What is a custom recovery on Android and what is it for?

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Have you ever thought about making modifications to your phone at the operating system level? For example, getting permissions from root and have full administrative access to everything that the manufacturers of your terminal, a priori, have vetoed for users. This and other operations called aftermarket almost always require a first step: the installation of a custom recovery. In this article we are going to try to define what these elements are and what to do with them, but you also have to bear in mind that, as attractive as it may sound to have a recovery custom on your Android, we are entering the field of advanced users. If after reading this article you decide that you want to try one, don’t hesitate to find out what steps you have to take to get it.

Reviewing concepts: what is recovery mode?

We have already talked about this on some previous occasion. The very name of the mode already tells us what it can be used for: recovering the operation of the phone in case there is a problem. This mode installs on a separate partition from the operating system, and boots before the system itself does. All Android phones have a mode recovery pre-installed by the manufacturer, which has various tools at your disposal.

What tools are these or what their exact purpose is something that varies depending on the manufacturer, since it is still their tool that is put in the hands of their certified technicians (and the user, if they know where and how to look, although most basic Android users never use this mode). However, there are a few that are common to all: wipe the data partition (which amounts to restoring factory settings), clearing the cache, or installing updates from the SD card or from ADB.

Recovery as standard on a Samsung Galaxy S9

To enter the mode recovery each manufacturer has a specific key combination that varies depending on the terminal: in some you may have to press the volume button down and the power button at the same time, in others the volume up button and the power button, in others, as in the old models of the Samsung Galaxy S series, make combinations with the button home and etc. In case you can’t find the right button combination, it can also be accessed using ADB commands.

What is a custom recovery?

We finally enter the matter. As we have already told you, the mode recovery “Official” of the phone is pre-installed by all manufacturers in their models before launching them for sale. This mode, precisely because it is designed to solve operational problems, has limited functionality.

This is where the developers of the scene Android thought that recoveries they could be improved by adding a number of extra functions that users might find useful. What they did, speaking in silver, was take a recovery current, stuff him with vitamins and put him in the gym to get muscle background and tone.

All this work translates into functions that are not only intended to solve operational problems, but also to make modifications that would otherwise be impossible: format the phone completely, install a custom ROM, gain access privileges. root, clear the cache of the Android virtual machine … the possibilities are much greater than those offered by its serial counterparts (although we will talk about this later).

What is a custom recovery for?

To be able to talk about this, we must stop to comment something carefully. There are basically two big custom recoveries that have been traditionally used in the scene Android: ClockWorkMod or CWM and Team Win Recovery Project or TWRP.

ClockWorkMod, the oldest

When we talk about ClockWorkMod we must do it with respect. And no, I’m not exaggerating. CWM was the first, the one that served to pave the way for users who mess with ROMs, the root and everything else we could do, ultimately. East recovery is a project by Koush, a mythical developer of the scene which is also known by other applications such as Vysor, which we have already told you about on occasion.

ClockWorkMod RecoveryClockWorkMod Recovery / Quinn Dombrowski edited with license CC BY-SA 2.0

CWM, visually, does not seem to be too far from any recovery Android official, but adds two cool features. On the one hand, the possibility of installing custom operating system images (or custom ROMs), such as the old AOKP, the defunct CyanogenMod (which, by the way, Xiaomi’s MIUI was based on its beginnings) and its successor, the current Lineage OS. On the other hand, make complete backup copies of our phone, which in the slang of the scene it is known as NANDroid backups.

ClockWorkMod stopped updating for a long time (Koush stopped developing new versions, as well as applications that needed root considering it unnecessary), but it is an essential tool if we are thinking of giving a new life to an old phone.

TWRP, the present and the future

ClockWorkMod was a perfect child of its time: it was navigated with the volume up and down buttons and the different menus were accessed by pressing the power button. In addition, it also had certain limitations and was not comfortable or intuitive enough. And yet, by then it was more than compliant for users.

TWRP main viewTWRP main view

And suddenly, there was a paradigm shift. A new project appeared on the scene called Team Win Recovery Project, and everyone lost their minds (and rightly so). Where CWM did not go, TWRP did, and even further: to the already classic options of erasing partitions, installing ZIP files and ROMs and creating and restoring NANDroid backups, others joined to mount the internal or external storage of the terminal, partition the terminal, encrypt the storage partition and even put several files to install in queue. As if that were not enough, you can even connect a USB drive through an OTG cable where you have loaded files to install, and TWRP will read them without any problem.

TWRP, luckily for everyone, is still working to this day. It is one of the longest running collaborative opensource projects of the scene, even if only four people (approximately) maintain it. It can be found in official versions maintained by the main development team, but it is not uncommon for independent developers to make their own unofficial versions with modified functions.

Is it advisable to install a custom recovery?

As we mentioned at the beginning of the article, install a custom recovery like these two that we mention here is not an easy matter. For starters, it requires the user to have some knowledge of installing traditional operating systems (not required, but that foundation is fine).

To follow, install one of these alternative recovery modes leads to the loss of the terminal warranty immediately, as it involves unlocking the bootloader of the telephone. As if that were not enough, manufacturers will try to dissuade you from carrying out this process in almost all its phases. And, in addition, each one forces you to take different steps (and puts different obstacles) to achieve it, which implies documenting yourself very well before undertaking the task.

By way of conclusion, there are three scenarios in which, for us, it is possible to consider installing a recovery from third parties:

If you find yourself in any of those cases, don’t hesitate and give it a try.