In this complete guide to rooting an Android phone or tablet, you’ll learn:
- What does it mean to root an Android phone
- How to root your phone or tablet
- Downsides to rooting you need to know about
- Seven reasons why you should root your phone
What is rooting?
One of the best things about Android, and what makes it so popular with tech enthusiasts, is how open it is.
Not just open in the sense that the core OS is open source, or that the Play Store is largely unmoderated, but open in the way that almost any part of the system can be changed, fixed, improved, or just generally made different for the sake of making it different.
It gives Android users an incredible amount of freedom, of the kind that iPhone and Windows Phone users can only dream of.
That freedom comes from rooting. Rooting is not jailbreaking—you don’t jailbreak Android in the way you jailbreak an iPhone—it goes much further than that.
Rooting takes its name from a Linux concept where you gain ‘root access’ to the system, where all of the system files essential to the basic functioning of the OS become accessible, and can be edited or even completely replaced.
By default these files are completely locked down on an Android phone or tablet. This is a basic security measure: if you cannot access the system files then there’s no danger of a user inadvertently deleting crucial ones, and if apps cannot access them then it limits the havoc malware can cause. Rooting removes these security restrictions, but is generally safe.
How to root
The process of rooting is not something that can be explained easily. The process differs from one device to the next. It normally involves an exploit in the OS discovered by a developer, and though the exploits used may be the same across device the actual process is not something that a layman could do alone.
Instead root is generally only achieved on a device by following a series of instructions posted in the forums for each specific device at xda-developers.com.
For example, you can find the instructions for rooting a Galaxy S5, an HTC One M8 or an LG G3 on that site. Just follow the guides provided to the letter—and make sure you backup first—and you should be fine.
The downsides to rooting
- Rooting may invalidate your warranty
- Some apps may not work on rooted devices
- Rooting may block over-the-air system updates
Before you begin, it’s also worth noting a couple of potential downsides to rooting your phone.
First, it may or may not invalidate your warranty. The reason for the lack of clarity on this is that manufacturers tend to insist that it can (they’re equally vague on the subject), although in practice it’s hard to see how rooting a phone would be reasonable excuse for them not providing warranty support for a physical problem like the USB port coming loose.
Second, rooting will cost you access to a small number of apps. These mostly include banking apps (the new Lloyds Bank app in the UK explicitly states that it will not work on rooted handsets) and some TV or movie streaming apps that use DRM.
Third, rooting may affect your ability to receive over the air OS updates on your device. If you have modified your device after rooting it (which you probably will do) then OTA updates will likely be rejected when you attempt to install them.
Even if you haven’t, at the very least installing an update will cause your device to become unrooted in the process.
All that said, the benefits to rooting outweigh the negatives comfortably, and there are millions of users currently using rooted Android phones and tablets without any problems whatsoever. Many, including ourselves, will root our phones as a matter of course.
Reasons for rooting
So what are these benefits? If you’ve rooted your phone, where do you go next? There are countless things you can do with a rooted phone that you can’t with an unrooted one.
Whether you are taking a purely utilitarian approach, looking to solve minor annoyances and enhance your device in practical ways, or are an enthusiastic ‘fiddler’ who wants to experiment just for the sake of experimenting you will no doubt find a good reason to root.
We’ve picked out seven reasons to get you started:
- Flash a custom ROM
- Upgrade to the latest version of Android
- Mod your phone with Xposed
- Speed up your phone
- Improve your battery life
- Unlock hardware features
- Create a full backup
Flash custom ROMs
No doubt the number one reason why most people will root their phones the first time.
A custom ROM is essentially an entirely new build of the Android OS, and often a heavily customised one. The principle is the same as for Samsung building TouchWiz into Android, or HTC adding Sense to its devices—ROM developers will take the core OS, or the stock ROM installed on a specific device, and tweak it. They may focus on removing features they don’t need, or adding new ones.
Some ROM developers take a more professional approach, building ROMs that take on their own distinct style. CyanogenMod is the most famous of these. The ROM was based on the full open source version of the Android OS—without built-in Google apps—and over time built in a huge range of extra features including permission management, theme support and secure messaging, all while maintaining a UI consistent with the core Android OS.
It now numbers users in the millions, and is the ROM that powers devices such as the OnePlus One.
There are a few other ROMs that have gone in a similar direction. Paranoid Android is itself based on CyanogenMod (Android and its unofficial offshoots are open source, after all) and had a growing number of tricks of its own.
The reasons you would flash a custom ROM would be to remove a manufacturer’s customisations, such as replacing the stock TouchWiz ROM on a Galaxy S4 with something more akin to a vanilla Android look, to change the nature of how you use a device (some 7” tablets are designed to be used in portrait mode and the UI reflects that—thus a user might choose to flash a more traditional landscape-oriented tablet ROM), or to upgrade to the latest version of the Android OS.
Upgrade to the latest version of Android
There’s nothing more frustrating about the Android ecosystem than the way upgrades are handled. Due to the large number of customisations each manufacturer makes to the software on each of its devices, updates to a new version of Android cannot be handled centrally, and rolled out by Google.
Instead it’s up to the OEM to have to produce a build for each device, and whether it decides to do that will be determined by the age and popularity of a device. If it’s a flagship device it will almost certainly get one, maybe two or possibly even three OS updates. If it’s less popular, or has a lower spec, it may get none at all.
As a result, it isn’t uncommon for phones and tablets to be cut adrift.
The Android community has the solution, though. So long as your device is sufficiently popular to have a small band of developers working with it then you will almost certainly get a custom ROM based on the latest version of Android, long after the manufacturer itself has stopped supporting it.
These won’t always be entirely stable, and may push the hardware to the limits of its capabilities, but they are frequently useable. The best example of how a device can be kept alive is the HTC HD2. That originally launched in 2009 running Windows Mobile 6.5, and has had ROMs for every version of Android, including KitKat. Don’t be surprised if it gets one for Android L either.
Simple mods with the Xposed framework
We’ve already written about Xposed in some depth, and it really isn’t possible to overstate how much we like it. Xposed is a framework that enables you to install modules that can be used to perform the kinds of small tweaks that would previously only have been available by flashing a whole new ROM. It’s the first thing we’ll do with a new device.
Examples of our essential Xposed mods include removing the volume warning that pops up on a Nexus 5 whenever you turn the sound up beyond about 50%, customising the volume keys so that they can be used to skip and replay tracks in any music app when the screen is off (which also works with headphones with a three-button remote, incidentally), and being able to pull down the notification shade even when the phone is locked.
Once you get used to these kinds of small usability enhancements it is very difficult to go back to using an unmodded device.
Overclock your phone
Rooting also enables you to flash a custom kernel. The kernel controls all the interactions between the hardware and the software, and can be an incredibly powerful way of hacking your device.
Among the reasons for flashing a custom kernel is that you can take control of the processor speed. It’s possible to overclock the processor so that it runs faster, producing better performance for hardware intensive tasks, like 3D gaming, in the process.
Overclocking can be done using a custom kernel, such as franco.Kernel which supports a wide number of Android devices. It should be done fairly conservatively, as overdoing it can cause the system to become unstable.
Overheating and decreased battery life will be among the adverse effects of overclocking, and long term use could even shorten the life of the processor itself. However, performance benefits can be noticeable.
Extend your battery life
Just as you can set your rooted device to trade off battery life in favour of speed, you can do the reverse.
There are a number of ways you can attempt to eke out as much power from a single charge. None are absolutely accepted as the way, but a combination of some or all can offer benefits.
These include tweaks based on the features of a custom kernel. You can underclock to reduce the clock speed. If you don’t use powerful apps to play high-end games you could set the maximum clock speed to be a little lower than it is by default. You probably won’t notice the difference in performance, and may get a few minutes longer from your battery.
Similarly you could set the minimum clock speed to be lower, if your kernel supports it, thus reducing the amount of power the device uses when it is in deep sleep.
In addition there are some apps that help with battery life. Greenify helps prevent unnecessary apps from running in the background, Wakelock Detector will help you diagnose battery problems and the apps that are causing it, while Deep Sleep Battery Saver ensures the phones uses as few resources as possible when it is not being used.
That latter app works in a way not dissimilar to the power saver modes seen in recent devices like the Galaxy S5 or LG G3, and has features that require root.
Enhance the hardware
Some devices have extra features that are hidden or disabled by default, often by the network that is selling it. These may include support for USB On-The-Go, which enables you to attach USB peripherals including memory sticks, or wi-fi tethering to enable you to share your phone’s internet connection to a laptop while you are on the road.
Along the same lines you can also make more of the hardware you’ve got. With various root apps you can uninstall some of the preinstalled apps that came with your device to free up space, control which apps run on boot to maximise the amount of memory you’ve got, and adjust the auto-brightness and colour tones of the screen.
There are also various camera and audio hacks that can improve the output from these parts of a phone. These are almost always device-specifc, so check the Themes and Apps section of the xda-developers.com forum for your device. Search in the page for [MOD]to quickly home in on the available mods for your phone.
Backing up your phone
Finally, whenever you make any of the mods mentioned here, you should always back up your phone first.
It’s not unheard of for things to go wrong when flashing ROMs or other mods. You can almost recover if you’ve got a full backup. A Nandroid backup is made through recovery, and is a complete snapshot of everything on your device—OS, apps, data and all. Restoring this will return your phone to its previous state, undoing any subsequent hacks, and avoiding any problems that occurred.
And while a Nandroid backup is the backup of choice for ROM flashers, apps like Titanium Backup or Helium can back up your data and apps in a form that is easily restorable even if you ever do a factory reset.
There are more great reasons to root your device than to not. If you have any problems or frustrations with your phone, they can always be solved by rooting and using flashable mods or modules from the Xposed Framework. And it’s a great way to breathe new life into an old device, through either a new look or a whole new version of the Android OS.