Update Your Android Tablet (Part 1)

11/15/2012 9:19:17 AM

Don’t be content with a slow or limited device – you can spin $148.5 hardware into gold

Have you been left with a feeling of buyer’s remorse after an impulse tablet purchase? Fear not – we’re here to show you how to turn what may seem like a run-of-the-mill device into something wonderful. Well, perhaps just workable, but let’s reach for the stars.

The beauty of Android is that it enables any number of companies to produce affordable Android devices for us all to buy and delight in. the bad side of Android is that it enables any number of companies to produce poorly devised or implemented devices for us all to despise.

In between the two extremes lies a myriad of devices that just require a little tweaking to take them from mediocre to marvelous. This can be something as basic as adding a new theme or tweaking the interface to make it more useful. A slightly more advanced option would be adding the Google Android Market, which many device manufacturers leave off either for legal reasons, or in an attempt to cash in with their own Market alternatives. The extreme end of things is to entirely replace the existing installation of Android with your own build from one of the many possible alternatives, such as Cyanogen Mod. Any of these hacks can take a weak tablet and transform it into something you’ll want to use, but the addition of the real Android Market is a particularly handy one, especially if you already own apps on it, because you’ll gain access to your purchases among the 300,000-plus other Android apps the full Market provides.

Description: Google Android Market

As useful and fun as these are, it’s the last and most complex option that we’re going to explore. If community spirited hackers have managed to gain the correct root-access exploits for your tablet and someone has created a suitable build of Android for the device, then you can use a system such as Cyanogen Mod, which comes with a host of high-level features to transform it into something amazing, with features and overclocking waiting to be exploited.

Tempt me

Before you can get your hands on these tempting features, it’s first necessary to find out if your device has a suitable Android port available, has one in development, or hasn’t anything of the sort. Typically, a good working port will include three vital items: a way to inject the OS on to the system, a boot loader and the replacement operating system itself. As usual, Google is your best friend and searching for your device’s name along with the term ‘root’ or ‘Android build’ can help you discover solutions or blogs that will link to the right sources.

Besides this scattergun approach, reliable sources for community projects include itself, because it has both an active forum and lists many in-progress builds alongside completed ones. More general sites include and, which host forums for avid mobile fans dedicated to creating builds of Android for specific devices. These gals and guys have created an armory of tools that people can then easily reuse for a host of devices, be they phones or tablet.

Getting the new OS on to the device via the injection stage usually involves hijacking the manufacturer’s own built-in firmware upgrade or recovery process. While most devices provide a low-level recovery mode that requires you to hold down a combination of hard buttons as it’s turned on, devices such as the iPhone can have this initiated via the software itself. The exact process varies from device to device, so you’ll have to read up on your own model. Often your PC will require a special version of the device driver (but not always), along with a terminal command to push over the correct files.

Description: Uruk Droid 

One alternative build for the Archos tablet is Uruk Droid. It offers a 1.2 GHz overclocking kernel and gives the device Linux functionality

The build of Android itself doesn’t have to be a complete one. As with Windows, a missing driver doesn’t necessarily break a device, but renders that part useless – the GPS or Wi-Fi, for example.

In other cases, it could be semi-functioning, often working but lacking power-saving features. If you use a part-finished build, you’ll often come across issues like these. Lastly, the boot loader kicks the whole thing off. For many systems, multi-OS boot loaders are available – this enables you to keep the native install alongside the custom port that’s installed either on the internal storage or on an SD card. It’s very useful to keep the original OS, largely as it’s an emergency fallback position to rescue the device, but also because experimental builds may not be usable.

Tackling a tablet

The spirit of this guide is to take a cheap tablet, ideally under the magic $150 mark, and turn it into something that works far better than that price tag would indicate. To keep things practical, we’ve chosen to work with the Archos 70 Internet Tablet. The recommended retail price is $298.5, but places such as Carphone Warehouse sell it for a bargain-pitched $150. It’s perfectly placed as a cheap tablet with a 7-inch 800 x 480 capacitive touchscreen, 8GB of storage and Android 2.2. this older operating system is far from ideal and doesn’t come with Google Play, so it’s missing out on a vast catalogue of Android apps.

One solution that can be applied to the Archos and many other devices is to simply install Google Play APK file, but as with any system, doing so requires root access to the system. You’ll also need a suitable version of the APK file that will work on the rooted device.

The holy grail for us it to be able to install our own custom build of Android OS. Archos is slightly different to other manufactures in that it embraces molding of its devices to a certain degree, for example, the Archos 101 comes with a dual-boot system, and the Archos alternative OS called Angstrom is a Linux-based distribution. As part of this, Archos extends the boot-loader to its other devices, with the proviso that installing it avoids any warranty on the device.

HP never thought it would be treated like this, with Tux shoving it to one side

This does help with one job, and that’s getting the operating system injected on to the device. The Archos comes with a combined boot-loader and recovery system that’s accessed by holding down the volume button when it’s first turned on. Using this, it’s far easier to copy over the required files and get them flashed. Other devices can have an assault course of driver installs, command line sequences and more to achieve the same result.

The last stumbling block is that minor issue of an operating system. We tend to favor Cyanogen Mod. To say it’s better than other options is a bit black and white, but as it’s a mature distribution, if it’s used as the basis for a fresh port, it saves having to reinvent the wheel for many of the features you’d want. A handy page on XDA Developers at has a complete rundown of the available Archos alternative operating systems, from the stock Archos Android build to Uruk Droid and the Gingerbread 2.3 open AOS Cyanogen Mod 7 release that we’re going to use. There are also Linux and Ubuntu options among others, so as far as choice goes, you’re pretty spoilt with an Archos device.

Finally, where do you install this new operating system? Your device has various forms of storage: its internal memory, its interval storage, any additional expansion (usually via an SD card) and its own firmware. Most option will repartition the internal storage to contain a swap file and OS storage, while the generic remaining storage space will remain untouched to store any files you might have, remaining accessible to both operating systems. Internal storage is often preferable to SD cards as it avoids potential speeds issues with slower cards, and write errors that are more likely with an older SD card. Having said that, a spare high-speed SD card, say Class 10 or better, will provide enough throughput to be perfectly usable and is a good way of testing out a custom ROM.


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