From Gingerbread to Ice Cream Sandwich

Alas, my love affair with the belated Gingerbread update for my Captivate was brief. While the browser and Google+ app were indeed much faster on Gingerbread than they ever were on Froyo after a reboot, I quickly found out that using the phone for two or three days without rebooting slowed things down considerably. More precisely, the apps themselves, including the browser, were still fast: however, going back to the home screen was s-l-o-w. I could often see the Launcher redraw the home screen from scratch. Buttons were non-responsive. Rebooting the phone would fix things, but I don’t think rebooting every couple of days is acceptable in this day and age. I never have to reboot my ’08-vintage Macbook Pro and iMac, except for system updates (sometimes). Even my Windows 7 Samsung Slate does just fine without rebooting in normal day-to-day use—except that a large percentage of Windows software still requires restarting on installation.

In the end, I decided it was time for me to enter the mysterious world of custom ROMs. In fact, while I was at it, I might as well try Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), the latest version of the Android OS. This was especially attractive, as Samsung has stated in no uncertain terms that there will be no official version of ICS for the Captivate (or, more generally, for Galaxy S phones). I opted for the Team ICSSGS port, which builds upon Google’s AOSP (Android Open Source Project) release and is thus untainted by Samsung or AT&T “enhancements.”

Your key to the world of custom ROMs is a wonderful piece of software called ClockWorkMod Recovery, or CWM. This is a utility that runs before the full Android OS boots, and allows you to perform a number of low-level maintenance functions, including “flashing” (i.e. installing) custom ROMs. The beauty of it is that, once you have CWM on your phone, you just download a ROM (usually a zip file) to your internal SD card (you can even do this from your phone!), reboot into CWM, and select one of its menu option to flash the newly downloaded ROM. The only difficulty is actually installing CWM. For this, you will need a computer (PC, Linux or Mac) and another wonderful software called Heimdall (long story).

I followed the instructions here. Two caveats: first, you must have already updated to Gingerbread as per the Samsung/AT&T instructions. Second, the link I just gave you takes you to the Cyanogenmod wiki and provides you step-by-step instructions to install the Cyanogenmod ROM onto your Captivate. However, you do not need to follow all the instructions: just the ones in the section titled “Installing the ClockworkMod Recovery”. Do not follow the instructions under “Flashing CyanogenMod”. You want to flash ICS, not CyanogenMod… for now at least! (Long story short: CyanogenMod is an enhanced ROM; its stable version is based on Gingerbread, not ICS, though they also have an ICS version at the alpha stage.)

Once you have CWM Recovery on your phone, follows the instructions in the aforelinked Team ICSSGS post. A clarification: step 1 in the ICSSS instructions says to “Boot into Clockwork Mod Recovery mode using volume buttons”. This means: power down your phone; now press the Power, Volume Up, and Volume Down buttons simultaneously; hold them for 1-2 seconds, then release the Power button but hold down the two Volume buttons until CWM comes up (If I recall correctly, the CWM menu comes up after the AT&T boot animation).

Another caveat: your Captivate will “boot loop” the first time you flash ICSSGS. That is, you will see the AT&T boot animation, then the Google logo, then a bunch of gibberish, after which the phone will go back to the AT&T boot animation, etc. Don’t panic: this is normal, and explained here (look at the very first “Common Issue”). Just pull the battery and enter CWM Recovery using the three-button combination above. Reflash and reboot: this time there will be no boot loop.

My experience so far: ICS is the most significant upgrade to Android yet. The UI and interaction with the device are much more refined: there are many subtle effects and animations that contribute to a significantly improved experience, reminiscent of iOS and Windows Phone 7 (if you have seen the demos of the latter—devices “in the wild” are, er, hard to spot…). This particular ROM is not super-fast, though once again individual apps are fast. But I am so pleased with the overall “feel” of the OS that I’m willing to give up on apps instantly popping up as soon as I click on icons (some actually do, but some don’t).

Most importantly, so far and after rebooting a couple times after installation, I haven’t had the phone slow down like molasses in just two days of continued use, the way Gingerbread did. I have been running ICS for a week now, and if anything the OS feels faster than when I first rebooted after installing it.

Two final notes. First, the ICSSGS ROM is pre-rooted and also comes with CWM, so further flashing will be a breeze. Second, installing a new ROM requires wiping your phone clean, so back up any data you need to retain and be ready to reinstall apps.

Enjoy!

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