If you’ve ever owned an Android phone and have even lightly explored the world of custom ROMs and modifications, chances are you’ve seen the name CyanogenMod. It is the most popular variant of Android available through the modding community, and it’s been loved by its supporters for its rapid updates, stability, battery life, and intelligent enhancements to Android. It’s also offered a way for older devices to be updated to newer versions of Android long after they’ve been left behind by their carriers or manufacturers.
Until now, the only way to experience CyanogenMod was to modify your own device that shipped with different software. That typically involves a lot of research in modding forums, and a good amount of hacking and trusting software tools of dubious origins. It’s always been a tedious process that requires a fair amount of technical knowledge and the fortitude to chance your smartphone becoming inoperable if something goes awry (not to mention voiding your warranty).
Cyanogen Inc., the company recently formed by the original creators of CyanogenMod, has been trying to change that. After announcing just this past September that it would incorporate and legitimately distribute its altered vision for Android, the company has raised tens of millions of dollars in venture capital and has made promises of grand things to come. Now, thanks to a partnership with Chinese manufacturer Oppo, CyanogenMod is shipping preinstalled on the N1, a $599 Android phone that aims to compete with mainstream behemoths such as the HTC One max. It’s the first time that the general public can experience Cyanogen’s take on Android without having to know the meanings to the words “root” or “bootloader.”
Between the “stock” Android that ships on Google’s own Nexus devices, and the heavily modified variants that Samsung, HTC, LG, and others offer, there are already plenty of ways to experience Android. And the smartphone world is dominated by giant players with deep pockets and impressive, powerful phones.
CyanogenMod has a long uphill battle to climb: it’s trying to make a difference in a market that is largely considered saturated. Even established makers such as BlackBerry have floundered in today’s smartphone market, and the only thing that’s really keeping Windows Phone going is Microsoft’s endless bank account. Cyanogen doesn’t have the legacy of BlackBerry or the cash of Microsoft, but it’s going to compete against Samsung, LG, Apple, and others just the same. That raises the question: is there room, or need, for yet another option in today’s smartphone world?
The CyanogenMod that comes on the Oppo N1 is version 10.2, based on Android 4.3 Jelly Bean. At first blush, it looks just like the standard builds of Android that come on Google’s Nexus devices. There’s no skinning here, no redundant email or messaging apps, and no carrier bloatware (after all, the N1 is sold direct by Oppo and isn’t modified by any carrier). It’s not unlike the versions of Android that ship on Motorola’s recent devices, which provide a "near stock" experience with a handful of enhancements under the surface.
It’s stock Android, but better
CyanogenMod offers its own secure device tracking and remote wipe service, an enhanced lock screen, secure messaging features (between other CyanogenMod devices), theming options, audio enhancements, an improved camera app, adjustable performance, greater security and privacy controls, and some customizability to the underlying interface. Quick toggles can be added to the notification bar or not, shortcuts to frequently used apps can be enabled on the lock screen, and it’s even possible to dive in and customize how fast the phone’s processor is allowed to run. But overall, it’s not much different from standard Android, and coming from a Moto X or Nexus device I instantly felt at home on CyanogenMod. Unlike Samsung’s or HTC’s software, CyanogenMod doesn’t rearrange the settings menus, change the home screen, or use unique fonts. It’s stock Android, but better, and that’s what many enthusiasts look for.
I liked the tweaks made to Android too — it wasn't long before I wished I had the smart lock screen shortcuts on my Google Play Edition HTC One, and the cLock home screen widget gave me so much information about the weather and my calendar that I didn't bother installing DashClock as I normally do.
Be that as it may, there are some things that Nexus devices have that CyanogenMod doesn’t and probably never will. The Google Experience Launcher with Google Now is nowhere to be found, nor is the intelligent Google Caller ID in the dialer. But since Google did approve the N1 to ship with the Google Play Store and associated apps, it does have Gmail, Chrome, Hangouts, and other core Google apps. CyanogenMod has these apps because it isn’t a fork of Android, like what Amazon did for the Kindle Fire. It’s more of a customization, like HTC’s Sense or Samsung’s TouchWiz. (At this point, the CyanogedMod that comes on the N1 is the only version of the OS that has Google's apps included — Cyanogen is not yet allowed to distribute the apps with versions of the OS for other devices.)
Users of CyanogenMod are likely to tell you that they use the platform because it's fast, stable, and offers great battery life. It also offers a way for devices that have long been left abandoned by their carriers or manufacturers, such as the venerable HTC HD2, to run newer versions of Android. The N1 doesn't really classify as an older device — it has a thoroughly modern processor, a high-res screen, and an enormous battery. Still, CyanogenMod runs swiftly on it, to the point that I didn't feel like Google's Nexus devices were any faster (as I usually do when comparing modified Android to stock Android).
In weeks of using the N1 I never once had an app force close, the phone lock up, a reboot, or even a stutter. That's not something I can say about even the most high-end devices from the biggest manufacturers in the world. I can see why people like using CyanogenMod and why they would go through the trouble to get it installed on their phones. It's a solid, reliable experience with just the right amount of improvements to what Google offers in Android. And frankly, I like it better than the software Samsung, LG, or even HTC offer. It's no surprise to me that 11 million people have chosen to use it, and by the company’s count it has more users than Windows Phone in the US.
It's striking how stable and fast CyanogenMod is
Still, I’m not sold that it’s a great differentiator for high-end phones. For older, outdated devices, CyanogenMod can breathe new life and offer a better experience than the software that they shipped with initially. But the improvements that it offers for high-end smartphones, such as the Nexus 5, aren’t really worth the trouble to install.
A match made in the cloud
The Oppo N1 wasn't designed or built solely for CyanogenMod (buyers can opt for it with Oppo's own Color OS, yet another variation on Android), but its quirky design and unique features are oddly appropriate for the first device to offer the software.
The N1 is a well-made and attractive phone that could sit next to any high-end Android device today
It’s a big phone — in the same class of "phablet" devices as the HTC One max, Samsung Galaxy Note 3, and Sony Z Ultra. It's also really heavy: at over 7.5 ounces, it weighs more than virtually all other modern smartphones. The N1 is not a device I can comfortably use in one hand. But it's well-built, and feels more premium than many other Chinese phones I’ve used in the past.
The 5.9-inch display is the same size and 1080p resolution as the screen on the One max, but it's not nearly as nice. It's bright, but lacks contrast and is pretty washed out. The display gets the job done, but can't hold a candle to the best screens on the market. For a phone that’s nearly $600, the display is really disappointing.
The N1 is plastic, but it's a high-quality plastic similar to that of Nokia's devices and some HTC smartphones. It's not glossy or slippery like Samsung devices, and though my review unit has a matte white finish, it doesn't pick up dirt and scuffs. An aluminum frame goes around the phone, which gives it an upscale look. Apart from the gargantuan size, the N1 is an attractive phone that could easily sit on a shelf next to any device from more established makers.
It does have its oddities, though, starting with the swiveling camera housing above the display. The phone doesn't have a front-facing camera, instead using the main 13-megapixel imager for both front and rear duties. (13-megapixel selfies are now a reality.) The swiveling housing works at any angle, enabling some unique perspectives with the camera. It also has two LED flashes (one low-power, one high-power), but it doesn't do the same dual-LED photo tricks as the iPhone 5S.
Unfortunately, the pictures from the camera aren't anything to write home about. Images are noisy and soft indoors, and pretty washed out and bland outdoors. The N1 also lacks optical image stabilization for better low-light photos, something that many of its peers now offer. I was also unable to use the camera for video calling in Google Hangouts, which really strange and disappointing. (Video calls in Skype work, but they are no better with the N1’s camera than with any other smartphone that supports Skype.)
The second odd hardware feature on the N1 is the touch-sensitive panel on the back of the phone. It's a roughly 2-inch rectangle that falls under your index finger when you hold the phone in your hand. It can be used for scrolling in apps or the home screens, to launch the camera, or to take pictures via double-tap once the camera is open. Like the swiveling camera, the touchpad doesn't really do much to add to the N1 experience, unfortunately. Scrolling with it is jerky and unpredictable, and its camera-launching feature meant the camera app opened every time I held the phone for a few seconds. Needless to say, I turned off the touchpad and for the most part, forgot about it.
Finally, there's O Click key fob, a circular Bluetooth device about the size of a quarter that acts as a phone locator and remote camera shutter. The O Click will alert you with an audible beep if you walk too far away from your phone, acting as a reminder not to leave your phone behind. But its range is quite limited — the alert would beep when I would hang my keys by my front door and walk with the phone to another part of my small house. It turned into more of a nuisance than a convenience, though I will admit that the remote shutter button is a neat trick.
Inside, the N1 has everything one might expect to find in a modern Android smartphone. My review unit has a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor and 2GB of RAM, though Oppo also offers the phone with the newer Snapdragon 600 chip. I didn't notice any performance issues playing games or in normal use, and the N1 was just as fast as the HTC One and other Snapdragon 600 devices in my experience.
Lack of LTE is a big knock against the N1
The N1 has a massive 3,610mAh battery and no LTE, which means that it easily lasts for multiple days between charges. It really sucks that it doesn’t have LTE at all — support for high-speed cellular networks is table stakes for any high-end smartphone at this point, especially one aiming for the particular demographic of the N1. (The N1 is compatible with both AT&T and T-Mobile in the US, but doesn't support LTE on either carrier or anywhere else in the world.)
As a phone, the N1 offers a lot of unique hardware features in one package, but I don’t think they add any real value or improve the user experience in a meaningful way. Frankly, the N1 would be another forgettable phone if it didn’t come with CyanogenMod as an option, and despite Oppo’s best efforts, it’s not significantly different or better than the other massive devices flooding the market. And its lack of LTE makes it really hard for it to stand up next to the best smartphones from HTC, Samsung, and LG. That’s not to say it’s bad, it’s just not stand-out great. Your money is better spent elsewhere.
As the first device that comes from the factory with CyanogenMod preinstalled, the Oppo N1 is an important milestone. It also doesn't hurt that it's not a bad phone in its own right, with only a few issues in the display and lack of support for modern cellphone networks (and a high sticker price).
But it's also just as much of a niche device as CyanogenMod is still a niche operating system. The customer that would be interested in the N1, a phone that costs nearly $600, can’t be bought at a discount from a carrier, and doesn't have LTE, is likely the same person that wouldn't mind getting their elbows dirty and installing CyanogenMod on any other device they might already have. It’s clear that the N1 is a means to an end for the Cyanogen team: Oppo was a willing partner that provided them a way to launch CyanogenMod on a device in a short amount of time (it’s said that the team got the software ready for release in a mere 30 days, including adding support for the N1’s odd hardware features).
Cyanogen will eventually have to bring its software to more mainstream smartphones, and get the support of US carriers, if it's going to make a run for the third-place platform slot currently held by Windows Phone, as CEO Kirt McMaster has previously expressed. (It could also benefit from a more consumer-friendly name, which is reportedly in the works.) Fortunately, the bones are there — it's a fast, reliable, attractive take on Android that makes improvements where they count and doesn't bother with frivolous appearance changes or kitchen-sink features just for the sake of them.
There may be a day when you can go to a store and pick up a device running CyanogenMod without any compromises, and I'd welcome that. But there's a long road and a lot of things that need to fall into place before that happens, and frankly, the odds are stacked against Cyanogen.