Android Xposed: tweak your phone's UI without installing custom ROMs

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Each Android device is a little different. It's the double-edged sword of a highly customizable operating system - it inevitably becomes highly customized. Device makers often spend a great deal of time crafting a software experience distinct from what you can get elsewhere. So every Android phone and tablet has its own unique UI quirks and foibles.

If you don’t dig a phone’s interface as designed by the manufacturer, you can change it. Doing so used to require installing a custom ROM, but now you don’t need to go to nearly so much trouble. If you can gain root access (which is not difficult on most devices) the software experience can be extensively tweaked with the Xposed Framework. Getting Xposed set up comes with a few risks, but it’s considerably faster and safer than flashing a custom ROM.

Backup and prepare

Before you deploy the Xposed Framework on your phone or tablet, there’s some housekeeping to be done. Since there is always a risk in making root-level changes, you want to make sure there are no important files that exist on the device and nowhere else. Just upload them to a cloud storage service or transfer them to a computer.

Even though Xposed carries less risk than flashing ROMs, it’s a good idea to do a full system backup. Since this is a root operation, you probably already have a custom recovery sitting on your device—most rooting methods require this. Before installing Xposed, make a system image backup.

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Before monkeying around with Xposed Framework, you'll want to back up your phone.

Common rooting tools TWRP and ClockworkMod have a top-level menus for backups, so just accept the defaults and let the recovery do its thing. This process takes five or ten minutes and the resulting file can be quite large, depending on how much system data you have. You’ll want to keep the backup on the device at least until Xposed is up and running, so it's easier to restore if something goes haywire. Better safe than sorry, right?

Once you’ve covered your rear end, grab the Xposed installer from the official site. Xposed isn't hosted in Google Play, so you need to enable Unknown Sources in the Security settings. Just save the APK for Xposed to your phone's internal storage.

Installation and modules

Xposed itself is not an app, but the installer is. Just launch the APK to deploy the framework in your /system directory. The process only takes a few minutes and will require a reboot afterward.

Xposed is compatible with almost all current phones, provided you have root access. The reboot after installation is the real test, though. If something goes wrong, your device might get stuck in a boot loop. If that happens, boot back into recovery mode (turn off your phone, then turn it on holding Power and Volume Up simultaneously) and restore the backup you made earlier. That should get you operational so you can try again. More than likely, everything will be fine and your device will reboot with Xposed running and ready.

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The Xposed Framework by itself doesn't do much; you load in modules to customize your device.

Xposed by itself doesn’t actually do anything—all the modifications are handled by modules you plug into Xposed. Modules can be sideloaded just like the installer or downloaded from the Xposed GUI, which you can access from the app drawer. There are also some modules distributed in Google Play.

When you install a module, it needs to be enabled in the Xposed module menu. Usually a reboot is necessary as well. When the device boots back up you can make changes to Android’s UI and features in real time—no more rebooting required. With a few modules, you can get all the features of the best ROMs without modifying any system files!

Anyone with a stock Android device (Nexus and Google Experience devices) should grab GravityBox. This single module offers a huge number of customizations from the lock screen to the Quick Settings drop-down, and a lot more. The GravityBox app is organized as a simple series of menus, so you can just peruse and make the changes you want. Some of the more useful alterations include replacing the stock battery meter with a numeric circle icon, adding tiles and rearranging the Quick Settings drop-down, and adding reboot options to the power menu.

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Changing tiles in the Quick Settings menu.

For users of non-stock Android phones, the capabilities of Xposed might be even more intriguing. If Samsung’s TouchWiz or HTC’s Sense layers don’t include the features you want, there are modules to change them. Wanam Xposed is a module designed for phones like the Galaxy Note 3 and Galaxy S4 with features similar to GravityBox—it aggregates a ton of useful mods into one package. It includes (among other things) the ability to change the color and transparency of UI elements, universal Multi-Window support, and the option to disable Samsung’s excessive persistent notifications. HTC One users can grab the Sense 5 Toolbox for an assortment of mods, including some stock Android tweaks to replace the heavily skinned Sense ones.

There are also Xposed modules that can be installed to almost any device, providing only one or two very specific tweaks. For instance, there is Tinted Status Bar, which changes the color of your status bar to match the UI of the app you’re in. So if you open Google Play Music, that bright orange color will extend up to the status bar. If you don’t care for the icons used on your device, the Unicon module can change them system wide without replacing the launcher.

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You can even make your status bar match the background color.

On the more utilitarian side of things, there is AppOpsXposed, which brings back the native App Ops UI recently removed by Google. Are you tired of that wireless charging notification sound? Lucky for you there’s a module called Wireless Charging Xposed that lets you modify it. Almost anything you can think of can add to the stock ROM on your device in a few moments.

You can always go home

Xposed lets you assemble exactly the features and UI elements you want on your phone, and you don’t have to deal with flashing a ROM. That’s certain to save you a headache, but there is another big advantage to Xposed. It only takes a few taps to disable everything and get back to the stock interface. All traces of Xposed on the system can be wiped just by tapping uninstall in the Xposed settings. Try doing that with ROMs!

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Maybe the best thing about Xposed, you can undo everything!

All the changes in Xposed are softmods—that is, they reside in active memory and do not modify any system files. That’s why you can make changes with a module on the fly and see the effects without a reboot. If you disable your modules and uninstall Xposed, everything is back to normal after a reboot.

This kind of flexibility is important for OTA updates—your phone or tablet can be updated normally after you’ve disabled the Xposed modules. If you install a ROM to customize your phone, it is up to you to flash updated builds of that ROM to your device when they're availble. With Xposed, you can get virtually any feature you want in the stock ROM, and still get the official updates as soon as they come out.

You may find that playing around with the Xposed framework scratches that customization itch in just the right way. Xposed is as good a reason as any to root a device, and has even cured some ROM flashing addicts of their affliction.

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