“Fun” with Phones

Being an engineer, you might expect me to be an early adopter of technology. No thanks; I get plenty of that at work. I’ve had a cell phone for quite some time, but it was only last year that I finally got a smart phone. I chose Samsung, because it runs Android, which is Linux-based. Since it’s built on open-source software (unlike Apple’s over-priced proprietary gadgets) I expected an Android phone to be easy to upgrade. I was wrong.

Though I love the idea of DIY projects, I’m normally too lazy to be a do-it-yourselfer. Except for adding contacts, I left my Samsung pretty much unchanged. Then I bought a Bluetooth keyboard. My goal was to use the phone for social media, and since I’m a touch typist who hates on-screen keyboards, it seemed like a good idea. Then I discovered that Bluetooth keyboard support was broken on my Exhibit II model phone – and Samsung had no plans to provide software upgrades for that model, ever. If I wanted a newer OS, I was on my own.

If you think that upgrading a phone is a daunting process with a serious risk of damage, you’re right. I was undeterred. Android software is open-source, and there’s an army of volunteers who rebuild the new versions for older hardware. In the time since I got my Samsung, the current OS version (all of which are named for desserts, alphabetically) had gone from Gingerbread all the way to Kitkat. In the end, Kitkat refused to install, and I had to be content with the previous version, Jellybean. Finally, the Bluetooth keyboard worked! It only cost me about 10 hours of experimentation and frustration.

Finding and downloading the updated OS files was the easy part. The website xdadevelopers.com was an invaluable resource. The site’s forums have instructions for unlocking and updating Android phones of all types. Unfortunately, many of the online “how to” guides suffer from what I call the “hometown cookbook” syndrome. Having cooked all their lives, contributors sometimes omit crucial details from their recipes, such as measurements, cooking times, and definitions of terms. The same applies to phone hobbyists. The instructions might say, “First install the Clockworkmod Recovery utility,” but not say how to do this, or which of the many versions to use. Not only did I have to track down the missing details, but I was led down the wrong path several times by obsolete or irrelevant explanations.

Eventually I got it all figured out. It was late and I was very tired, but my phone was finally ready, and I was eager to proceed. I booted it into recovery mode and started the Kitkat installation without first backing up my old system. Big mistake – it aborted with a mysterious error, and the phone no longer functioned. Now it was do or die. I have no land line, so I had to get it fixed, or shell out $300 for a new one. When I finally got a Jellybean version of the “Cyanogenmod” software installed and working, I promptly installed the wrong version of Google’s phone apps. This broke my on-screen keyboard, and once again I hadn’t backed it up. Contrary to on-line wisdom, that critical feature stayed broken even after I reinstalled the correct version of Google Apps. Good thing I had that Bluetooth keyboard; I used it to download a new screen keyboard app off the Play Store. Mission accomplished!

If you, too, are crazy enough to attempt upgrading your own phone, I strongly recommend the following (a) before doing anything, read several versions of the instructions, enough to get all the details, and (b) though it may be time-consuming, backup, backup, backup.