The Scourge that is Smartphone Bloatware

Buy a smartphone, you did, but do you really own it? You use your phone when new, but after a while the phone slows down. Is it the phone or are you just getting irritable and impatient with yourself. Relax and wait a bit, right? Maybe not, because your phone may actually be slowing down. It is at this point, around the 1.5 year mark, that you consider buying a new phone. Has your spanky new phone really degraded that much? Smartphones are at least a couple of hundred dollars, so buying a new one every 1.5 years can get very expensive. But do you really need a new one? Remove the bloatware from your phone first, then decide. Bloatware can account for 1/3d of all apps running on your phone, so removing them can make a significant positive difference to the smooth operation of your phone.

A smartphone is a small computer that is run on a battery. Of course if you drop it on the ground and it sustains physical damage then you’ll see the damage. Immerse it in water of any kind and it’ll sizzle itself to death. These are obvious ways to kill a smartphone. Of course the battery could go bad, but within 2 years with today’s lithium ion batteries this should not happen. There are very few other moving parts in a smartphone, maybe some rocker switches such as on/off, volume, and a few others. The micro usb port or headset jack might get damaged. Physical damage to a smartphone is expected, but should not slow down the phone’s daily operation. So why is your phone getting slower?

What is Bloatware and why is it bad? Bloatware are apps that come preloaded onto your phone, that you not only did not ask for, do not need and will not use, but that you also cannot remove. You might think that bloatware is benign, but you would be incorrect. Bloatware can load when you start your phone. It runs in the background sucking up precious processing power, disk space, phone memory and battery power. These innocuous apps can drag the performance of your phone down to its knees, making your phone laggy and unresponsive. Bloatware can also introduce security holes into the phone, risking the owner’s personal information. Lenovo found this out very recently. From any owner’s viewpoint, bloatware is bad.

If bloatware is so bad then why do smartphone companies include them? Bloatware encourages owners to use more services offered by the smartphone manufacturer, wireless carrier or any other 3d party company. They are advertising. App companies pay good money to smartphone manufacturers to add their apps to their phones, thus subsidizing the cost of your phone. You pay a cheaper price. Not only do smartphone manufacturers add bloatware, but so does your wireless service provider. This double conspiracy against the smartphone owner can really cripple the performance of the phone, and the owner pays the price with sub-par response and security concerns.

Over time your phone accumulates data, but so does the bloatware. Usually after 1.5 years your phone performance degrades to the point that you consider buying a new phone. Bloatware significantly contributes to you having to spend more money than required.

How much Bloatware is on my phone? You can remove bloatware from your phone but usually this is only possible for the technically savvy. After debloating three smartphones, 2 LGs and 1 Samsung, I estimate that up to 1/3d of all preloaded apps are bloatware. Take a 2 year old phone, debloat it, and it will perform better than new. As there are virtually no moving parts in a smartphone, this is desirable and possible.

  Winners Losers Reason
Bloatware Phone manufacturer,
wireless service provider
Phone owner Free advertising, subsidized phone, phone runs slower, phone is less secure
Phone Cost phone owner Phone manufacturer, wireless provider, 3d party app companies Phone is cheaper to buy, subsidized by advertising
Phone Performance   Phone owner Phone runs slower
Advertising phone manufacturer,
wireless provider,
3d party app companies
Phone owner App always present, Owner cannot delete app
Security Phone manufacturer, 3d party app companies Phone owner Personal info at risk, cannot delete app
Planned Obsolescence phone manufacturer, wireless phone provider Phone owner You’ll need a new phone in 1.5-2 years

There is no clear winner or loser here. The phone owner gets a cheaper phone but must tolerate slower performance and they’ll probably need to buy a new phone in 1.5 to 2 years. As phone processors become more powerful, RAM becomes more plentiful, and batteries become larger, you would think that phones will run faster. This probably will not be the case. A more powerful phone will allow for more bloatware, thereby nullifying any technological advances in smartphones. Technology alone cannot solve this problem.

The solution to this problem is to either buy a phone with minimal bloatware or to remove bloatware from your existing phone. In this way you will benefit from smartphone technical advances, your phone will last longer on a charge, and you will not have to replace your phone as often. These advantages are compelling.

Smartphone manufacturers and their Bloatware: Most but not all phone manufacturers include bloatware. Google’s Nexus line is renown for producing clean phones. Motorola also has minimal bloatware, most of which can be removed. Motorola apps can also be downloaded from the Google Play store. Samsung, LG and Lenovo are very famous for copious amounts of bloatware loaded on their phones. Know what you are buying with these manufacturers. Bloatware is such an important issue that all phone reviews include their views on the subject. Recent reviews of the Asus Zenfone 2 show a technically impressive phone but loaded down with bloatware. Despite the technical advantages, these are nullified by the inclusion of bad software. The phone is not worth buying.

Preparing to Remove Bloatware: Smartphones are, in general, locked down to prevent tampering by owners. For most people this is an advantage because “A little knowledge is dangerous” that could damage your phone. This makes bloatware removal difficult. I’ll discuss the process of bloatware removal for Android phones.

Locked Phones: Phones on contract are often locked by the wireless carrier. This prevents the owner from moving to another carrier. Locked phones are usually bought at a lower retail price but is made up for with a higher monthly bill. Carriers do not want you to take the phone to another carrier without paying for the whole cost of the phone, so they lock it. Unlocking the phone can be done by the carrier when you contract is up (You need to pay them to do this, ridiculous I know), or you can get an unlock code from the Internet for $10. Thankfully this scam is going away. Under no circumstances should you buy a locked phone from carrier or anyone. Locked phones cannot be rooted until they are unlocked.

Rooting a phone: While you might be the phone purchaser and owner, the phone has safeguards in place so that you do not inadvertently disable or maim it. For most owners this is important. In contrast, a Windows-based machine does not have these safeguards. An inquisitive owner could inadvertently delete a critical file and kill his machine. This does not happen on an Android device. Rooting the phone gives the phone owner the ability to do self-harm. With this responsibility comes the advantage of more control over the phone’s software. Rooting will include an app called SuperSu, which can grant other apps special powers to change the phone system. You can also unRoot a phone. If you are a tinkerer but often screw stuff up (you know who you are), then do not root your phone. Rooting your phone will usually invalidate your warranty, but you can always unroot it.

Installing a Recovery tool: So you’ve rooted your phone. The next step is to install a recovery tool. This tool is a tool that, with the right combo of button pressing, will start before your usual phone software, thus interrupting the usual phone booting process. This tool allows you to do backups, restores, amongst other important jobs. All phones do not come with this tool. For Android the options are ClockWorkMod (CWM) or TeamWin Recovery Project (TWRP). I use CWM. Starting with a phone that is off, with the right combination of Vol- and Home and Power, CWM will start, instead of the phone’s normal boot process. Before you mess with the OS of the phone, you need a backup, so if you make a mistake you can restore your backup. CWM also allows you to change Read Only Memory, or ROMs. You can change the complete OS of your phone, if you wish, by changing the ROM. ROMs are available all over the internet, for free. There are people out there that enjoy making their own changes to their ROM, and if you like it, you can load these onto your phone. Of course there are increased risks to doing this, but also much fun to be had. If you have a backup of your original phone ROM but wish to play with another ROM, with CWM you can always switch back to your original without any problems.

Removing Bloatware: Once your phone is rooted, you’ve installed a recovery tool such as CWM and you’ve done a backup, you can remove bloatware. The technically simplest solution is to download the Titanium Backup app and pay $6 for the upgraded version. This app will allow you to freeze and unfreeze an app. When frozen the app will not load or run, thus reducing your bloatware.

For those more technically adept, you can figure out how to connect your phone to your PC. Apps are in the /system/app directory with an extent of .apk. Rename these from .apk to apk.bak and your app will not load on your phone. This is the same as freezing the app.

Most phones come with lots of bloatware. The problem is to freeze only those apps that are not essential to your phone. Freeze the wrong app and your phone will malfunction, stop running or not boot. With root privilege comes responsibility. Be very careful what you freeze. Research the app on the internet and don’t take some unknown guy’s word in some unknown post that an app is safe to freeze. There are so many posts that simply list all the apks that they’ve frozen and they are Ok. Freeze this same list and your phone might react badly. Unless you have the exact same phone from the exact same wireless provider bought at the exact same time from the exact location in the world and you have the exact same user requirements, do your own research.

Be very careful with Google apps, or they might screw up your Google Play store, not allowing you to easily add apps to your phone. Google Newsstand, Music, Movies, Books, Gmail, and Google Plus are all removable.

Tips on Buying a New Phone

  1. Separate your wireless phone provider from your phone purchase. Find a wireless plan and then buy a phone from someone else. This prevents your wireless carrier from loading on their own bloatware. With this step you eliminated a source of bloatware.
  2. Find out what radio frequencies work with your wireless provider, then find a phone that uses those radio frequencies.
  3. Phone manufaacturer preferences: Google Nexus and Motorola load the least bloatware. Samsung is renown for lots. LG and Asus have their good share as well. You will need to root, CWM and debloat these phone manufacturer’s phones. This takes time and expertise. Do an internet search on how much bloatware is on the phone you want.
  4. Research how hard it will be to root and CWM a phone before you buy it. Some are harder than others. If the phone model comes with a locked bootloader, consider looking elsewhere. It can be a lot of trouble to unlock the bootloader, and may be impossible.
  5. Take a CWM backup and debloat if you can. After you debloat take another backup. Save this backup to a PC for safe keeping. If something bad happens you can do a full restore.
  6. Enjoy your phone.

ROMs Everywhere: ROMs are plentiful and numerous. In fact all phone manufacturers put out multiple ROMs for each phone. When there is a phone update over the air (OTA), they are using a new ROM. If you did not like the new changes you could revert your phone back to the previous ROM. There are phone manufacturer ROMs for different world locations, such as Canada, US, Europe, Asia. On top of this there are different phone manufacturer ROMs for different wireless carriers.

For example Big Weed uses Wind Mobile as her wireless carrier here in Canada, V21D ROM. We loaded her phone with the US T-Mobile wireless carrier ROM V20D, which came with the original version of her phone, but in the US. We then upgraded to T-Mobile V20H ROM, the most current ROM available for her phone model for the US wireless carrier. The phone still works with Wind Mobile’s wireless service without problem, the phone is the same, purchased in Canada, but the OS on the phone is from the US and boots up with the T-Mobile logo.

If in the future we dislike T-Mobile’s V20H ROM we can revert back to a previous ROM version (V20D or V20F), or back to the original Wind Mobile V21D ROM.

Locked Bootloader Similar to the lock that the wireless carrier can add, the phone manufacturer can lock the bootloader. This prevents you from loading a completely different ROM onto your phone. ROMs from the same phone manufacturer are usually Ok to load. Unlocking this bootloader is fraught with risk. With a locked bootloader you can still root the phone, install a recovery tool and load ROMs from the same phone manufacturer for your exact phone. While you cannot go crazy and install any ROM you wish, the advantage to a locked bootloader is that it is more difficult to royally screw up your phone. Some way, some how, with CWM you can get your phone back to being functional.

Playing with your phone can be a very stressful hobby, but do it right and there is a lot of satisfaction and fun. There is a lot of information out there, very often much too much. This is how the internet works. When phone owners from around the world converge with their specific phone manufacturer, model, rom version and world location, there are lots of permutations that make troubleshooting very confusing. Take it slow and learn, bit by bit.

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