A few months ago, I all but swore off hacking and modding of any sort on my Android devices.
As much as I love the flexibility of the platform and the ability to alter nearly every aspect of my phones and tablets to suit my needs and desires, hacking and modding Android devices can turn into a time suck. "Just a quick mod" can turn into an all-nighter trying to fix a tiny error you clumsily made before even getting started.
In short, I don't exactly have the time or patience for this much anymore. The desire to mod comes and goes. But most of the time I talk myself out of temping mods – both easy and difficult – in favor of the assurance of knowing I won't run into any issues that make me lose all my data or have to spend the better part of an afternoon setting the device up exactly how I like it again.
As I explained last Monday, though, the Samsung Galaxy Note II is very near perfect for me. There are some things I would change about the device, like the ability to use the S Pen holder I got for the original Galaxy Note without having to remove the integrated S Pen all the time. And I wish the camera was a bit better. It still falls significantly short of the iPhone 5 shooter.
But the brunt of the issues I have with the Galaxy Note II are on the software side. And it's not the typical quirks that third-party customizations, such as TouchWiz or Sense UI, bring to Android. In fact, the software on the Galaxy Note II is solid and a vast improvement over TouchWiz versions of past. I will go as far to say I don't mind TouchWiz Nature UX, even if it does look a bit cartoonish.
What irks me are the missed opportunities by Samsung, the haphazard effort by Samsung to truly differentiate its devices from the competition, the difference between decent software features and fantastic features.
For example, the Popup Browser is a neat feature that allows users to open links in a free-floating miniature browser window without leaving the current application. Yet there is no native function to open a blank Popup Browser page.
The other is the Multi-Window feature, where users can run two applications simultaneously, side by side. Long pressing the Back button on certain Galaxy Note IIs will reveal a tab on the left of the display. Pulling that tap towards the right will reveal a dock that holds a handful of apps. And that's the problem. The feature is spectacular; I use it all the time. But it's severely limited out of the box. Instead of allowing users to open any application in this Multi-Window (or split-view), there are only 13 applications that natively work with Multi-Window. That's a rather meager sample when you consider the 120 or so applications on my phone.
Last night, I was sitting on my couch playing with the Note II on Plume. Carrying on a conversation with some friends and looking at some lenses on sale for Cyber Monday, I was continually switching between Chrome and my Twitter client of choice. If I were using Twitter for Android (cringe), I could simply use Multi-Window and use both applications simultaneously. Fortunately, there are options and I'm not forced to use Twitter for Android (… yet!). The downside to that, however, is that my Twitter client cannot be used with Multi-Window.
I've been eyeing several Multi-Window mods in various forums for weeks now, and this finally pushed me over the edge. As much as I'm on Twitter, I need the ability to split-view applications with Plume.
I broke out my Android hacking gear (my MacBook Air and a micro USB cable) and went to work. The last few devices I rooted required unlocking the bootloader first, which factory reset the device. This was what I feared the most about going through with the mod.
However, I had ClockworkMod Recovery flashed and the device rooted within a couple minutes. The worst part was waiting on the backup to complete, which seemed like it took ages! The final piece of the puzzle was manually going to each application's Play Store page to find the application package name (e.g., com.google.android.apps.googlevoice for Google Voice) to enter in Paul O'Brien's automated Note 2 Multi Window Tool (proceed at your own risk). After accumulating 20 or so application package names, I downloaded the ZIP that was created, booted to recovery, flashed the ZIP and rebooted the phone.
Like magic, all the applications I wanted in the Multi-Window feature were there and they all work perfectly. This was, by far, the easiest mod I have ever applied to any of my devices. And it has partially restored my faith in quick, easy mods.
As for the limitations of Popup Browser, I simply opened the native TouchWiz Internet app, navigated to blank.org, pressed the Menu button and selected Add shortcut to home screen. Using Nova Launcher Prime, I replaced the hideous bookmark icon with the stock Jelly Bean Browser icon. Upon opening the bookmark the first time, I selected the option to always open with Popup Browser. Presto! Technically, it isn't a true blank page – it navigates to blank.org upon opening, which is instantaneous considering it's an entirely blank Web page. But it works perfectly.
The Galaxy Note II still isn't perfect either. There are some hardware features I didn't mention in last week's article that I would like to change – I would make it a unibody polycarbonate device. And I can't physically make the image sensor any better. But after applying these few quick and easy mods (that I am in no way endorsing or encouraging anyone to partake in), the Galaxy Note II is as close to perfect as I can imagine.
I would prefer to have purely stock Android with S Pen support, but with hundreds of custom ROMs under my belt, I'm a bit wary of heavily customized, half-baked ROMs. I'm content with my Note II exactly as it is now.
Tell me, readers. Have you ever applied a mod to your smartphone and it work exactly as you hoped? Or, after many failed and half-baked mods, have you given up on fine-tuning your phone to suit your most niche needs?