A tale of tablet flashing


— 11:14 PM on November 29, 2012

About a year and a half ago, I picked up Asus' original Eee Pad Transformer tablet. This precursor to the growing crop of Win8 convertibles quickly worked its way into my life, proving the virtues of the concept long before Microsoft had an OS to match. Me and Arcee, as I sometimes call her, developed a true bond. We spend countless hours cuddled on the couch reading together. She was by my side for a romantic road trip through Italy and a rugged kayaking adventure on the remote Pacific coast of Vancouver Island. We played together and we worked together. She even met my parents.

My love affair with the Transformer burned brightly for close to a year before the flame started flickering. How could it not? Arcee shared space on my coffee table with an ever-changing harem of newer tablets boasting faster processors, higher-density displays, and thinner bodies. Making matters worse, some of those other tablets started running Android 4.1, otherwise known as Jelly Bean.

Asus did a great job of keeping the Transformer up to date with new versions of Android for the first year after the device's release. The tablet got a taste of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich before most of its peers, too. However, as newer Transformers and other devices have been upgraded to Android 4.1, the old Transformer appears to have been left behind. Asus has been mum on whether a Jelly Bean update will ever be released for the tablet.

Why get worked up about a 0.1-point increase? Because Android 4.1 includes a series of "Project Butter" performance tweaks that make the entire user interface feel noticeably more fluid and responsive. That's the sort of upgrade that could breathe new life into an older tablet like the Transformer. Jelly Bean also offers Google Now, a nifty information aggregator with surprisingly effective voice recognition. After experiencing both of those enhancements on several other devices, I couldn't bear to use the Transformer without. It was time to take matters into my own hands.

At its core, Android is a Linux-based operating system. Google releases the source code for new versions, and a sizable development community has grown around making that code work with various devices. There are countless custom ROMs available for tablets and smartphones alike, including several different Jelly Bean flavors tailored specifically for the first-generation Transformer. Having successfully—and painlessly—flashed my Galaxy Nexus to a stock Jelly Bean image this summer, I figured I'd do the same with the Transformer. How hard could it be?

Yeah, I know. Famous last words.

The easiest part of flashing my Galaxy Nexus was choosing the ROM. Google provides a stock image for the device, and that's what I installed. Since the Transformer isn't part of Google's Nexus program, only third-party ROMs are available. I went with the latest one from the CyanogenMod team, mostly because I'd heard of them before. The CyanogenMod Wiki also provided clear, start-to-finish instructions for installing the ROM on an otherwise unmodified device.

To prime the Transformer for flashing, I had to jump through a few hoops. First, I needed drivers to allow my PC to communicate with the Transformer's diagnostic APX mode. After that, separate software was required to push the ClockworkMod Recovery image onto the tablet. With that installed, I was finally free to cut the cord to my PC and proceed with the tablet alone. I downloaded the latest version of CyanogenMod and the supplemental Google Apps package and rebooted into recovery mode.

Once in ClockworkMod Recovery mode, the flashing process was pretty straightforward. Within minutes, I was watching the Transformer boot into its new OS. It only took a few swipes of the touchscreen to confirm that Jelly Bean's responsiveness enhancements had greased the UI. Google Now loaded without a hitch, too, and I soon had the system configured just how I like it.

For the most part, CyanogenMod looks and feels like a stock Android install. The custom ROM does add some new features, such as the ability to display weather information and additional shortcuts on the lock screen. A file manager is included, as is a DSP app loaded with audio controls. There's support for themes, too, if you're into that sort of thing. CyanogenMod even has a built-in update mechanism that downloads the latest nightly build, although you still have to flash it manually.

The extras were nice, but they were soon overshadowed by a handful of pesky flaws. The Gallery app didn't sync with my Google account. Closing the tablet/keyboard clamshell no longer put the device to sleep. The keyboard's shortcut keys all worked, but gone were the pop-up notifications confirming their status. Asus' Android customizations were also missing, obviously, and I was surprised the CyanogenMod folks didn't copy the most important one: the ability to change the touchpad's on-screen avatar to a proper mouse pointer instead of a clumsy, fingertip-sized circle.

By far the biggest problem was the fact that the GPS didn't work. That's a real deal-breaker for me. After using tablets to navigate the streets of Taipei, a huge chunk of Italy, and the waters off British Columbia's Sunshine Coast, I'd rather not give up the ability to track my precise location on a sizable screen.

Since the flashing process was so easy, I decided to try some alternative ROMs. My initial attempts at additional flashes failed until I stumbled upon a forum post recommending ditching the ClockworkMod recovery image for one from TeamWin and using that to wipe various caches before each flash. With a name like TeamWin, how could I lose?

TWRP—TeamWin Recovery Project—worked like a charm, and I was soon cycling through ROMs from RaymanFX, EOS, and JellyBro. Each one was a little bit different, but they all had the same Jelly Bean goodness I was seeking. Thing is, none of them worked with my tablet's GPS. I even tried an early RaymanFX build based on the very latest Android 4.2 revision, to no avail.

After digging around some more in the XDA Developers forums, I discovered I'm not the only one experiencing GPS issues with custom Jelly Bean ROMs. I've seen a handful of reports of other problems associated with various ROMs but also lots from happy users who have no complaints. ROM development is ongoing, and I'm vaguely optimistic that someone will release a Jelly Bean ROM that gives me everything I need... eventually. In the meantime, the Transformer has been restricted to couch duty, where Jelly Bean's smoothness can be enjoyed without the lack of GPS reception getting in the way.

While I'm a little discouraged that perfection remains elusive, I'm pleasantly surprised by the process as a whole. Flashing custom ROMs is quite easy, and so is finding the latest versions. There are even free Android apps that will take care of the downloading. Depending on the support level for your particular hardware, installing a custom ROM can be a great way to revitalize an older device with Android updates it wouldn't get otherwise. Custom ROMs can also bring the benefits of the full Android experience to locked-down tablets like the Kindle Fire, which is strangled by Amazon's heavily modified OS. Freedom is just a flash away.

   
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