One of the best things about Android, the world’s most popular operating system for mobile devices, has always been its customizability. For the truly adventurous, that’s often meant ditching your manufacturer’s preinstalled software and installing a custom ROM, essentially a third-party operating system. In recent years, it feels like the popularity of custom ROMs has declined as manufacturers and carriers have made it harder to install them, and improvements to Android have made the advantages of a custom ROM less obvious.

My current phone is a Pixel 6 Pro. Honestly, I think Android 12 is pretty great. I’ve had the phone for almost six months and haven’t felt the need to tweak it too much until now. But I recently unlocked the phone and switched from standard Google-provided Android to ProtonAOSP, a community-built open-source version of Android (AOSP is the Android Open Source Project, the freely available and totally moddable version of Android).

Installation

I’ve been following the Proton Telegram communities (General and Pixel-Specific), so I already had a pretty good idea of how to get the ROM installed. I’ve also been running custom ROMs for a long timemy first experience was installing Cyanogenmod (now Lineage) on a Motorola Atrix 4G. Since then I’ve moved through a series of phones, most of them made by Google, and I’ve installed custom ROMs on every one of them.

One of the things you need to know about installing custom ROMs is that your phone needs to be unlocked in two senses. First, it needs to be carrier unlocked, which means that the carrier who issued the phone (if any) must permit the device to be used on any network (if you bought your phone elsewherelike directly from Googleit may have come unlocked). Chances are that if you purchased your phone from your wireless carrier, though, it will be locked to their network. If you’re paying for the phone on an installment plan, your carrier might not let you unlock it until you’ve paid it off. Some carriers, T-Mobile especially, are good about letting you unlock the phone even if you haven’t fully paid it off, so long as you’ve been a reliable customer.

Second, the phone’s bootloader needs to be unlocked. The bootloader is very basic software that runs when the phone is turned on to load the operating system. Unlocking the bootloader is a straightforward process, but it requires wiping all the data from your phone. So make sure you back up everything you want to keep (think photos, text messages, music, etc.).

ProtonAOSP offers two installation methods: a web installer and a more traditional command-line based fastboot installation. This was my first time using web installer, and I was super impressed. I didn’t even unlock the bootloader, just booted to fastboot, plugged in the phone, and started the online installer. It prompted me to unlock the phone and issued the proper fastboot command all by itself, then downloaded and installed the ROM in a couple of minutes.

Experience

ProtonAOSP is great. It seems snappier and smoother than stock Android. ProtonAOSP comes with very few apps installed, so there’s minimal bloat. Battery life seems better, too; I seem to be on pace for 5-6+ hours of screen time with Proton, whereas stock Android struggled to get 5 (I’ve only been using it for a week or so, so no strong claims on this yet).

ProtonAOSP claims substantial improvements in rendering, memory managent, system optimization, and file loading. It also offers better WiFi and mobile network connections and fixes to some of the bugs that plague AOSP. It certainly seems like these claims hold water: the phone feels faster and apps crash less frequently. I can’t vouch for the network connection improvements, but that’s because my experience was pretty great on stock Android, and it’s hard for me to notice a difference.

The design features are really cool, too. I’m a stickler for typography, and Proton does a great job there. They’ve also done some customizations to Google’s Material You design language. ProtonAOSP integrates with Repainter, and app that allows fine-tuned customization of Android’s Material You interface. Repainter is created by kdrag0n, ProtonAOSP’s lead developer.

The Repainter appThe Repainter app

Another really cool feature that ProtonAOSP offers is a grid-style recent apps menu. By default, Android’s recent apps interface only shows one app at a time. That semes like it’s inspired by iOS, and it’s terribly inefficient. ProtonAOSP offers the option to show a 2x2 grid, so you can see 4-6 apps at a time on the recents screen and flip back and forth much more efficiently.

Rooting

One of the advantages to unlocking your phone is that you can root it. By default, Android apps can’t access sensitive parts of the operating system. This is a good security feature. But if you know what you’re doing, you may want to allow certain apps to modify those privileged parts of the system (also known as giving them ”root access”, hence the term). Rooting your phone allows you to do things like block advertisements, customize hard-to-reach parts of the operating system, install any apps you like, uninstall or disable bloatware, and more.

I rooted my phone using Magisk, widely regarded as the best Android root solution. I started with the stable version (currently 24.3). Unfortunately it caused an odd bug: I wasn’t able to long press near the edges of the screen. So I switched to Magisk’s canary channel (a cutting-edge version that hasn’t been fully tested), and the issue was resolved. One of the first things I did after rooting the phone was to install AdAway, an app that modifies your device’s hosts file to block ads and other unwanted intrusions.

Issues

I love ProtonAOSP, and I’m happy I made the switch. That said, there are a few features I miss from the standard, Google-provided version of Android. First is adaptive charging, which protects your device’s battery by ensuring that it doesn’t fully recharge until you’re about to wake up in the morning. Second is copying text and images from the recent menus. But apart from those missing features, which Google is reserving for its own version of the operating system, I’m totally happy with ProtonAOSP.