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From Galaxy S’s To Droids, Why Do People Root Their Android Phones?

Posted by on November 23, 2011 at 9:05 am

With Android phones now controlling the smartphone marketplace, the intense, underground discussion about stuff like ‘rooting’, ‘ROMs’, and an alphabet soup of other acronyms just gets bigger. Many people with these phones are sitting on a virtual gold mine of customization and power they’re not even aware of. It’s not difficult to do, you don’t need to solder any wires, it’s all in the software, but when you’re on your own trying to understand how to modify your phone, hopping from forum to forum and keeping a half dozen videos open at a time trying to get it done it can be overwhelming. Once accomplished though, you can become invincible. INVINCIBLE. So we at FleshEatingZipper present an introduction to the Android nubs’ personal journey through the wonders and pitfalls of phone modification. Frankly, this is the beginner’s guide I wish I had when I started experimenting on my phone.

Let’s begin: What is “rooting”?

Android is an open-source operating system, which means it’s kinda like Windows, but you can put it on any device for the price of free. Look around today and you’ll find it installed on everything from cutting-edge feature phones like the Galaxy Nexus to $100 tablets sold at Walgreens. (Although device access to stuff like Gmail or the Android Marketplace requires a special relationship with Google, but that’s another matter entirely.) The thing is, even if you could install Android on a really sophisticated toaster oven, the people at HTC and Samsung put a ton of effort into modifying and installing Android on their phones in ways that really take advantage of the hardware they build. Phones can have better cameras, different sets of buttons, screen sizes and resolutions, and all be effective Android devices because they put in their homework and optimized for it. While this allows for a ton of different form factors, it also makes it a pain when Google updates the core operating system because then HTC and Samsung have to go back and modify these new versions (stuff you’ll hear like Froyo, Gingerbread, and Ice Cream Sandwich) in such a way that doesn’t destroy the experience they’ve built. Sometimes it takes forever. Collectively, this is what is known as Android Fragmentation, in which different phones will be more or less featured because of how their masters take care of them and upgrade their guts, although sometimes it’s because the hardware’s just too old to handle the new version.

Despite the versatile nature of Android, in order to create these specific phone experiences (like the Droid phones’ specific themes), they need to be locked down. Sometimes these are in small ways, other times they’re in more drastic ways, which is why you’ll hear about interface schemes like Motorola’s “MotoBlur” or Samsung’s “TouchWiz”. These skins and customizations by the manufacturers and the carriers make specific phones more marketable and unique over stock Android (the version that Google issues, straight from the factory), but can come at the price of customization, performance, and sheer annoyance. (You know that bloatware that comes with your computer or phone that you never use and hate thoroughly? Same deal.) To remove some of this stuff or modify the phone as you please, you need root your phone, or gain base level (“root”) access, beyond the level the manufacturers and carriers had intended. Rooting your phone is basically like gaining the keys to the kingdom; a starting point for doing much more drastic stuff, but rooting alone doesn’t do much to your phone at all. If you read tech web sites, you’ll often see stories about how Android phones are rooted before they’re released, meaning that the community has ‘cracked the code’ and can now begin modifying the stuff as they see fit.

So this introduces three huge warnings about proceeding down this path:

WARNING #1: JUST ROOTING YOUR PHONE VOIDS YOUR WARRANTY. Which makes sense because if you’re working at Verizon and a customer has a vastly modified phone, you’re obviously going to have no way to support them because who knows what crazy stuff they did with that phone after they rooted it. The caveat here is that there’s a good chance you can restore your phone to factory settings using the same, crazy means you used to modify it.

WARNING #2: ROOTING AND MODIFYING YOUR PHONE MAY “BRICK” YOUR PHONE. Well, chances are the root won’t do it alone, but all it takes is a sudden loss of power, a wrong file in a wrong place, or some other, simple thing and your phone becomes a useless hunk of plastic and silicon (“bricked”). The caveat here is that, again, there’s probably a way to recover from most any way you can screw it up, you’ll just have to search for it…

WARNING #3: YOU’RE PRETTY MUCH ON YOUR OWN. Even a million people with the same phone are going to have different experiences modifying their phones and if you screw up at any point, you’re gonna need to be resource and figure it out. There are some great communities out there like XDA Developers and AndroidCentral, but chances are you’re going to need to hop between every single one you can find to fix a particular error you’re getting. Or when your phone is stuck on the boot logo. Forever. If you’ve never sat up at 2AM trying to repair your desktop’s BIOS, this is probably not a realm you’re going to slip into. Get a friend – one you can trust – and have them do it.

Now, with that said…

So how do you root and what are “ROMs”?

Rooting get easier as the phone’s been out longer and obviously, the more popular phones are going to get more root and mod support easier. HTC’s EVO on Sprint has a lot more support and mods than my Epic 4G, so if you buy an obscure phone, uh, good luck. Virtually everything you’re doing involves a USB data connection to your computer and moving some files around. Roots will be different per phone, but in general, they’re all pretty quick and relatively painless. You’ll get a new app called Superuser that correlates with the root access that new apps are going to need to talk to do the things they need to do. For example: wireless tethering, the act of taking your phone’s internet access and allowing other computers piggyback the cellular connection like a router, is a separate charge on most carriers, but root access allows you to install apps that let you get around this because you’re obviously using it in a way that they hadn’t intended (although carriers can block certain apps like this, so be wary.)

Once you’ve rooted your phone, you’ll want to do a few things:

  • Back up everything. EVERYTHING. While Clockwork Mod does its best, you have to plan for the worst. Programs like Titanium Backup (requires root access) and others that backup everything from your call and SMS histories are recommended, just in case.
  • Install Clockwork Mod (or a facsimile). Your trip into root land is going to be a short one without it. Not only can you create an ‘image’ of your phone, which creates a note-for-note backup and allow you to install it again as if it was never changed. Here, you’re given a terminal-style text interface that will make many of us nostalgic for the MS-DOS days (or if you’re a typical Android user these days, too young to even know what that means) that can be intimidating for newcomers, but there’s immense power there. Clockwork Mod will also allow you, primarily, to manage and switch between your new ROMs. Oh, speaking of which.

ROMs. There are legions of people out there taking stock versions of Android, along with manufacturer and carrier-provided snippets of code, and creating whole new versions of Android that range from superficial to life-altering (well, close…) These are encapsulated in packages called ROMs and some hardcore users change these on a weekly or daily basis, depending on your mood. Using a program like Clockwork Mod, you can switch them in and out and alter your phone any way you like. This also allows for some crazy experimental stuff, like grabbing ROMs for new versions of Android that are so not ready for your phone that you won’t be able to make phone calls, use the GPS or 4G antennas, or use half the apps because the phone-specific support drivers aren’t available yet. But for the ultra-hardcore tinkerers, it’s amazing to play with this stuff. The potential is nearly limitless. All of this is provided through the use of your phone’s SD card, so make sure you have space available and battery to spare.

So what is ‘Jailbreaking’ and where do I go from here?

Jailbreaking is the iOS/iPhone version of rooting, but because of Apple’s tighter control between hardware and software, alterations can’t be quite as radical as they are on more utilitarian Android phones. Honestly, what you do with your Android phone is up to you and there are plenty of places to start. If I point you in a direction (granted, I already have), it sorta defeats that first adventurous step into what will be a more complex journey. The more you do it, the more familiar you’ll be with it and the richer the experience will be.

Personally? I rooted my Epic 4G this past summer and didn’t do much with it. I use my phone every day for everything, so the idea of losing it (or destroying it) isn’t in my best interests, but I summoned the courage to do it just because I could. I honestly haven’t found a ROM that I found worth trying out yet, but that may be soon. When Gingerbread finally arrived for my phone, I couldn’t install the update that Sprint sent me over the air because, again, it’s rooted. I had to go online to download a special ‘image’ of the Gingerbread ROM to restore from and install it to my SD card. But in order for me to put it in the proper directory, I needed to use Clockwork Recovery to backup my stock Froyo image to create it. (I could’ve done it manually, but two birds with one stone, amirite?) I ran restore from the Gingerbread image and when it was done, I rebooted the phone, which was then stuck on the Samsung logo. I booted back into Clockwork Recovery, wiped the data portion of the phone (bearing in mind that all of this data is stored on the SD card) and reload my Froyo image, which didn’t work. I tried again with the Gingerbread image (failed) and nearing a panic, decided to try my original Froyo image again, which did finally work. I could not have been happier to see my phone as I had left it in a stable condition.

It can be scary at times, but ultimately, I won’t stop until I’ve loaded Gingerbread on this thing and that lends to the adventure. The fear of destroying your machine is married to the pleasure of being in complete control of it.

That was really romantic.

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