AOSPA (Paranoid Android) review: back from the dead, and we’re thrilled

AOSPA has just released a new update to its long-loved Paranoid Android ROM, and it’s bringing back a bit of the old with the new. The unexpected new build is based on Android 7.1.2 Nougat, so it’s the latest you can get. Along with Nougat, a few old features are making a new appearance. Most notable is the return of the pie mode alternate navigation bar — which some people (me) prefer even over real pie. To be brief, the ROM is absolutely fantastic and may become my daily driver going forward. If you’d like to know why, though, you’ll have to read on.

It’s been nine months since AOSPA released any new images, and part of the blame for that likely lies with the fact that OnePlus hired away some of the developers to work on its new OxygenOS ROM. That endeavor came out pretty great. Though, if the developers have split from OnePlus to strike things solo again, OnePlus’ software quality might not hold forever. For the unfamiliar, OxygenOS is the home-spun ROM OnePlus put together after Cyanogen pulled a McMaster, but before it further McMastered into an early grave, spinning off LineageOS.

I was slightly hesitant when I heard that AOSPA was working on a Nougat ROM since its efforts for Marshmallow were a bit underwhelming. The last builds were pretty bare-bones stock, with just the minimum in modifications. They were perfectly stable and high-quality, just lacking a bit in features. It was also unfortunately timed, quite late after the release of Marshmallow — almost a full year — and just before the launch of Nougat.

Paranoid Android - 2017 Launch

Although the ROM is called AOSPA, these latest builds have a CAF base (which is to say, they have software from the Code Aurora Forum). As a result, you would expect performance to be well tuned on Qualcomm hardware, and that seems to be the case here. At the end of my review I didn’t see any issues or stutters outside a few poorly-made apps I have to use, though I did notice my phone was running a bit hot at times. Granted, during much of the review it was 90 degrees here, and the first boot of a new ROM is going to have a lot of stuff working in the background for a while, so that’s going to be unavoidable to some degree.

Flashing the ROM is a pretty straightforward process, but if you aren’t familiar I will include some basic instructions. Paranoid Android is exactly the type of ROM that would be a perfect introduction to how it is done. Please understand that we won’t be answering any questions about how to flash AOSPA outside what is provided here; if you need more you are on your own to find that info.

First, you need to unlock the bootloader for your device and install a custom recovery like TWRP, which is what both I and AOSPA recommend. Following that, download the AOSPA image here for your device (double check the date and version, as some old phones are listed), download a compatible set of Gapps for 7.1, reboot into recovery, perform a factory reset, and flash the zip for AOSPA, followed by your Gapps. I found it boot-looped on a dirty flash, but YMMV.

Aesthetics

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From the moment you land on the home screen, you can tell that a ton of work went into the N release. The Boot animation is the same as last year’s, but it’s still probably the slickest one I have ever seen outside Google’s own. It’s so classy it sort of highlights how little effort goes into the animations on almost every other ROM. Granted, that’s not exactly the number one consideration when you are looking for one, but it’s the first indicator of the incredible attention to detail AOSPA takes.

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The ROM looks basically stock at first launch, so nothing in the overall visual design of the Android experience has been changed. In my opinion that is ideal, since I have yet to find an OEM skin or ROM that has made any meaningful visual improvements on stock Android N 7.0. Not everyone may share that opinion, but I stand by it.

AOSPA again got artist Hampus Olsson to do art for the AOSPA wallpapers. He also did the backgrounds for all the OnePlus devices excluding the One, so if the style is familiar, that’s probably why. As ever, his work is stunning. Some are so beautiful, I’d honestly consider using them as a background on my daily driver. They’re a collection of almost fractal organic liquid patterns that call to mind all sorts of different things. They look like geographic features: islands, deltas, deserts, or ice floes, and some almost evoke scenes from nature, like a view through trees or rocky mountains. Frankly, they should be in a museum somewhere.

ROM-specific features

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I have to get this out of the way now. Pie mode, my favorite thing ever is back. If you aren’t familiar with that particular flavor of glory, it’s an alternative means of accessing the navigation icons by sliding in from the edge of the screen to reveal a half-circle of navigation icons. You then slide towards the slice of the pie that represents what you want and release, so it’s all one swipe in from the edge. Basically, pie mode turns tapping home or going back into edge gestures, with all the convenience that provides. So if like me, you hate hardware buttons, but still want maximum screen space, you have a beautiful compromise in the form of pie mode. I do hope that the size of the trigger area can be expanded a bit, and that the associated sensitivity could be increased, as I did have trouble getting it to appear at times.

It also has an immersive mode, which pie mode depends on to work. If you aren’t familiar with that, it allows the status bar and nav bar to hide when not in use, sort of like what happens when you are using a game or app that needs the whole screen to do its thing. With immersive mode, you can either set the nav and status bars to reappear when you swipe in from the corresponding edge or chose to keep just one of the two, as well as swap the nav bar with pie mode.

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The other big exclusive thing in AOSPA is the new Color Engine. The ROM also includes Substratum theme support, but I think the Color Engine is basic and entirely adequate. Frankly, I prefer a lighter touch, but not everyone would agree. It follows a similar level of customization that the OxygenOS ROM for OnePlus did if you are familiar with that. Color Engine allows you to select an underlying overall theme as a base, with a few different accent colors. Right now there are three themes, Default, Dark, and Pixel, with the middle being a perfect AMOLED black theme. Pixel and Default are mostly similar to one another, with small subtleties in color, and are both light-colored themes. Color Engine support doesn’t seem to extend to 3rd party apps or anything, but you can do that with Substratum themes if you so desire.

In more minor features, AOSPA also supports sRGB calibrated mode (at least on the OnePlus 3), OTA updates, standard reboot options, battery icon tweaks, quick pull-down for the status bar, and it has a Night Light mode that can automatically tint the display red in the evening. Allegedly too much blue light at night can mess with you. I don’t know a lot about the science behind all of that, but I used to be a heavy user of f.lux, and I loved the LiveDisplay features of Lineage OS, so I am glad to see it included. Unlike some implementations I have seen for this type of feature, it seems to be a complete solution. This isn’t just an additive overlay, so it won’t mess up dark colors.

If you are running a OnePlus device, the developers have included some extra-special sauce for you. After all, the AOSPA devs are also the minds behind OnePlus’ OxygenOS. The notification switch on the OnePlus 3/T now behaves more rationally, as it did on earlier versions of Oxygen OS. The changes in Oxygen OS 4+ were not too popular, so it’s nice to see the original functionality return. In addition to the hardware slider tweaks, OnePlus 3/T users also get support for the hardware buttons, enhanced camera performance, and many extra gestures.

Basic app selection

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As far as bundled apps go, AOSPA’s stock launcher is quite good. It’s sort of a cross between the Pixel Launcher and Google Now Launcher, and it even has Google Now integration. It lacks the pill pull-out, opting instead for the search bar (which I prefer), but it looks and behaves pretty similarly to Google’s launchers. The developers also included a file browser and a basic internet browser — the absence of either being what I consider the cardinal sin of ROM development, as it’s ridiculously inconvenient without them if you forgot an APK or file you needed during setup.

Among other stock apps are all the AOSP regulars: the calculator, calendar, email, messaging, and phone apps. The ROM does not include root and is signed, so it passes SafeteyNet. If you don’t root or use Magisk, you’ll still be able to use all the same apps.

ROM-leading camera quality

The stock camera, at least on my OnePlus 3, was fantastic on AOSPA. The pre-release media docs said that the developers had done enhancements to camera performance specific to the OnePlus 3/T, and that appears to be true. I spoke to the developers and they told me that the built a custom post processing algorithm which automatically finds optimal brightness, saturation, sharpness and contrast settings. However, keep in mind the changes I saw were unique to the OnePlus 3/T. If you are going to make a decision based on the pictures I took, you probably won’t get the same performance from AOSPA on another phone.

Images looked fantastic, with a bit less blowout in high-contrast circumstances, and much-improved low-light performance. If I was to be critical, sometimes lighting at night is unnaturally brightened, almost to the point that the sky looks like it’s still noon. For instance, all of the outdoor shots were taken just after sunset, and the sky was nowhere near so bright as they make it appear. Color in dim settings seems a bit over-saturated to me, too, but I don’t think my OnePlus 3 was too great in that regard on OxygenOS either.

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The camera app also has a lot of extra options for more manual control. I wasn’t able to directly set things like exposure time, and I couldn’t find a raw capture mode, but there were other more basic settings like a portrait and landscape mode, and extra details down at a more technical level like white balance, continuous shot, and ISO settings. None of this would be out of place in any decent OEM skinned phone, but I’ve never seen so much stuff tossed into the bundled camera app for a ROM. Much work must have gone into it.

Future improvements

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love everything about AOSPA, but there are a few small things that might make it a bit better. For one, pie mode needs to have a slightly wider and more sensitive trigger area for me to be able to use it to replace software keys.

AOSPA is promising to add more features to the ROM over time. All the things above are just what the revival is launching with. Perhaps we’ll be seeing the old HALO return? I was not the biggest fan, but many people I know would love to see it come back.

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Supported devices will include the Pixel XL, Nexus 5X, OnePlus 3, OnePlus One, Pixel, Nexus 5, OnePlus 2, Nextbit Robin, Nexus 6P, OnePlus 3T, OnePlus X, and more, with additional phones expected in the future. I’d also like to let interested parties know that the developers are actively looking for device maintainers to expand support to other devices. So if you have a phone that isn’t on this list and have some ROM development chops, consider reaching out to AOSPA to see about bringing it officially to another device.

For the benefit of all mankind, I hope someday that AOSPA is able to pull a Cyanogen and get this ROM shipping stock on OEM hardware, because it’s absolutely amazing. Since OnePlus already knows the developers, maybe it can be convinced to toss Paranoid Android on future phones? Either way, I guess it’s time to migrate all my supported devices off of Lineage OS and back to AOSPA.

Alternate title: Meet the new AOSP-YAAAAAY

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