I have sort of a history of bending android devices to my will. It’s sort of what I do, and while I’m not going to claim credit for the work done in this post, I will say that that experience fueled it. So as you read through this, bear in mind that I’m experienced, and have a pretty good idea of what to do to get myself out of trouble when android mods go sideways. Yes, I’ve bricked a few devices, rendering them useless, but that’s been few and far between.
I currently have a Google Pixel as my daily phone, and to be honest, it’s great. Every now and then I get this urge to fiddle with it, mainly because the amount of things it knows about me (and is certainly sending back to google) is downright creepy. On the whole though, it’s very functional phone, and I don’t want to mess that up. My kids though, have my old Nexus 7 2012. They use it to watch youtube videos, learn on abcmouse.com, and do other things that young children do with tablets. That device is old, it runs android KitKat (4.4) and it’s slowly but surely showing signs of battery fatigue. So I started hunting for replacements. We have two kids, and one tablet, so I thought I’d try to get them each their own (any parent can likely relate). I looked at samsung first, because they do make solid devices, and though I don’t love them for my own personal use, I think they’d be a good option for kids, who honestly don’t care about the UI.
I found a candidate, a 7″ samsung Galaxy Tab. About $120 and spec’d well enough to serve my needs. Until I looked a little closer. Andoid 5.5, sure, it’s better than KitKat, but it’s not what I’d expect from a “new” tablet. Any device that I can pick up at a store should, minumum, be running android 6. If it’s still on 5, I doubt the company’s commitment to keeping the thing up to date. I’ll end up in the same boat as I am now in a few years. So I moved on. There just wasn’t any other tablet I felt I could trust in my price range. There’s no way I’m handing my kids a $400-$600 tablet to slowly destroy.
Then I remembered something a co-worker told me. He’d bought an Amazon Fire Tablet for his kid, who’s just a little older than my oldest. He said it came with a kid mode, and parental controls. Sounded like a good bet. I did a quick search over on XDA-Developers, and found that these things actually had an active community of hackers. Score. I went to Amazon and ordered one for $40. Yes, a $40 7″ tablet! They have two models, one that’s ad supported, and one for $20 more that has no ads. I ordered the cheapest, ad supported, one. It arrived 2 days ago, and I got to work.
Amazon has taken android, blugeoned it about the head and neck, and re-released it on their Fire devices as Amazon Fire OS. It’s fine for doing the things amazon wants you to do with it. Nice integration with amazon’s kindle library, and video. The thing that ruined it for me though, was their complete shunning of the Google Play market. I have alots of apps that I’ve bought there over the years, many for my kids, and I wanted to use them on the Fire, without having to pay for them again.
Luckily, I’m a hacker, and I absolutely live for these sorts of barriers. I quickly found a method of getting the google play store on the Fire. Turns out its as easy as finding the APK’s for the Play market, and the various supporting API’s that make it work. Then you install them as “unknown sources” on the Fire. This worked, and I got my apps installed. Then I tried out their kid mode. Made a profile for my oldest daughter, and started configuring it. It actually works really well. You switch to the kid profile, and it locks the kid out of android, and gives them a very simplified app list. They’re unable to leave kid mode without the adult’s pin. The adult gets to pick which apps are available to the kid. So far, so good. Here’s the rub. Apps installed from the google play market, aren’t even listed as apps to make available to the kid profile. Seriously. W T F amazon. I get it, they sold me this thing so cheap to make money on my consumerism.
Luckily, I’m a hacker, and I absolutely live for these sorts of barriers.
I started researching via that XDA community I mentioned earlier. To see what my options were. I found a thread regarding my exact problem, not being able to add google apps to the kid profile. It was 3 years old, and had a several page string of replies. I skimmed through it, and no one seemed to have a real solution. Some people mentioned using the Android App, Kid’s Place. I already have Kid’s Place on that Nexus 7, and I’d already tried it on the Fire. It worked, but the lockout mechanisms werent right. There were too many ways for the kid to exit Kid’s place, and I didn’t want that. It seemed my only avenue was to wipe this thing out, and put AOSP on it.
To do that, there’s a series of steps you need to walk through. First, you need root, then you need an app called FlashFire, which will let you flash roms. Then you need a compatible rom, and you can flash it with FlashFire. Of course amazon is fighting you every step of the way. They want your money, and they cant force you into their walled garden if they don’t control your OS.
I found a very useful YouTube video explaining how to get Root. It’s here. The camera work is almost painful, but the tech is sound, and it got me what I needed. The basics are, get your fire tablet to FireOS 5.3.1 (more on that in a bit), then get root. There’s no root for newer FireOS releases than 5.3.1, yet. Getting to 5.3.1 is the biggest hurdle. When you unbox your Fire, it’ll likely be at something older (or equal to) 5.3.1, but will start madly downloading updates the second you connect it to wifi. If you have no intention of using it as it came, I’d recommend not even connecting it to the Internet until you’re working on rooting it (which seems to require internet access). If you let your tablet get to the latest firmware (220.127.116.11 as fo this writing), you will BRICK YOUR DEVICE if you try to downgrade it to 5.3.1.
Once you have root, you can actually turn off the ads, and lock the updater. So if you wanted to use the device with root, and no ads, you could stop right there, and rejoice at saving yourself $20 on the ad free version. I didn’t, I had loftier goals.
The video describes how to install the root exploit tool, superuser, and flashfire. I found that the versions packed in the tool he uses were horribly buggy. I got root, installed superuser, and had to upgrade it via the Play market to get it stable. Then I had to rip out the version of flashfire they installed, and download it from the market as well. Once I did those things, I was ready to go.
The XDA community, I mentioned above, created a very useful index for various things related to this tablet. It’s here. XDA is great. Chances are, if there’s a hack for whatever andoid device you’re wrestling with, you’ll find it on XDA. They’ve been my go-to for android hacks since my very first device, the HTC Droid Incredible (which was so much nicer with Cyanogenmod on it!). Go check it out, that index has lots of info about what tools are out there to help you in your liberation efforts. Including a list of roms, and what state theyre in. Which is what I was interested in. If you get a bad rom, you’re going to hate yourself afterwards. Sure, you can always flash another, but it’s useful to get some input from the community first. I ended up picking the Nexus Rom for the Fire. Mainly because it’s based on CyanogenMod, which is now a dead project, unfortunately. However, LineageOS doesn’t yet have support for the Fire. Once it does, i’ll be switching to that. Nexus Rom is android 5.1. Unfortunate, but again, i’m not locked into it.
The good stuff
Like I said, I ended up with Nexus Rom. I could give you all the details on installing it, but it’s right there on XDA, go follow that. It’s pretty easy with FlashFire. I did make a backup first to an SDCard. Then I placed the ROM file for Nexus on the same SDCard, and installed it right from there. After I was on a sane android platform, the rest was easy. I installed the apps I wanted, installed Kid’s Place, and setup a nice friendly environment for my 6 year old. I’ll be picking up a second Fire to do the same with for her younger sister in the next few weeks.
In the end, I ended up with a $40 android tablet that, while it’s not a high performer, is great for my kids. I could imagine using a fire tablet for lots of other simple uses. It’s light, cheap, and moddable. Perfect for browsing the web, netflixing, or facebooking. After all, what else is a tablet used for these days? I’m considering picking up one for my own uses. I have a project or two that could benefit from an integrated touch interface. 😉