Can we put an end to this tablet-phone hybrid ROM trend already?

Taylor Martin
 from Concord, NC
Published: April 29, 2012

When the Android team built Android version 3.0, more popularly known as Honeycomb, it was built atop the phone-specific version of Android, Gingerbread. Instead of using the typical phone interface and stretching it to fit widescreen devices, however, the developers created an entirely new interface, one that is better suited for larger displays.

Honeycomb was tablet-only and, temporarily, served as a fork in Android versions. More fragmentation, if you will. But we later learned that Google's endgame was not to have two separate versions of Android (one for phones and one for tablets). They wanted to fine tune the tablet-specific version and have any rough edges and splinters sanded away before bringing the two back together at Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich).

This was discovered (stumbled upon, really) by developers when Google released the updated SDK for the tablet-specific Android 3.0, which also included the framework for phones. All you had to do was download and install the SDK, setup and start an emulator on the Android 3.0 API level with phone dimensions and specs, and ... presto! The emulator would launch with a hybrid interface – middle ground between Gingerbread and Honeycomb.

Seeing as all devices are meant to run the same version of Android, this functionality is still there, hidden beneath the factory settings in Ice Cream Sandwich. Want a tablet interface on your Ice Cream Sandwich phone? Just edit the build.prop file or download an application like LCD Density Changer and change the display density to 160 or below. Then reboot. (Seriously, don't do this unless you like breaking things. And you may have trouble getting your phone back to the stock phone interface.)

Now that there are more phones (unofficially) running Ice Cream Sandwich, some ROM developers have felt the need to take advantage of the hidden interface features by releasing phone ROMs with either the full tablet interface or a mix between the two. Hello, split pane madness.

I'm not usually the kind to bite the hand that feeds me. I like flashing ROMs (most the time) and I am ever-thankful for the various developers who continue to produce fantastic Ice Cream Sandwich ROMs for the Galaxy Note, Galaxy Nexus and every other Android device under the sun. (Seriously, they all are awesome and have saved me from the repulsion that is legacy Android and fragmentation from the very beginning.)

But I am not at all enjoying the recent trend of hybrid ROMs. It was as if they all appeared overnight – at least for the Note, they did.

I have been using a basic build of the ICS TouchWiz ROM leak for several weeks now. But the more I used that specific ROM, the more problems I ran into. So, on a whim, I found another ROM that has had as many TouchWiz elements removed as possible (replaced by AOKP elements). I downloaded the ROM, flashed it and began setting up the fresh ROM. I didn't have a single issue ... until I opened the Settings app. Instead of the full-screen Settings app I'm used to, I was met with a tablet-like split pane, just like the Galaxy Tab had, except it was all jumbled in portrait mode and difficult to navigate or to come to grips with. Text was cut-off, as were different interface elements. It was not easy to use, nor did it look nice. Daunting would be a more appropriate explanation.

Okay, I understand. It's rough around the edges – an early beta build without all the kinks ironed out yet. Fine. It's a custom ROM, that's how these things go. It just wasn't for me. So I decided to go back to the ROM I came from and just restored the backup I had created before flashing the new one. (Oh man, do Note ROMs take forever to backup!) I also noticed that there was an update for the ROM and a new tablet mod. Against my better judgement, I flashed them both.

Sure, the tablet mod was an optional flash. It's my own fault for ever giving it a go. (I don't normally flash different mods beyond the ROM in its most basic form.) Nonetheless, I had seen several different hybrid ROMs over the past few weeks and figured it might be something worth checking out.

I was wrong.

The tablet interface was developed to work with large – not small – displays, and it works best in landscape mode. Phones, on the other hand, work best in portrait. In this specific ROM, text was almost too small due to the change in display density; notifications and all sorts of interface elements overlapped; Play Store didn't want to work and some elements of the interface didn't work at all.

Normally I wouldn't say anything. I thought that I might need to keep my thoughts to myself on this matter. Like I said, I don't like to bite the hand that feeds me, and I didn't have to flash the tablet mod in the first place. But I did anyway, and disabling the mod is as simple as flashing another ZIP. My fear, though, is that so many great ROM developers are going to waste their efforts on trying to make the tablet interface work for smaller devices. Granted, the Note is better suited for this than any other phone; after all, it is the largest phablet out there. But this still should not happen.

All I have to say is this: there is a reason Google separated the phone and tablet interfaces. As I explained in the past, there is a necessary mental context switch when moving between a tablet and a smartphone. And there are many reasons Google made the Ice Cream Sandwich for tablets different from the phone interface: the display is larger, it works better in landscape mode and you almost always hold the device differently (usually with two hands). It has been optimized for all of this.

Needless to say, this is exactly what I was afraid of when we learned the two interfaces would be accessible from any device through something as simple as a density alteration. I just hope this is a fad and the fun wears off once developers and user begin to realize this doesn't offer any real benefits. And, developers, if you're going to add tablet elements to your ROM's interface, please keep them in a flashable ZIP – an add-on – or compile a separate ROM without tablet elements.

However, as a side note, if a developer could find a way to activate the tablet interface when the device is plugged into a larger, external display, it would be an entirely different story. So there is definitely some good that could come from all of this, just not from the current direction.

(End rant. And I'm well aware I probably just committed some unforgivable sin as a custom ROM user. So shoot me.)

How do you guys and gals feel about this sudden surge of tablet/phone hybrid ROMs? Have you always longed for the Ice Cream Sandwich tablet interface on you ICS phone? Or do you, too, see this as a waste of developers' efforts?