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Teaching a Phone New Tricks

July 14, 2013

Samsung Galaxy S2

Wherein I flash firmware and successfully petition the Allfather for root access.

Mobile phones are essential for life here in India.  More than essential: Vital, indispensible, crucial.  Without a phone you can’t reliably meet with anyone, travel anywhere, or conduct any business.  I came here with an HTC Sensation that I got on my plan in USA with T-Mobile; by popping in an Airtel India SIM card I was good to go.  This is a pretty good phone, 2-core 1.2 GHz cpu, 540 x 960 LCD screen, and HTC’s enhancements on top of Android, HTC Sense.  This phone is close to the iPhone 4 in capabilities and performance.

But I can’t say it’s a great phone.  Battery life is no more than average; in fact on trips I power-down the phone for long periods so I can be assured that my phone will have power when I get to my destination.  And here in India it sometimes acts flaky, getting into a mode where it flashes back and forth between full signal and no signal.  So in the hopes of longer battery life and greater reliability, I started looking for a new phone.  My ultimate pick was the Samsung Galaxy S2.  It specs out better than the Sensation in both talk-time and standby-time, and various reviews put it a bit ahead of the Sensation.  And, since I didn’t feel like spending the big bucks for an unlocked iPhone 5 or Galaxy S4, the S2 at its medium-bucks price was my choice.

One thing I was concerned about was the Android version on the phone.  The S2 came out in 2011, which means Android 2.3, aka Gingerbread.  My Sensation has 4.0.3 (Ice Cream Sandwich) and I was not about to go back. Some quick googling verified that the S2 could do Android 4.1, Jelly Bean, so I was off to Amazon to buy my new phone.  My rose-colored glasses showed me a vision of the future where my phone, being new, arrives with the newest Android pre-installed.

I should have been using my Peril Sensitive sunglasses, as phone arrived with antediluvian Gingerbread.  But not to worry.  I am a tech guy after all … I’ll just fix it.  A bit more googling shows that the upgrade can be done OTA by using the Samsung PC utility Kies.  Was able to get that installed no problem, only to find “Your current firmware does not support upgrading”.

Back to Google again.  Now I find there is a program, Odin, that allows you to replace the firmware of your Samsung phone with a new image.  Got Odin installed and after a bit more searching got a generic UK image for the S2 and Android 4.1.2.  Put the phone into “download mode” (power-on by holding down-volume, home and power simultaneously) and Odin was ready to work his magic:

Odin utility

Why a Korean tech company has a software utility named after Norse god, I have no idea.  Norse countries are heavily involved with mobile tech.  I guess I should be happy this utility wasn’t named Väinämöinen.

Regardless, Odin worked.  The phone rebooted and there was the Jelly Bean UI, all ready for me.  Yes!  Phone not bricked and X $s not wasted!  Put in the Airtel SIM card, setup my accounts, all my contacts synched down, installed a few more apps, and in short order I was ready to go, at parity with the data and functions I had on the Sensation.

Actually, not quite.  When you get a new phone, you dink around with the options, right?  One of the first things I dinked around with was the Lock screen. None of the settings did anything, the phone just would not lock.  Then I noticed that there was no warning when you press power-off – the phone would directly shut down.  That was not good, I could butt dial my phone off without knowing it.

I guess Google is the new hardware store.  If you are a home owner I’m sure you have had the experience of doing a project – fixing a mailbox or screen door, for example – and going to the hardware store once, thinking you have all you need, only to find later that 2nd, 3rd or 4th trips are needed.  So once again I go to Google, this time looking for “galaxy s2 lock screen problem”.

And once again, Google worked.  I quickly find that the lock screen and power-off problems can be corrected by placing a file named “keystr”, containing the characters “ON” in the right place.  Doing this, however, required root access to the phone – just like on Unix and Linux, on Android a plain ‘ol user can only see some of the file system.

And actually rooting the phone?  Odin can do this too, you just need the right kernel, which I got and flashed.  Once rooted, the app ES File Explorer allowed me to see the whole phone file system, and to put the needed file in the right spot with the right permissions.  One more reboot, and there was my lock screen.  Yay!


Moral of the story: Stuff is getting easier.  I have been looking at dev guides and how-to’s for phones for years and frankly, back then, they were pretty daunting, mostly involving a lot of *Nix knowledge, terminal sessions to your phone, that sort of thing.  Now, even “prosumers” can flash ROMs and root their phones by using GUI utilities.

Especially on Samsung, aided by Odin.  No human sacrifice necessary.

Categories: Technology
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