Many of you have no doubt heard of the concept of “rooting” your Android phone, but have no clear idea of what this is, or why you might want to do it. There is a misconception that it is the exactly same thing as jailbreaking an iPhone, but there are differences. The iPhone is a seriously locked-down device that does only what Apple wants you to do with it. Android is, by default, already much more open and allows its users to do things that Apple owners simply cannot, such as install apps that are not distributed in the official app store. Still, the notion that they are very similar is certainly not inaccurate. This article isn’t about jailbreaking iPhones however, and so we’ll concentrate solely upon the process of rooting an Android device.
So what exactly does it mean to “root” an Android phone? We’ll start with the term itself. Because Android is based on Linux, which is itself is based on the UNIX operating system, it follows that many of the old terminology would come right along with it. In the world of Linux/UNIX a high priority is placed on security and no day-to-day user ever operates with full access to the machine. This ensures that they (or apps they run) do not do anything to damage the operating system or other apps running concurrently in it. Occasionally things must be done that require much higher access, and so under these circumstances we log in as the SUPER USER. This user is said to have access to the “root” of the machine.
When an Android phone is shipped it provides its users with fairly open access to the operating system, but to prevent the user (or the apps they run) from doing serious damage, that user isn’t allowed to be the Super User. There are things that they simply aren’t allowed to do. Only pre-installed apps are granted this level of permission, and so if there are no apps providing limited access to a particular low-level aspect of the O/S, then a regular Android user can’t get at them.
To most users the amount of access they are granted is more than enough and to them there is never a reason to go beyond it. This therefore begs the question, “why would I want to have root access to my Android phone?” This is a perfectly reasonable question and I’m not here to tell you that gaining root access is for everyone. What I will do is explain some of the advantages (and disadvantages) to having root access, and let you make up your mind whether it is right for you.
We’ll start with the disadvantages, of where there is really only one. If you root your phone you will MOST LIKELY void your warrantee. If your phone is already out of warrantee however, then this is a non-existent concern. It is possible in SOME CASES to restore a phone to stock condition if warrantee work is needed, but don’t count on this. If the idea of voiding your warrantee gives you the sweats, then I strongly recommend that you DO NOT root your phone. If you have decided that the risk of voiding your warrantee doesn’t bother you, then let’s move on.
Rooting an Android phone isn’t an all or nothing proposition. Simply running the phone in flat-out root mode would open it to hacking by any nefarious app you accidentally installed. Instead access to root is administered by supervisory application (which varies depending upon whose root package you use). While is possible to setup this Super User app to allow everything to have root access without asking you first, its primary purpose to is to stand as a security guard at the door to the root of your phone. If a new app requests root access, this supervisory app will prompt you to approve or deny access to the app. This ensures that only the apps you trust will get root access to your phone.
One of the biggest advantages to rooting is the ability to access all of the file system. This in turn allows you install and UNINSTALL anything you want. A big complaint leveled at many Android phones is the degree of manufacturer and carrier BLOATWARE that clogs up the phone and slows it down. Some versions of Android (particularly those from Samsung) do allow you to FREEZE many of the system apps that you may not...
want, and while this is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t allow you to fully uninstall the stuff you just don’t want.
With a rooted phone on the other hand, you can uninstall anything you want, though this does include pieces of the operating system that you SHOULD NEVER remove. With great power comes great responsibility, and having root access to your Android phone is no exception. You are essentially in possession of a loaded gun, so it behooves you know how to use it.
With full file system access comes the ability to backup and restore everything. One of the best backup apps for Android, namely Titanium Backup, requires root access to function. Not only can it backup user-installed apps, it can also backup system apps, and all of the hidden data stored by both user and system apps. This functionality has been a life-saver for me on numerous occasions and it ranks as my top pick for a reason to root your phone.
Second in my list of reasons to root is the ability to install an AD BLOCKER. These apps do pretty much what their PC counterparts do and block ads from appearing in apps and on web pages. Just as I’ve found on my PC, seeing a device running WITHOUT ad blocking is quite a revaluation after being used to ad-free operation for so long.
In third place on my list are various apps that usually include the word SAMBA. The name derives from the acronym SMB, which stands for Server Message Block. It’s a protocol that allows a device to provide remote access to its file system. A SAMBA app on Android lets you expose your phone’s file system to other computers on your LAN. In other words, your phone becomes a File Share that can be mounted as a drive letter on any computer on your LAN without having to connect a USB cable. I use this functionality quite frequently.
In fourth place is the ability to install a FIREWALL in your phone. This is especially useful for subscribers with very limited data. A firewall allows you decide which apps can and cannot gain access to the internet over cellular data or over WiFi. Typically you’d grant wide-open access when on WiFi, but bar all but those apps you want to use from gaining access to the net while you are using precious cellular data.
There are many other apps of this nature, but these are the four that I use the most often and that you would likely find useful as well.
Beyond apps however, perhaps the single biggest draw of a rooted phone for many people is the ability to totally replace the operating system. This is how people install “custom” versions of Android, such as CyanogenMod. Custom versions of Android allow you to jump ahead of the glacial update schedule the manufacturer keeps for your model of phone (assuming they bother to update it at all). While installing a custom ROM is often something reserved for hackers, the makers of CyanogenMod have created an installer that virtually anyone can use. For a short time it was available on the Play Store, but it violated Google policy not to mess with the operating system, and so it is no longer available there. However, you can download it from CyanogenMod’s web page. It takes care of rooting and installing the custom O/S.
Along with the ability to install a custom ROM comes the ability to install a customer Recovery. This piece of code is used to perform many low-level installation tasks, but it also gives you access to an even more powerful backup option called a Nandroid Backup. Unlike Titanium Backup, which specializes in backing up individual apps and their associated data, a Nandroid Backup is essentially a SNAPSHOT of your entire operating system. If anything went wrong with your phone for example, you could completely wipe it clean, recover the backup, and instantly you’d be right back to where you were at the time the backup was made (apps, settings, everything). I perform frequent Nandroid Backups on my phone so that under the worst case scenario I could always return to where I was no more than 1 or 2 weeks prior.
I hope this overview has provided you with a better understanding of what rooting is, why you might want to root your phone, and most importantly why you WOULDN’T want to root your phone.