Flashing a Kindle Fire with CyanogenMod

Those of you that follow me on Google Plus (or Facebook) already know this, but the other day I was wondering about whether I should have flashed my Kindle Fire (first generation) with CyanogenMod instead of keeping it with the original Amazon operating system. This is the tale of what I did, which includes a big screwup on my part.

But first, a small introduction. I’m the first person to complain about people “jailbreaking” iPhones and similar, as I think that if you have to buy something that you have to modify to make useful, then you shouldn’t have bought it in the first place. Especially if you try to justify with the name “jailbreak” an act that almost all of the public uses to pirate software — I’m a firm maintainer that if we want Free Software licenses to be respected, we have to consider EULAs just as worthy of respect; that is that you can show that they are evil, but you can’t call for disrespecting them.

But I have made exceptions before, and this mostly happen when the original manufacturer “forgets” to provide update, or fails to follow through with promised features. An example of this to me was when I bought an AppleTV hoping that Apple would have kept their promise of entering the European market for TV series and movies so that it would come to be useful. While now they do have something, they have not the ability to buy them to watch in the original English (which makes it useless to me), and that came only after I decided to just drop the device because it wasn’t keeping up with the rest of the world. At the time to avoid having to throw the device away, I ended up using the hacking procedure to turn it into an XBMC device.

So in this case the problem was that after coming back home from Los Angeles, I barely touched the Kindle Fire at all. Why? Well, even though I did buy season passes for some TV Series (Castle, Bones, NCIS), which would allow me to stream them on Linux (unlike Apple’s store that only works on their device or with their software, and unlike Netflix that does not work on Linux), and download to the Kindle Fire, neither option works when outside of the United States — so to actually download the content I paid for, I have to use a VPN.

While it’s not straight forward, it’s possible to set up a VPN connection from Linux to the iPad, and have it connect to Amazon through said VPN, there is no way to do so on the Kindle Fire (there’s no VPN support at all). So I ended up leaving it untouched, and after a month I was concerned about my purchase. So I started considering what were the compelling features of the Kindle Fire compared to any other Android-based tablet. Which mostly came down to the integration with Amazon: the books, the music and the videos (TV series and movies).

For what concerns the books, the Kindle app for Android is just as good as the native one — the only thing that is missing is the “Kindle Owners’ Lending Library”, but since I rarely read books on the Fire, that’s not a big deal (I have a Kindle Keyboard that I read books on). For the music, while I did use the Fire a few times to listen to that, it’s not a required feature, as I have an iPod Touch for that, that also comes with an Amazon MP3 application.

There are also the integration of the Amazon App Store, but that’s something that tries to cover for the lack of Google Play support — and in general there isn’t that much content in there. Lots of applications, even when available, are compatible with my HTC Desire HD but not with the Kindle Fire, so what’s the point? Audiobooks are not native — they are handled through the Audible application, which is available on Google Play, but is also available on my iPod Touch, which means I have no point about it.

So about the videos — that’s actually the sole reason why I ordered it. While it is possible to watch the streamed videos on Linux, Flash would use my monitor and not let me work when watching something, so I wanted a device I could stream the videos to and watch on… a couple of months after I bought the Fire, though, Amazon released an Instant Video application for the iPad, making it quite moot. Especially since the iPad has the VPN access I noted before, and I can connect the HDMI adapter to it and watch the streams on my 32” TV.

All this considered, the videos were the only thing that was really lost if I stopped using the Amazon firmware. So I looked it up and found three guides – “[1]”:http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=1632375 “[2]”:http://forum.xda-developers.com/showpost.php?p=30780737&postcount=180 “[3]”:http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=1778010 – that would have got me set up with an Android 4.1, CyanogenMod 10 based ROM. Since the device is very simple (no bluetooth, no GPS, no baseband, no NFC) supporting it should be relatively easy, the only problem, as usual, is to make sure you can root and flash it.

Unfortunately, when I went to flash it up, I made a fatal mistake: instead of flashing the bootloader’s image (a modified u-boot), I flashed the zip file of it. And the device wouldn’t boot up anymore. Thankfully, there are people like Christopher and Vladimir who pointed me at the fact that the CPU in that tablet (TI OMAP) has an USB boot option — but it requires to short one very tiny, nigh-microscopic pad on the main board to ground, so that it would try to boot from there. Lo and behold, thanks to a friend of mine with less shaky hands who happened to be around, I was able to follow the guide to unbrick the device, and got the CM10 ROM on top of it.

Now I finally got an Android 4 device (the HTC is still running the latest available CM7 — if somebody has a suggestion of a CM10 ROM that does not add tons of customization, and that doesn’t breach the Google license by bundling the Google Apps, I’d be happy to update), I’ve been able to test Chrome for Android, and VLC as well — and I have to say that it’s improving tons. Of course there are still quite a few things that are not really clean (for example there is no Flickr application that can run there!), but it’s improving.

If I were to buy a new tablet tomorrow, though, I would probably be buying a Samsung Galaxy Note 10 — why? Well, because I finally got a hold of a test version of it at the local Mediamarkt Mediaworld and the pen accessory is very nice to use, especially if you’re used to Wacom tablets, and that would give sense to a 10” laptop to me. I’m a bit upset with my iPad inability to do precise drawing to be honest. And since that’s not very commonly known, the Galaxy Notes don’t use capacitive pens, but magnetic ones just like the above-noted Wacoms, that’s why they are so precise.

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