into my Droid Bionic, a phone that has gotten a “raw deal”–as admitted, word for [...]

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