Rooting is a subject which appears again and again if you search for anything related to Android. There are very busy websites and forums dedicated to nothing else, and even the mainstream websites (like this one) will have one or more features about it. But what is Rooting? What are the advantages and disadvantages? More importantly, should you do it and what are the risks? Hopefully this post will help you answer those questions and more.
What is Rooting?
You may have heard about Jailbreaking on the iPhone, well rooting is a similar process. Rooting gives the user privileged access, or root access, to the inner workings of the Android OS. This allows you to bypass some of the limitations software and hardware developers put on their products. A user with a rooted phone will typically be able to install custom software (called ROM’s), increase performance by essentially overclocking the processor, upgrade to a newer version of the Android OS even if the handset is locked to an older version.
The term rooting comes from the fact that Android is based on Linux and the most privileged user on any Linux operating system is called Root.
The first phone to be rooted was actually the first commercially available Android phone, the T-Mobile G1 or HTC Dream. Clever members of the new Android community quickly realised that anything typed on the keyboard was interpreted as a command in the root shell. Although Google released a patch to fix this exploit, a signed image of the exploitable firmware was leaked and rooting Android continued to be explored.
Is Rooting Allowed?
We should make this very clear: Rooting your phone will invalidate the warranty provided by your carrier. If you choose to root your phone (and we are neither suggesting you do or that you do not in this guide) you must be prepared for the possibility that you will end up with a ‘bricked’ phone and absolutely no comeback. Bricking your handset basically means totally killing it so that it ends up being about as useful as a brick (albeit a shiny, pretty-looking brick).
That said, rooting your phone is completely legal (at least in the UK and US) and Google, as far as we can tell, doesn’t seem to have an opinion on users rooting their phones. If Google were against rooting, you can be sure that the hundreds of root-only apps on Android Market would be gone in flash. Despite the legality of the process, several smartphone manufacturers have begun to add anti-root security at a hardware level to try to stamp out the practice.
Benefits of Rooting
Rooting your phone can potentially have both benefits and drawbacks. Lets take a look at some of the benefits first.
Custom Software (ROM’s)
The ability to install custom ROM’s onto your Android device is really the main advantage of Rooting. The first custom ROM’s for Android consisted of minor tweaks to the system software but now, just a few years later, custom ROM’s can be used to almost completely alter how your phone looks, behaves and performs.
You can get ROM’s containing new UI’s, the latest version of Android or utilities for overclocking the CPU. Essentially, a custom ROM is a version of the OS, including the Kernel, services and apps which make it work, but altered in some way to add extra benefits or with certain functions unlocked/added.
In some cases, Custom ROM’s don’t add to the original OS, but actually take things out like superfluous apps and services which might be slowing the OS down or using up memory that could be better used by something else. One of the most popular ROM’s is CyanogenMod.
Installing Custom ROM’s is not the same thing as Rooting your phone. The ability to install ROM’s comes from the act of Rooting.
Rooting your device gives you full control over what software and services you have on it. You are no longer stuck with Carrier-sponsored apps that you might never use or ever want. If you don’t need it, you can just remove it.
Rooting also gives you access to a much wider range of customisation. You can alter almost any aspect of a theme, without changing the theme itself. Like the theme but hate the style of the keyboard? Change it! Bored of the icons? Download hundreds more for free.
Android 2.2 (Froyo) introduced the option to back up apps to the SD card, but the option still has to be enabled by app developers. Rooting your phone lets you install Custom ROM’s with the inbuilt ability to backup any app, not matter what options the developer decided to include.
You can also back up the whole system to the SD card, similar to the way you can create an image of your PC hard drive if you ever need to restore from a major problem. This means that you can try out different ROM’s, and then just restore to your saved version if you don’t like the new one. This complete control over what you do with your Android device is the key to why Rooting is becoming so popular. You will need an app such as ROM Manager installed on your rooted phone before you can create a image of the system (unless you want to do some messing around with the command line).
Drawbacks of Rooting
So far, Rooting your phone may be sounding like a no-brainer. However, it is important to understand that there are downsides to rooting and it certainly isn’t going to be an option for everyone.
Bricking Your Phone
The term bricking or bricked has been applied to electrical devices for a while now and simply means that the device cannot function in any capacity (and is therefore about as good at it’s specified use as a brick). Bricking your phone whilst trying to root it or install a new custom ROM is a real possibility.
Your Android phone is a complicated bit of kit (for most people anyway) as is the software that runs on it. If you are not 100% sure that a) you understand what you are doing and b) can afford to lose the cost of a new phone, then rooting may not be for you.
The most common causes of a bricked phone are often things that could be easily avoided. The battery running out in the middle of installing a new ROM is one such common mistake. The ROM only partly installs and then it is pretty hard to get the phone to do anything once you have charged it (it may not even charge..) Another common error is to assume that every custom ROM works on every Android phone. Even the most popular ROM, CyanogenMod is limited in the number of phones it will work on.
Playing with the system software in inherently risky for non-programmers, but there are certainly several things you can do to make the risk smaller. If you decide you want to have a go at rooting your phone, make sure you read as much as you can about it first, and make sure that the information is specific to your model of phone.
Because you will be installing software from unknown sources, there is always the possibility that something nasty could be included in the software package. You could be giving someone (via their ROM or app) Superuser rights to your phone. This means that they could access EVERYTHING and ANYTHING on your phone.
One way to avoid this is to stick to well known ROMs or Apps and reasearch things properly before you install it. Check Android Rooting forums and see if the software you are planning to install has been recommended or if there are examples of other users having problems.
Once your phone is rooted there are several ways to overclock the CPU to gain more speed and better performance. Whilst this is fine if you stick within the workable limits of the hardware, if you do not set fail-safe limits you run the risk of burning out the processor and killing your lovely smartphone.
Again, if you decide to overclock your rooted phone, check first to see what the CPU can handle. Read as much as you can before making nay major changes and stick to overclocking apps which allow you to set fail-safe limits based on temperature.