Is the allure of being a superuser tempting you? Android rooting opens up a world of possibility, but it can also void your warranty, or even leave you with a bricked device. The important thing is to be careful. Read up about what you are going to do before you begin. Make sure that you backup your data. Follow the instructions to the letter. Manufacturers and carriers have a vested interest in dissuading you from rooting. If you’re careful, the risk is minimal, and the potential benefits are impressive. Let’s take a closer look.
Around since the early days of the T-Mobile G1 (HTC Dream), rooting can add functionality to a phone and often extend the life of the device. The T-Mobile G1, for instance, was officially supported through Android 1.6 Donut, but if you rooted the phone, you could load an alternative developer-made version of the OS that offered most of Android 2.2 Froyo’s features.
I’m going to share some of rooting’s benefits and risks, where to find some great replacements for the default Android OS, and a few other tips. If you have any of your own that I haven’t covered here, please add them to the comments below.
Rooting, in a nutshell, is the process that provides users with full administrator control and access to an Android smartphone or tablet. Similar to “jailbreaking” an iOS device, this is often done in order to bypass carrier or handset maker limitations or restrictions. Once you achieve “root access,” you can replace or alter applications and system settings, run specialized apps, and more.
One of the more common reasons to root a phone is to replace the operating system with a ROM, another developer’s version of the OS that also gives you more control over details. In rooting culture, we’d call that “flashing a custom ROM.”
The process of rooting an Android phone varies for each device, but seems to have been streamlined over time. Google’s Nexus line of phones, such as the LG-made Nexus 4, appeals to developers and techie types and are among the most often rooted models. With that in mind, you’ll also find that popular devices like the Samsung Galaxy S3 and HTC One X+ have plenty of custom ROMs to choose from.
Note that rooting will void the device warranty; however, flashing a stock ROM can revert things back to their original state.
There are multiple reasons for you to consider rooting your Android handset, some more obvious than others. Chief among the benefits is the ability to remove any unwanted apps and games that your carrier or phone maker installs before you ever unwrap your phone. Rather than simply disabling these bloatware titles, which is often the best you can do within Android, rooting can grant you a full uninstallation. Deleting apps you’ll never use can also free up some additional storage capacity.
Another main benefit of rooting is to enable faster platform updates. From the time it takes for Google to announce a new version of Android to the time your carrier pushes it to your device can be on the order of weeks, months, or even longer. Once rooted, you can often get some of the new platform features through custom ROMs in short order. This could, for some users, add years of life to an Android handset — rather than buy a new phone, flash a new ROM.
Other reasons to root a phone include being able to perform complete device backups, integrate tethering and mobile hot-spot features, and extend the device’s battery life through newfound settings and controls.
What are the risks?
As I mentioned above, rooting your device can void your warranty. This is perhaps the biggest risk associated with playing around with your phone. If you run into big trouble and you’ve added a custom ROM build, your manufacturer and carrier likely won’t help you out.
In most cases, you’ll be able to overturn any ROM you flash, returning to the phone’s stock Android OS with as much ease as you installed the new ROM in the first place. However, a word of caution. If you’re not careful, or don’t follow the steps properly, you could end up with a glorified paperweight. Yes, I’m talking about “bricking” your device. It’s vitally important that you exercise caution when attempting to root your phone and pay close attention to what you’re doing.
Stick to the more reputable sources for help and feedback, and look for the most recent news about ROMs and your particular Android device. Along those lines, you’ll also want to ensure that you read through everything you can before starting down this road. If you’re in a forum thread, skim the replies to see if there are issues or problems with your particular handset.
For help with rooting, I would first recommend XDA developers, AndroidCentral forums, Androidforums, and Rootzwiki. I also suggest checking Google+ as a good source for rooting and modding news and feedback. The rooting scene is not some secret underground Fight Club; you’ll find plenty of documented help for rooting your phone. Filter your results by date, read through the details, and understand what it is you are about to do.
CyanogenMod is one of the oldest and feature-rich ROMs available.(Credit: CyanogenMod)
More about ROMs
For all practical purposes, (custom) ROMs are replacement firmware for Android devices that provide features or options not found in the stock OS experience. Often built from the official files of Android or kernel source code, there are more than a few notable ROMs to consider. Among the more popular custom ROMs are CyanogenMod, Paranoid Android, MIUI, and AOKP (Android Open Kang Project). There are, of course, countless others to check out, with more arriving almost daily.
In terms of sheer support and development, CyanogenMod is the clear leader in this field. The number of supported devices is unparalleled and the community has long rallied around this ROM. This is not meant to say that it’s necessarily the “best” ROM; beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Closely resembling the stock Android experience, CyanogenMod has been known to introduce features that later end up in official builds of Android. As of today there are more than 4.2 million active installations of CyanogenMod releases, with v10.1 (based on Android 4.2 Jelly Bean) being the latest.
Paranoid Android is one of the more popular custom ROMs for Android.(Credit: Paranoid Android)
Where to look for ROMs
Forums are going to be a great place to keep yourself plugged in, but the larger ROM developers will provide their own Web sites. Aside from the aforementioned custom ROMs, others that have gained a strong following include SynergyROM, Slim Bean, LiquidSmooth, RevoltROM, and Xylon. Be warned: talking about ROMs can often result in heated debate as to which is better or offers more options.
Aside from installing custom ROMs, rooting your phone opens the door to installing new apps and gaining extended device management and security functionality beyond what comes with the usual Android OS experience.
Should you decide to not load a new ROM interface, you can still install apps that add new levels of functionality to your rooted Android phone. Today’s more popular titles include ROM Toolbox Pro, Titanium Backup, Touch Control, Cerberus anti-theft, and SetCPU. The appeal of each will vary depending upon on how much you want to tweak your Android experience.
For those of you who plan to flash ROMs on a regular basis, I recommend starting with ROM Manager. This utility lets users manage backups and recoveries, install ROMs, and other handy functions. While it is available as a free app, the premium client has ROM update notifications, nightly ROM downloads, set automatic backups, and other features.
ROM Toolbox Pro is a handy utility for rooted users.(Credit: JRummy Apps)
When it comes to rooting your phone, it is always a good idea to have backup plans in place. After all, you’ll need something to fall back on should you run into an issue with an untested or experimental ROM. While Titanium Backup seems to be the most popular, Carbon has gained quite a fan base of late. Regardless of which route you take, it’s important to create a backup and test it before you apply a custom ROM.
Become familiar with the process and make sure that you’ll be able to restore things in the event of a catastrophe. It might take some practice and you could spend more time than you’d like creating this backup, but it could be all that stands between you and expensive phone repair.
Indeed, there is plenty to consider when it comes to rooting your Android phone. Rest assured, though, that no matter how daunting the task might seem, there’s a large community of users out there who will have your back. And while the actual rooting process varies with each handset model, on the whole, it isn’t as difficult as it may sound.
If you’ve read through this post and still don’t know if rooting is for you, my suggestion is to give it more time and mull it over. Replacing the default Android OS certainly isn’t for everyone and there’s quite a bit more on the topic besides. For many people, myself included, the rewards of tweaking your Android phone to have it exactly the way you want it are worth the risk.
What is rooting?
If you’re an Administrator on a Windows machine, you have access to the entire operating system and you can do whatever you like. That’s essentially what happens if you root your Android device. With root access, you can get around any restrictions that your manufacturer or carrier may have applied. You can run more apps; you can customize your device to a greater degree; and you can potentially speed it up in a variety of ways.
The process involves backing up your current software and then flashing (installing) a new custom ROM (modified version of Android).
Why would you root?
One of the most obvious incentives to root your Android device is to rid yourself of the bloatware that’s impossible to uninstall. You’ll be able to set up wireless tethering, even if it has been disabled by default. You can also access your entire file system, install special apps that require a root, and flash custom ROMs, which can add extra features and streamline your phone or tablet’s performance. A lot of people are tempted by the ability to completely customize the look of their phones. You can also manually accept or deny app permissions.
You won’t find a lot of amazing must-have apps when you root, but there are enough to make it worthwhile. For example, some apps allow you to automatically backup all of your apps and all of their data, completely block advertisements, create secure tunnels to the Internet, overclock your processor, or make your device a wireless hotspot.
Why wouldn’t you root?
There are essentially three potential cons to rooting your Android.
- Voiding your warranty: Some manufacturers or carriers will use rooting as an excuse to void your warranty. It’s worth keeping in mind that you can always unroot. If you need to send the device back for repair, simply flash the original backup ROM you made and no one will ever know that it was rooted.
- Bricking your phone: Whenever you tamper too much, you run at least a small risk of bricking your device. This is the big fear everyone has. The obvious way to avoid it happening is to follow instructions carefully. Make sure that the guide you are following works for your device and that any custom ROM you flash is designed specifically for it. If you do your research and pay attention to feedback from others, bricking should never occur.
- Security risks: Rooting may introduce some security risks. Depending on what services or apps you use on your device, rooting could create a security vulnerability. For example, Google refuses to support the Google Wallet service for rooted devices.
How to root your Android
Before you actually try to root your device, make sure that you do some reading. The best place to find discussions about rooting, guides, and custom ROMs is definitely the XDA Developers Forum. Look for a thread on your specific device and you’re sure to find a method that has worked for other people. It’s worth spending some time researching the right method for your device.
Preparation for root
You’ll want to ensure that your device is fully charged before you begin. You’ll also need to turn USB debugging on. On the Galaxy S3 you’ll find it in Menu > Settings > Developer options and then check the box next to USB debugging. You will likely be plugging your device into your computer in order to root it.
Most Android rooting methods require you to install some software on your computer. It’s likely you’ll need to install the Android SDK. You may find other software is required. Make sure you follow the instructions and install all of it before proceeding.
One of the easiest methods of rooting, which also supports a long list of devices, is SuperOneClick. You’ll find clear instructions, including a video, on how to use it at this XDA Developers SuperOneClick thread.
You will need to install some software to prepare, but the actual rooting process is one click. It will only take a few minutes to complete and then you’ll need to restart your Android device.
There is software out there that claims to provide one click rooting with no extra installs, but you should not have to pay to root your device and it’s very important to be wary about the method you choose. If in doubt, do more research. The XDA Developers forum is the most trustworthy source for rooting guides.
Your specific device
The reason rooting isn’t more straightforward is that all Android devices are not created equal. There are significant differences between Android smartphones, between manufacturers, and even between carrier specific versions of the same phone model. Make sure that any rooting guide or custom ROM you intend to use does support your specific device or you are asking for trouble.
Once you have found the right guide for your phone or tablet, it’s simply a case of working through the listed steps methodically. It can be a complicated procedure and it can take a while. Here’s an example guide for rooting the Samsung Galaxy S3. It can appear intimidating at first glance, but provided you follow it step-by-step, it should be a pain-free process. You can post questions in the XDA Developers forum if you run into trouble.
To root or not to root
Gaining full root access to your Android device can be thrilling, especially if you want to tinker with settings and customize your device. How much it changes your experience depends largely on the device you have. If you have a shuttered device, like a Kindle Fire tablet, then it’s a great way to get the full Android experience.
The potential benefits for all Android users include improved battery life, root-only apps, custom ROMs, overclocking, an end to bloatware, improved performance, and the ability to upgrade your phone when you want. If you aren’t excited at the prospect of any of these things, rooting probably isn’t for you.
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