What I want from a CyanogenMod phone

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CyanogenMod is simply blowing up this fall. When the team behind the custom ROM decided to go all corporate and form Cyanogen Inc., some of us long-term fans were understandably concerned – any big change carries with it the potential for disaster, and despite all sorts of assurances, we just didn’t know what this would all mean for what to many has emerged as the custom ROM to beat.

Since first getting that news of incorporation, things have been moving fast for Cyanogen Inc., and we’ve already seen both the release of a streamlined CyanogenMod Installer app into the Play Store, and a smartphone with heavy CM integration, the Oppo N1.

The N1 is notable not only in that Oppo encourages users to flash back and forth between the company’s own ColorOS and CyanogenMod, but that there’s also a limited edition of the handset that comes straight from the factory with CyanogenMod already installed, ready to go.

But then we start hearing hearing about an even more ambitious hardware project – one that wouldn’t just put CyanogenMod on someone else’s phone, but be a CyanogenMod handset from soup to nuts. While we saw the theory that Oppo might return for this smartphone, the abrupt departure of Oppo VP Pete Lau, shortly following Steve Kondik’s posting about Lau’s involvement in discussions regarding this hardware, makes that idea uncertain; either Lau’s heading up some Oppo spin-off, or Oppo could be out of the running, and some new entity might take up the project.

n1-cmIn any case, I’m curious to find out just what Cyanogen Inc. has in mind for this phone. When I first started musing over the idea of the perfect CyanogenMod device, I think I got a little off track. My first “must” feature was an easily accessible JTAG port. The idea that anyone should risk destroying their hardware thanks to a bad flash or update is totally clown shoes, and a developer-backed handset seems like just the one to include easy-to-use, low-level access to the flash, whatever code’s actually on the phone be damned.

Soon, I was throwing together a very much enthusiast-focused model, with hardware including things like GPIO ports that are only going to appeal to the geekiest of the geeks. But is this really the market Cyanogen Inc. is going for?

After all, this incorporation isn’t just about finding CyanogenMod more users; it’s about moving beyond the specter of custom ROMs being the stuff of dimly lit back rooms and the internet’s roads less traveled – from the installer app to the N1 integration, everything we’ve seen lately has been about taking CyanogenMod mainstream. And that’s a good thing. Users deserve the sort of flexibility and customization CM offers, and if lowering the bar for entry means more people being able to discover the platform, so much the better.

So, in that light I think we need to reconsider just what this phone might bring us.

We’ve already heard talk of a very high-end Snapdragon 800 SoC – one that runs just a bit faster than the chip we know from current flagships. With that as a starting block, I think it’s fair to say that we’re looking at a device that really seeks to hit a lot of premium notes. For instance, I suspect we might see a large amount of on-device storage – think 128GB. Lots of storage like that is a nice, safe way to make your phone stand out, and it’s the sort of spec that the smartphone buying public has a pretty decent grasp over.

n1-oppo-cm-boxRadio support is another place where a CyanogenMod phone could shine. The project is entrenched in the idea of openness and compatibility with as much hardware as possible, and creating a handset with really broad global band support would do a lot to serve that end. Granted, all the new LTE networks popping up all over the world make that difficult, but then that’s all the more reason to pay attention to the CM phone when it does things right.

I’m sure there will still be some hardware decisions made with the project’s historic power users in mind. I don’t think something like microSD expansion is too much to ask, and no matter what silly objections Google may have, it’s still the fastest way to get data on and off your phone.

And this is a bit pie-in-the-sky, but what would be simply awesome: releasing a phone with fully open, documented hardware. CyanogenMod only exists due to its ability to run on existing Android devices, so it would be great if the company saw fit to return the favor and create a smartphone that wasn’t just a great phone in its own right, but a veritable blank slate for up-and-coming devs to work on creating their own spin-offs.

That’s a far more difficult task than simply deciding to do it, as you’re reliant on all those companies supplying your chips to not be jerks about the whole thing – and if this talk of a Qualcomm SoC is true, well, Qualcomm is as big a jerk as any when it comes to withholding that sort of stuff. But hey – a boy can dream, can’t he?

In the end, I don’t expect the CyanogenMod phone to be some wild developer fever dream, and instead a much more typical, refined, mass-market phone by all appearances. More than anything, its importance might be in how it gets the Western world looking at the sort of comparatively unknown Asian OEM that’s likely to manufacture the hardware. Right now, an Oppo or its peers simply can’t find the sort of attention an LG or even an HTC gets in global markets; a headline-worthy device like the CyanogenMod phone could do a lot to start changing that.

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bitsRead more about Stephen Schenck!