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I have successfully created my own custom firmware and loaded it onto a phone. But I was wondering why I didn't need to sign the firmware before loading it, or was it signed with a debug key similar to when you test your own android app?

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Did you install it to on the phone with a custom recovery menu? They often have the signature check disabled by default, so that could be a possibility. – eldarerathis Aug 19 '11 at 16:42
I installed it on a Nexus one and just loaded my images through the bootloader – Hank Aug 19 '11 at 16:43

AFAIK the N1 doesn't require signed firmware, at least not once you unlock the bootloader -- it's a dev phone. Unofficial confirmation:

I specifically purchased a Nexus One because it supports the ability to flash the phone with unsigned firmware.

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What about other phones? – Hank Aug 19 '11 at 18:11
@Hank It's possible with some, but not all. The Galaxy S can have a custom recovery installed once you've rooted it, for example, and naturally the custom recovery doesn't check to see if the firmware's signed. – Matthew Read Aug 19 '11 at 18:15

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