Saturday, January 2, 2016

Rescuing a Motorola Droid Razr M (or any other Android phone) from the Junk Drawer

I was up in northern Michigan visiting my parents over the Christmas holiday, and I discovered that my mom had placed a Motorola Droid Razr M in a junk drawer.  I remember her being extremely frustrated with this phone, and the few times I looked at it for her, I noticed it was STUFFED with bloatware that couldn't be removed because they were all installed as system apps.

Anyway, sure, she says I can have it.  I have a project in mind for it that will probably place it back in their hands anyway, but I like it so much, it might be my new ATV GPS.  (The beautiful OLED screen is easier to read in sunlight!)
The Motorola "Droid" Razr M
Turns out, this is a great little phone!  It is a "world phone" (I'm old and I guess that term isn't used anymore), so it supports both CDMA and GSM.  It ships with the SIM unlocked, which means that should you leave the US, in theory you can plug a drug store SIM card in and get service.

The trouble is, Verizon has prevented the use of this "world phone" inside the United States on GSM networks.  If you try to insert an AT&T SIM card or a T-Mobile SIM card, you'll be SOL.  It turns out, as some smart guys on XDA have figured out, there is only one byte (arguably ONE BIT) that stands between you and your Razr M living on cheap drug store pay-as-you-go SIM cards here in the US.

Several years ago I mentioned on this blog that modern smartphones are amazing pieces of technology.  Where else can you find a high res, touch-sensitive color screen, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, USB, a 2000+ mAh battery, SD storage, and above all, a Linux kernel + Android?

Out of the junk drawer, this phone (and many others) can be immediately used for:
  • Standalone GPS navigation with an excellent app like OruxMaps (for Geocaching or for outdoor use)
  • Streaming music from Amazon or Google Play
  • Playing MP3s
  • Watching video on Netflix or YouTube
  • Casting video to Chromecast
  • Getting News and Weather
  • Reading books with the Kindle app
  • An Alarm Clock
  • Playing Games (MAME4droid or Angry Birds, anyone?)
  • this list doesn't end....

Once all the crapware is removed, the Razr M runs the stock Android 4 (Kit Kat) beautifully.  It also has near-field communication (NFC), which I don't even have on my daily driver phone (Moto G 1st gen).

A negative is that the Razr M lacks a gyro, which means it can't be used with Google Cardboard.

To prepare this phone for tinkering, we need to do a few things.


Root the device following these instructions.  This method took a little messing around, but I was able to get root this way in about 30 minutes.  One of my problems was that I had a flaky USB cable that was making data transfer a bit difficult.  This alternative root method may also work, and is said to be much easier.  I didn't discover it until later so I didn't try it.

Once rooted, install these apps from the Google Play Store.  All of these are pay apps and most of them are less than a pint of beer.  Some of them are less than a bottle of water.  Seriously.  If you spend maybe $15 on these apps, combined, you will have them forever AND you can use them on other Android projects.  Skip one visit to Chipotle and buy these instead:
  • Tasker (duh)
  • Secure Settings (with the Pro upgrade)
  • Titanium Backup
  • Optional: Busybox Pro (Pro has nicer installation options)


With root attained, we need to give the phone a courtesy flush.

The amount of crap Verizon ships with this phone is unimaginable.  There is no doubt that many first-time smartphone users have been soured on Android and switched to iOS because their experience with Android was poor.  Was the poor user experience the fault of Android, or was it all the bullshit installed on the phone that the user never wanted, and is unable to remove?  Most of these apps are just using data, consuming RAM, tracking location, and burping up useless notifications.

Does Apple allow their phones to be shipped to the end customer with so much garbage pre-installed?

Frozen apps appear with a blue bar in Titanium Backup
Using the extensive list here (look for the debloat list), freeze as many of these useless apps as you want using Titanium Backup.  Some of the apps, like Facebook and IMDB, can actually be completely removed without fear of screwing something up.  For other apps, it is safer to use the 'freeze' option in Titanium Backup to disable the app and make it invisible to Android.  If the phone starts misbehaving, you can easily unfreeze the apps to make them visible again.  The debloat list on XDA is extensive and perhaps overkill.  I *want* the Play Store and I *want* the YouTube app.  I don't want notifications from Verizon telling me to set up cloud storage.

In Titanium Backup, just press/hold on an app in the Backup/Restore list, then click the "Freeze!" button:

The button marked "Freeze!" will disable the app
and make it invisible to Android without actually removing anything

Airplane Mode

Since I don't plan to actually use this phone as a phone, it is best to put it into airplane mode.  This will disable all of the radios on the phone (Wifi, Bluetooth, and Cellular) and significantly increase battery life.  However, since you probably want to access the Play Store, you probably want to re-enable Wifi AFTER the phone is already in airplane mode.

You can use Tasker + Secure Settings to automatically enable Airplane mode at every boot, and subsequently re-enable Wifi.

Ready for Use!

That's it, with root and all of the crap removed, the phone runs really well and is ready to use immediately for any of the tasks I mentioned earlier.

I've got a project in mind that I will write more about in the future.


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