So you’ve got yourself an Android phone and you’re interested in finding out just what it’s capable of. Maybe you’re tired of the stock look and feel of your device, or you aren’t interested in paying your service provider extra to set up your phone as a WiFi hotspot. Maybe you’re just curious. Whatever the inspiration that brought you to this point, now you’ve decided that you want to root your phone. But what does that mean, exactly? What can a rooted phone do that an unrooted phone can’t? Is it safe? How do you do it?
What is Rooting?
When you “root” your phone, what you are doing is granting yourself root-level system access. You’re sidestepping the limitations imposed by your carrier and will have control over virtually every aspect of your device. As a rooted user you can grant root level access to individual applications if they request it, which can allow them to make system changes not ordinarily permitted.
To further understand what it means to root your phone you have to understand a little bit about how the Android Operating System (OS) works. The Android Operating system is almost like two operating systems in one. On the surface is the application layer, which is where all of your apps live. Underneath that is what’s called the Linux Kernel. The kernel is the boss that really runs your device, and for the most part you don’t get to talk to the boss. When you run an application that requires a system resource like your camera, the app actually talks to the kernel and the kernel operates the camera. By default everything on an Android device is locked down unless the OS is told otherwise. This is what all of those android permissions are about; they tell the kernel that an application is allowed access to protected system resources or hardware. Once granted during installation, permissions will last forever and the interface between the application layer and the required system resources is seamless. Furthermore, for reasons of security and ease of use, device manufacturers and service providers will often impose their own limitations on what sort of system settings the user is allowed to modify directly. You cannot, for example, modify or remove applications pre-installed by your carrier (bloatware). Some low level system functions, such as toggling a reboot or changing notification light settings, may be restricted.
The Benefits of Rooting Your Phone
This is your device. You paid good money for it. Why shouldn’t you be able to take control and do anything you want to it? In addition, rooting your phone allows you to:
- Install Custom ROMs:A ROM is essentially a custom operating system replacement. There are a multiplicity of ROMs out there, and each one brings with it particular customizations that might not be available with the “vanilla” Android OS. You’re not going to find ROMs in the Google Play Store, however, so all the usual warnings about installing software from unknown sources apply.
- Performance Optimization: You can optimize your device’s performance. If you’ve rooted your phone you can modify your CPU and memory settings to potentially improve the performance of your device.
- Remove Bloatware: Nothing is worse that opening your app drawer and having to flip through a bunch of applications that you don’t want and never use, but can’t delete because they came with your phone. While Android 4.0+ (Ice Cream Sandwich) allows you to disable any application you wish, it does not actually remove it from your phone. Rooting is the only way to complete delete the bloatware.
- Install the Stock OS: Some manufacturers apply their own operating system skin on top of the ordinary, or “stock”, operating system. That’s why some things look different on a Samsung device, for example. If you’ve rooted your device you can, in some cases, actually install the stock Android OS downloaded directly from Google.
- Virus Protection: If you are a believer in Android antivirus solutions, a number of the more popular commercial applications either require root access or work best with it.
- Backup Your Phone: With a rooted phone it is possible to make a backup of your entire system, rather than just the application level files.
- Apps Requiring Root Access: There are a host of other applications that may request root access to perform various functions. With a rooted device there are applications out there that allow you to tether other devices to your internet connection, more fully modify your system notification settings, and automate various functions. Sometimes these applications have non-rooted versions or can run in a diminished capacity, but sometimes rooting is the only way to get the most out of them.
The Drawbacks of Rooting Your Phone
While rooting your phone gives you full control over your device, it can also cause problems:
- Voided Warranty: You will void your warranty if you attempt to root your device. If you root your phone and subsequently have problems with it, your service provider will not help you. Even if you figure out how to un-root your device, a service technician will probably be able to tell that it was once rooted.
- Bricking Your Phone: If the rooting process fails, or if you change the wrong setting, or install the wrong ROM, or unknowingly install malicious software, or any of a number of other things you may render it inoperable (and turn it into an expensive brick). A bricked phone may be fixable, or it may not be, but once you’ve rooted it you’re going to have to do the job yourself.
- Wiped Contents: Rooting your phone may wipe its contents. If you’ve backed everything up (you do regular backups, right?), or if it’s a new phone and you don’t have much on it yet this isn’t a big deal, but be aware that this can happen.
- System Updates: Over The Air operating system updates released by your service provider may not install properly if your phone has been rooted. This may be because you’ve changed a system setting that is preventing the update from installing, or simply because your service provider refuses to allow updates to install on devices that have been rooted. Note that even if you un-root your device, OTA updates may still not install properly. Furthermore, even if the OTA update does install, it will most likely revert any root-level customizations you’ve made and lock down root level access anew.
- Risked Security: Rooting your phone is a security risk. The process of rooting your phone is inherently insecure. You are exploiting a hole in your device’s OS security to grant root level access where none existed before. User applications are denied root access for a reason. When you grant root access to an application you are giving it a lot of power. Malicious or virus-infected applications could cause a lot of damage to a rooted phone. If you keep sensitive data on your phone or use your phone in a nominally secure environment, be aware that rooting it can be a significant security risk.
- Poor Performance: If you don’t know what you’re doing and attempt to optimize your device’s performance, it is entirely possible to do more harm than good. In addition, even if you do improve your device’s performance, changing hardware and system settings may negatively affect the operating life of your CPU, battery, or other hardware. While it may be nice to have control over all of your phone’s settings, it is also true that the manufacturer and service provider configured your phone the way that they did for a reason.
Should I Root My Phone or Not?
For most users the answer is no. Even for an experienced Android user, the process of rooting a phone for the first time may not be simple and might not execute properly. In most cases you will be reliant on a third party tool or application created by a developer entirely unknown to you.
Your mobile device is an incredibly complex technological achievement. If you don’t really know what you’re doing and you try to monkey around under the hood, you’re likely to break something. “Because I can” isn’t the most logical of reasons to try to hack a $500 phone, and for most applications that require root access there is an alternative that performs many of the same functions that does not.
However, sometimes the answer is yes. If you are technically savvy enough to pull it off successfully. If you think that you understand the risks and take the necessary precautions. If you’ve just got to have that one particular root application, or if you’re excited about the nearly limitless customizations potentially afforded to you with unfettered system access then more power to you. Good luck!
There are dozens of different Android devices out there, and often more than one way to root each of them…or sometimes none at all. But as mentioned earlier, rooting can be very risky. The first test of whether or not you know what you’re doing is whether or not you can figure out how to do it!