When you buy an Android smartphone, you usually don’t have much of a clue as to when or if it will receive software updates. Sometimes this isn’t a big concern for an end user, but to others it is important that they’re running the latest software on their device. For Android users, this is where Google’s Nexus programme comes in. Nexus devices run stock Android and are guaranteed speedy updates to the latest version for a period of around 2 years.

However, being on the latest version isn’t always a good thing. Specifically here, I’m going to be talking about the Nexus S, but it’s easily applicable to other, older devices. The Nexus S was the flagship phone for Android 2.3 Gingerbread, released at the end of 2010. It has a single core, 1GHz processor and 512MB of RAM. Great specs for the day, but with the latest Nexus device coming with a quad core 1.5GHz chip and a full 2GB of RAM, it’s struggling to keep up.

For those of you who aren’t here for tech specs and other such fun statistics, how can you speed up a phone that’s maybe a bit long in the tooth, struggling to multitask or just feeling sluggish? There are a number of ways, which I’ll discuss here. Whilst some of them may seem difficult and complex to non-technical folk, they aren’t usually as hard as they appear, and they can be very rewarding.

Simple Steps

Firstly, there are the basics which you should always attempt first before moving on to the more involved procedures. These include:

  • Uninstalling old apps that you don’t use any more.
  • Checking app settings, for example to make sure your Facebook app isn’t trying to sync every minute and constantly running down your battery.
  • Deleting old text messages to speed up the SMS app a little.
  • Clearing the cache of apps like the browser and Google Maps, which can run into dozens of megabytes and reduce your performance. You’ll find the “Clear Cache” button under the app’s entry in Settings > Apps.

You may also have heard about Task Killer apps, such as Advanced Task Killer. In general, these are a Bad Thing. Android’s memory management is pretty efficient and works well, and the task killers can actually have a negative impact on this. You want your memory to be full (RAM, not storage) – otherwise it’s sitting around literally doing nothing. If Android needs more RAM, it will close apps you haven’t used for a while to free up resources as it sees fit – you closing them all at once is a big headache. 

These steps will likely give you a little performance boost, but you can go much, much further in the pursuit of a little speed boost.

Advanced Steps

You may have heard of custom ROMs – customised versions of Android that run faster, or have longer battery life or other extra features, than your current version. If you already have a custom ROM, you’ll know, and you can stop reading now because you’ll already know how to flash another one!
For you to flash (install) a custom ROM onto your device, you tend to need a few things first.

  • Your phone needs to be rooted
  • Your phone needs to have an unlocked bootloader.
  • You need to install a custom recovery

Don’t worry if you don’t know what any of that is – I’ll explain it and give some hints on where to look for instructions on how to do it yourself. A word of caution in addition to the hundreds you’ll see when reading the instructions, this stuff can wreck your phone. Having said that, I’ve never managed to do that and as long as you carefully follow all the instructions and ask for help on forums if you’re not sure, you’ll be fine.

Rooting your Phone
Contrary to popular belief, rooting your phone isn’t a magical solution that will instantly quadruple your performance. Instead, rooting gives you root permissions (like an Administrator account on Windows) to your phone that lets you use powerful apps and continue with the custom ROM process. To find out how to do this, search for “how to root [your phone make and model]” and look on MoDaCo and XDA Developers.
Unlocking your Bootloader
Not all phones can have their bootloader unlocked. All Nexus devices can by default, but some devices from other manufacturers are trickier and some are just impossible (such as the Intel-powered Orange San Diego). Unlocking your bootloader allows your phone to boot code that it doesn’t expect (ie- not the stock ROM, and usually a custom ROM). To find out how to do this, search for “how to unlock bootloader [your phone make and model]” and look on MoDaCo and XDA Developers.
Custom Recoveries
A custom recovery is like a special application that you can boot into, instead of Android. It allows you to backup and restore your phone, and other more advanced tasks like flashing new software, clearing caches or wiping partitions on your phone’s internal memory. Examples of custom recovery software are Clockworkmod and TWRP.

Once you’ve got all that set, it’s a simple process to download a new ROM and flash it to your device. I won’t go into the details here because there are hundreds of tutorials already out there, but hopefully this helps you to understand some of the less well explained parts of the process.
As a final troubleshooting tip, if you upgrade your custom ROM, or are having performance issues with an existing one, try booting into your recovery and wiping the Dalvik cache. Often, this fixes annoying crashes and sluggish performance, and it’s a good idea to wipe this after upgrades if you don’t usually. Remember to read all instructions carefully, and ask online for help if you’re not sure what a step means. It’s better to take the time to make sure than brick your device!