I’ve had my beloved HTC Nexus One for about 18 months now.  When it comes to tech hardware, for me, that’s about 12 months longer than usual.  In fact, I was just reading about the new Kindle Fire and, as my gadget lust consumed me, I started to wonder if I have some sort of personality trait similar to drug addiction.  I have a Windows 7 laptop, an Ubuntu laptop, two Android phones, an iPhone 3G, an iPod Touch, an iPod Mini, a Google Cr-48 chromebook, and an HP TouchPad – not to mention the wife’s Kindle and iPad – and I still want the Kindle Fire! What’s up with that?

Windshield wipers on your HTC Sense phone!

Windshield wipers on an HTC Sense phone!

But I digress…

Back to the Nexus One. Over the past year and a half, I’ve gotten incredibly excited at every OS release, updating to Android 2.2 via OTA just to see how that worked, then manually updating to stock 2.3 to get the new UI. With each successive OS release, it’s the little things – whether with Android or iOS or Ubuntu or Windows – that get my curiosity going.  More than the speed or power increases, I’m interested in the “look” and the new functionality. What’s going to change the look? Is the font different? How are the icons designed? What are the sounds? Can I change the color of the blinking trackball light to correspond to different types of alerts? How cool is that animation that flashes the display to sleep like an old TV set?

Yes, I am a geek.

However, since Gingerbread/2.3 dropped in December, 2010, and other than some minor releases, it’s been a long dry spell for Android (phone) updates. What’s a geek to do? Sure, I’ve installed apps and themes that give me the look of HTC’s Sense, but that’s just in a few areas – like the awesomely cool flip-style digital clock and killer weather animations (oh yeah, the raindrops and windshield wipers are my fav, for sure!).  And, I changed my wallpaper pretty much weekly, going from Android’s cool “live wallpaper” to some of my own photos of local scenes to this awesome statue when I was on a bokeh kick. But those tweaks only satisfied me for so long.

The Unlock

I’ve always considered unlocking my phone, but never really wanted to devote the time to figure it out. The main driver was to try CyanogenMod, which is essentially a custom version of Android developed purely out of joy by a ‘Burgh dude, Cyanogen, and his community of developers. But I was always afraid of breaking something, bricking my phone, losing all of my data, or somehow making a mistake. Then, in a fit of boredom about a month ago, I took the plunge and, after about 20 minutes, had an unlocked Nexus One! It was an incredibly simple process and I can’t believe I didn’t do it sooner.

Miui Screens

Miui's refreshingly fresh look

With the phone unlocked, I now had the opportunity to “flash a custom ROM” onto the phone. CyanogenMod was the obvious choice, but I had been reading more and more about a Chinese company, Xiaomi, and their custom Android ROM, Miui. CyanogenMod looks very similar to stock Android and the team puts most of their effort into features and power, but Miui has taken a different approach and reskinned the entire UI. There’s very little in common with Android or even Sense. Sure, it’s the same 4×4 icon layout with a top notification bar and bottom button tray (same as every smartphone), but the “look” is entirely unique. All of the system-type apps, like the music player and text messaging, are new. Even better, Miui has fantastic support for themes, and better yet, you can cherry pick only the parts of themes that you like to create your own, totally custom theme. How cool is that?

The Flash

If the unlocking process was easy, the installation of Miui was just as painless. It took a few minutes and a couple of restarts and that was it. In my hands I held what was essentially an entirely new phone! Awesome! Of course, the downside was that, in my hands, I held an entirely new phone. I had to re-install all of my apps and reconnect with all of my social media services, but the process was pretty simple. In just 90 minutes or so, I was downright giddy! Over the next few days, I’m sure the wife became sick of watching me constantly play with my phone and, every few minutes, blurt out something like, “Oh cool! You gotta check this out!” She’s a good sport.

Some of the best improvements over stock Android are the capabilities of the Nexus One that Miui engages but that Android inexplicably ignores. It’s confusing especially since the “Nexus” phones are supposed to showcase all that Android can do. The FM radio is one example; it’s not accessible via Android at all. Multitouch is another. Why Google wouldn’t enable these features is beyond me, unless it has something to do with IP and lawsuits?

The Verdict

I’ll make it simple: Miui is awesome! I could go on for days on some of the best features, but here are a few of the key things that make it better than Android (and I won’t even compare it to iOS, which barely allows any user customizations at this level). It’s incredible to think of the amount of development that went into Miui, and that it’s FREE!

  • Unlock Screen:  Miui allows you to unlock directly into the dialer or messaging. The developers looked at the typically static unlock screen and asked themselves, “Why do people usually open their phones?” Obviously, it’s when they get an alert or they want to make a call. The unlock screen has three icons, a phone, lock, and message balloon. If you swipe on the phone icon, the phone unlocks into the dialer. It gets better by putting a number indicator to tell you how many unread texts or missed calls you have. Even better, if you press and hold on the message icon, it pops up the last few unread messages with no need to even unlock your phone! That’s amazingly helpful! If you’re listening to music, the unlock screen adds fwd/back and play/pause buttons so that you can quickly manage music without diving into your phone. This is invaluable when I’m running and listening to music on my phone.

    Miui's Unlock Screen

    Miui's unlock screen, showing the music controls (and graphics) plus the direct-to-app phone and message icons

  • Camera:  Miui speeds up the camera app’s opening so that you can take photos almost instantly. Then, they add dozens of new settings that Android ignores, like burst mode, effects, anti-shake, metering modes, and many more. You can even focus on specific areas of the image just by tapping that area. It also adds 720p video recording, for your high-def, memory-eating delight.
  • Toggles:  Stock Android offers a neat widget to toggle wifi, gps, sync, and brightness. Miui, again, goes much farther by putting 12 toggles into the swipe-down notification menu, making it accessible from any screen (unlike a widget, which lives on an individual screen). The “reboot” is an interesting toggle, and they even give you options for the type of reboot you wish to perform. Geeky, and I’ve never had to reboot my phone, but neat nonetheless.
  • Guest Mode:  An awesome feature that hides calls and texts and prevents apps from being deleted. Sure, it’s useful if you’re going to let someone else use your phone, but it’s killer for parents who want to let their kids play with their phones.
  • Themes:  I mentioned them earlier, but Miui themes are incredibly comprehensive and powerful, changing everything from fonts and sounds to icons and icon shapes, the look of the messaging interface, and the number of apps in the app tray. It’s incredible how they’ve implemented this to the point of essentially allowing anyone to create a theme and almost call it their own ROM. It’s that powerful.
  • Torch:  The Torch has to be the coolest app on Miui. I’m not sure if something similar is available elsewhere or in a downloadable app, but it’s brilliant! What does it do? From the lock screen, if you hold down the home key, your camera flash illuminates as a flashlight! It’s awesome for walking up dark stairs, finding your keys (or the keyhole), or not tripping and killing yourself in the dark.
  • Additional Fluff:  Pinching on any screen pops up a thumbnail of all screens, allowing you to quickly navigate to the desired screen or add new screens. App folders can create collections of apps within one button (yes, iOS has had this feature for a while…). There are eight screen transition options (when you’re swiping between screens), from 3D cube to rotate to page. You can add apps on up to 11 (maybe more?) screens, while Android limits it to 5. FTP, which allows you to copy files to/from your phone over wifi. The dialer shows a keypad plus the past four calls to quickly dial a recent caller. The battery icon can be made to show the exact percentage remaining, not just a simple, partially-empty icon. You can control, app by app, which can transfer data over wireless, wifi, or both, letting you specify, for example, that email can sync on wifi and wireless, but Netflix can only use wifi to save yourself from using all of your monthly data.

Bottom Line

I’m sure I’m forgetting a few things, but I think you get the drift. If you have an Android phone and want more control and a fresh UI, definitely give Miui a look. You’ll unlock your phone’s full potential and give yourself the chance to truly customize every aspect of your phone and make it your own. Honestly, it’s saved me a few hundred bucks from upgrading to an entirely new device. Sure, I’d love to have a bigger screen, and the N1′s “champagne” color is really cramping my style, but even in today’s lightning fast mobile phone world, my 18-month-old device is holding its own!

Get on it! I waited way too long, and now I’m looking forward to the day that I get tired of Miui (a few months, probably) and can give CyanogenMod a try. I’m sure the wife is excited for that as well…