There's a lot to love about Android, but one problem that plagues the mobile platform is the variety of different interface skins. Samsung has TouchWiz, HTC does the Sense UI, Asus has Zen UI, and on and on it goes.
If you're tired of all the nonsense and just want stock Android you have two options: Buy a device among the limited selection of Google Play Edition devices or install a new Android ROM that brings your phone or tablet to a vanilla state.
Today, we're going to explore that second option by installing CyanogenMod, the ROM pre-installed on the OnePlus One, using Cyanogen's almost one-click installer for Windows.
Getting the stock version of Android isn't the only reason to try CyanogenMod. The publicly available, free Android ROM also comes with some neat features like themes, granular privacy permissions, and access to apps requiring root permissions—though it leaves the Android basics well enough alone. The ROM also gives you root access to your phone, essentially letting you do whatever you'd like to its software, making it highly customizable.
CyanogenMod is used by lots of people worldwide and the stable version is a very reliable version of Android. However, messing around with your phone's operating system always carries at least a small chance you'll end up bricking the device. Proceed at your own risk.
Back-up and check
Before we do anything, it's best to make sure all your data is backed up. Installing CyanogenMod will completely wipe your device and return it to a fresh state. If your device is heavily integrated with Google's services then your email, contacts, and list of installed apps should already be tied to your Google account.
As for your photos, they may be backed up to the cloud as well through services like Google+, Dropbox, and OneDrive. But these are all opt-in features that do not happen automatically.
The key is to make sure your back-up is saved to an external web service or a PC, since you will be wiping all data off your smartphone or tablet.
Finally, before we get serious about installing CyanogenMod it doesn't hurt to make sure your device is compatible with the OS. Check on Cyanogen's site to be sure.
Also, your battery should be well charged before beginning this process. Even better, plug in your phone.
Download the mobile app
Installing CyanogenMod requires two apps: one on your Android device and one on your Windows PC. But the mobile app is not available in Google Play, so first we have to prepare your Android device for installing apps from unapproved sources.
Open the Settings app on your Android phone and tap on the Security heading. On the next page, look for the Unknown sources option and check the box next to it. Next tap OK on the warning box that appears.
Now download the CyanogenMod app from the ROM's site. Once it's downloaded to your device, pull down the notifications drawer and tap the item that says OneClick.apk Download complete and then tap Install.
Once the app is ready to go, open it up and tap Begin. Next, you'll see a warning that CyanogenMod could end up bricking your phone in rare cases. Since we live on the edge (and we've already made sure CyanogenMod works with our device), tap I Agree.
Now, you'll be asked to modify one or two settings on your phone, including USB debugging and your phone's USB camera connection. Depending on your device you may have to enable both features or just one. In the case of USB debugging, tap the Continue button and a screen from the Settings app will open. Look for the USB debugging option and enable it.
After that's done, your phone is ready for CyanogenMod.
Now, we turn to the PC.
Download and install the CyanogenMod Installer for Windows and the connect your phone to your PC via USB.
Now just follow any instructions that pop-up on the screen.
You'll be asked, for example, to confirm installation, and to enable USB debugging a second time from a pop-up window on your Android device.
You'll also have to unlock your device's bootloader by manipulating the physical buttons on your phone. The key during this part is to only touch your device if instructed to by the CM installer on your PC.
It's all very straightforward and after a little while you'll have a fresh install of CyanogenMod on your phone or tablet.
In my tests with a first-generation Nexus 7 the installation process took less than ten minutes, including device reboot, once I'd started the process on my PC.